Whatever happened to deparment-store dressing rooms? They acquired a zoom feature.
As New York City-savvy students, we live in one of the shopping capitals of the world—it seems sacrilegious to even consider online shopping as an attractive option. Yet when hectic weeks find us hunting down extra minutes in the day as desperately as we scramble for empty seats in Butler during reading week, saving time by shopping from our laptops suddenly strikes us as, well, pretty darn attractive.
But after clicking “order,” we often walk away from the package line disappointed because the shoes don’t fit, the scarf is the wrong color, and the perfume doesn’t quite smell quite as enticing as its description suggested. Moments like these make us wonder: Are online purchases more trouble than they’re worth? It turns out that many online shops want to make our precious time spent on their sites worth our while.
There is no denying that today’s technology-driven world has reshaped the way we consume. Just this year, a projection from eMarketer estimated that online shoppers would spend close to $54 billion during the holiday season, a 17 percent increase from last year’s total. In response, e-commerce sites have rethought their web design, started to send more creative and personalized emails, and beefed up their customer service features. When you can access an entire store at your fingertips and even instant message with personal shoppers on some sites, why leave your room?
“For some things, a trip to the store is necessary. It feels more personal, and I can actually get a feel for the fit and the fabrics,” Josh Boggs, a sophomore at the School of Engineering and Applied Science and Engineering Student Council president, says. On the other hand, the opportunity to think through a purchase and browse for better deals on other store sites might outweigh the pros of picking out items in person. “I’m actually more tempted to make impulse buys when I’m at a store and the item is right in my hands,” says Boggs.
These days, we expect a constant flurry of emails, tweets, and Instagram updates advertising sales. What we post on our respective social media pages, along with the apps we check constantly, might even play the greatest role in determining which products end up in our shopping bags—whether real or virtual.
“What we see is a greater awareness of social ties and strategic attempts to leverage them. You can see what your friends bought. Your friends can recommend products. And people you admire in your network of friends can ‘advertise,’ through the pictures they post and the places they check-in, gratis,” says Frederick Wherry, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia. “We are social animals. We enjoy our shopping rituals, our consumption potlatches. We must remember that elements of premodern life—markings, rituals—animate our participation in the marketplace.”
The increased expectations placed on companies to woo modern-day shoppers in the online marketplace affect their business models. Take Warby Parker, the alternative eyewear company that sells frames for the relatively affordable price of $95. What began as a web-based endeavor between four close friends —Neil Blumenthal, Andrew Hunt, Jeffrey Raider, and David Gilboa—at the Wharton School of Business now opens the doors of its SoHo office and showroom to customers on a daily basis. They can try on glasses in person before placing their orders online and even get their current pair adjusted by a WP employee. The description of the showrooms on WP’s website ends with a warm welcome: “We would love to meet you!”
As Tim Riley, WP’s director of online experience, explains, the company responded to its customers’ need for a personalized experience from the get-go. “Some of our earliest customers were so excited that they called us up and asked if they could come to our office to try on the glasses. At the time, the four founders of Warby Parker were finishing up their last semester at Wharton and were still operating out of Neil’s apartment. People started showing up and trying on the glasses,” says Riley. “We found that people loved meeting the people behind the brand and we ended up building these great relationships with customers. We quickly realized there’s no better way to do that than in the physical environment.”
A growing sense of community between WP and its customers can also be seen in their Class Trip, a six-month tour of nine cities that kicked off not far from their Manhattan showroom in October and will make its way west to Los Angeles by mid-February.
Riley says, “We wanted to do something that allowed us to interact with our customers in each of their individual cities, continuing that theme of living where our customers are—both physically and digitally. A traveling yellow school bus that has a fully built showroom inside of it selling glasses is not something you get to see every day, so it definitely turns heads and attracts a crowd in each city we visit.”
Indeed, it’s initiatives like the Class Trip that might explain why pop-up shops have become an increasingly popular trend among e-commerce sites. The chance to meet the designers and artists responsible for the wares sold on heavily-trafficked sites such as Etsy, eBay, and Piperlime is a response to our increased demand to come face-to-face with the people behind the products.
Columbia students in favor of this growing e-commerce trend such as Rebecca Deczynski, a first-year at Barnard College and a Freshman 15 Panelist for Seventeen magazine, might just be in luck. “The pop-up store trend is definitely something I hope sticks around. I love Etsy because I like to support independent artists and designers, but the website is not the most efficient to sort through when you’re not looking for something specific. It definitely helps to see products laid out in person,” says Deczynski.
Online shops will continue to recognize the need to reach us in real time, allowing them to build lasting relationships with their customers based on passion for their products and trust in their brand’s authenticity. Completely shifting our shopping habits to the online marketplace may constitute a real step back in style culture. Gone will be the surprise of finding something we didn’t know we needed—and can’t imagine living without—that is inherent in physically shopping at a store.
“There is something lost when shoppers are not allowed to get lost in retail space,”says Wherry. “The elements of play and serendipity have to then be reintroduced without becoming overly scripted, for these positive aspects of the shopping experience to re-emerge.”
And where’s the fun in that?