November 10, 2011, 4:50 PM

The emotional pull of e-commerce

Commerce is about more than efficiency, even for online retailers.

The news still reads as a victory for e-commerce, and I’m a great fan of e-commerce, and not just because it covers my rent and PBR: Wal-Mart has set up e-commerce ‘stores’ inside two Southern California malls. Shoppers presumably going about their holiday gift-buying trips would be drawn into the stores and, amid display products and the smiles of clerks, would order goods from one of the dozen available computers, with delivery to that same location or a nearby Wal-Mart bricks-and-mortar store. It seems like a smart and cheap way to promote Walmart.com and the ease of online shopping while earning a few coins along the way.  

Were  I the type of person who allowed himself to suffer the indignity of bumping elbows with herds of shoppers in malls during the holiday season, I would certainly be the person sneaking off to Wal-Mart’s scaled-down Internet café, buying whatever gifts I could for my new nephews before my wife could notice my absence. That’s one of the beauties of e-commerce, isn’t it—the cold efficiency that appeals to a certain type of consumer, the one who not only mourns the passing of every penny, but who also views the practice of shopping less as a joyful ritual and more of a grumbling necessity. If I could live off the land, I would, raising my food and sewing my clothes, but I’d probably break both my thumbs pulling weeds.

Commerce, though, is about more than efficiency, a truth known by any retailer with money still in the bank and any marketer earning more than a McDonald’s wage. The process of shopping is also about emotion. Certain products make you feel certain ways, and searching for—or perhaps stumbling upon—those certain products often involves a series of feelings as pleasurable as, say, savoring a favorite meal (to balance out the McDonald’s crack, let me admit how much I enjoy my annual holy experience of eating a McRib). And after I edited and posted that Walmart.com story (which you can read here), and then wondering why that story hit me in the gut in a way that few others do, I realized it was all about the emotion of shopping.

Now, I don’t mean to be nostalgic—the past is rarely as good as we pretend it is—nor come off as some cheap curmudgeon—I’m no Andy Rooney complaining that the sun makes me squint too much during the summer. But for consumers of my age, late 30s, there was something about the full experience of a mall, all the extra large Pepsis, the burritos spilling beans onto the plastic trays, the glimpse of that cute redhead walking past the food court with her friend toward the Spencer’s Gifts. Besides cruising on Main Street, the mall was the place to see and be seen, and lord help that poor schmuck buying slacks under the eyes of his mom on a Friday night—better to leave that task to a weekday, and devote this time to your CDs, video games, concert T-shirts, all them better suited for making females think you are cool.

The Walmart.com story made me think about how much malls have shrunk in importance, given that shopping center landlords are willing to rent out space for the purposes of e-commerce. Sure, I’m probably reading too much into all this—the relatively tiny Walmart.com stores are temporary, and are likely to close by New Year’s Day, perhaps never to be seen again; and what respectable capitalist wouldn’t take a bit of extra rent?—but I think I’ve struck something worthwhile: E-commerce is efficient, but it also needs to be emotional.

Important strides have been made. Researching our upcoming Hot 100 issue, the one that features the most exciting e-commerce sites in retail, my colleagues and I have been impressed by all the ways in which online retailers try to not only build sales and brand loyalties, but create memorable experiences for extremely demanding consumers. Those experiences might involve sophisticated graphics and design, or tools that help shoppers digitally shop with their friends, usually through the increasingly familiar world of social networking. Such technologies offer the shopper the chance to discover, to share, to take joy from what is, simply put, the surrender of hard-earned money. And I have no doubt that as e-commerce continues to develop, technology combined with smart marketing will find ways to deepen those emotional experiences.

Who knows? Maybe dumb, clumsy Midwestern boys on e-commerce sites will find ways to catch the eyes of some cute girl who ‘walks’ by, just as I somehow managed to do in the non-digital world. Sure, that might sound beyond silly, but many good things do at first, and—as I said—I’m a great fan of e-commerce.

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