Business Musings: Shopping As Experience (Jumping The Digital Divide Part 3)
All of the changes since March of 2020 brought a lot more people into online shopping, which includes buying books. Our market has grown and, with the slow decline of Amazon as the default marketplace, will continue to grow. I’ve dealt with these changes in the previous two posts on the changes the pandemic hath wrought.
In this piece, I’ll look at some of the changes, and then I’ll throw out areas where publishing needs to adapt. Do I have the solutions? Hell, no, but that’s what you people are for. You don’t have to respond in the comments (unless you see someone doing something well and you want to share) but do give this some thought.
There’s lots of room for business development here.
Now that there are more new customers who shop online a regular basis than there ever were, things are changing. Regular new consumers bring expectations, and those vary according to the age of the consumer and the product that the consumer is buying.
Let’s go with product. Yes, we’re dealing with books in publishing, but step away from publishing for a moment and think of retail. More specifically, think of your online retail experiences.
When a customer is dealing with a regular purchase, like groceries, or something that the customer gets weekly or monthly like furnace filters or cat food, that customer wants an easy experience. The faster and more accurate the experience is, the happier the customer is.
A lot of the subscription services on various sites recognize this. Some are easy to use—click a button and on this day/date, the item will arrive at your doorstep. Some are ridiculously counterintuitive and lead to what the retail gurus call “shopping cart abandonment.”
I call it extreme frustration. Customers are willing to give a smaller site the benefit of the doubt. They’ll poke around for a while, but they’ll give up if that poking around takes too long.
That same thing goes for something like filing a change of address or getting a digital product sent to the correct email address. I still get paper magazines and since we moved this summer, I was the one handling all of the change of address forms.
Some were super easy. The online form allowed me to select when we’d move, when the new service needed to arrive, and whether or not I needed a pause in-between. The simplest was a newspaper that Dean still likes receiving in paper.
The hardest is an long-established publishing industry magazine that has no online change of address form. I have to write a letter to someone, using a 2008 style click-an-email link—which takes me to an email service that I don’t use.
I finally gave up in frustration. I couldn’t even comment on the website or ask for a help menu. Eventually, I will submit a paper change of address form, with real stamps in a real envelope. When I’m a little less peeved. In 2021, there is no reason for something to be that hard.
Convenience. It’s important. During the vaccine rollout, when everyone had to get an appointment weeks ahead of time, the people trying to get those appointments were 70 and above. Depending on the state or region here in the U.S., the computer appointment system was either streamlined or incredibly convoluted.
Dean spent hours with Nevada’s early system, set up by the state. By the time the vaccine was available to my age group, over two months later, I went onto an established pharmacy website and scheduled an appointment in ten minutes.
Those early experiences, though, brought a lot of seniors online. They were frustrated, yes, but they soon learned that most systems weren’t as complicated as the vaccine site had been. Easier in comparison meant that a lot of seniors starting using the web more.
On the other end of the spectrum are the kids who grew up with online access. They want convenience too, for those pesky things like setting up shots or getting something on a regular basis or signing up for a softball league. But they bring a whole different attitude toward their moments online.
They want experiences online.
It’s not enough to scroll through pages after pages of possible product. It’s not fun to put a title in a search bar to find that book or that particular pair of jeans. It can be frustrating and time consuming, just like convenience use of an online retail site can be.
But it can also be fun. The pandemic changed a lot of people’s behaviors.
Before the pandemic started, for example, a lot of people under 30 participated in “squad shopping,” but it’s really caught on when most folks were trapped in their homes.
Essentially, squad shopping or group shopping is the online equivalent of going to the mall with friends. Only the shoppers do it one of two ways: they either used social media, especially something chat-based like WhatsApp, or used a dedicated app, that enables them to live-stream the online shopping experience and consult with their friends. (I assume this would also work if a person shopped at a retail store alone, properly socially distant.)
Then there is the online shop based purely on the recommendations of friends, influencers or disruptors. We’ve been seeing some of that in 2021 as disruptors are gaming the stock market, showing all of its flaws to the world.
Book people have kinda sorta done this, but not in an organized way. Some of the indies, back in the beginning of the ebook revolution, got their followers or fans to buy books all at once, to get on various bestseller lists. But no one has really weaponized squad shopping in the book business.
And there’s another aspect to it. The social aspect. Yes, it’s all well and good to follow book bloggers or influencers on social media, getting their recommendations, but that’s not the same as going into a bookstore with friends, pulling this or that book off the shelf and saying, Have you read this one?
That’s the squad shopping online experience, and once someone makes that easy for readers to participate in—in ways other than ebook bundles or book chats—then we will have a whole new 2020s way of selling books.
The group online experience grew tremendously in 2020. The Netflix Party app caught on in April of 2020. What it did was put friends in the same system, watching a movie or TV show together in real time. One designated person would pause or fast-forward, and everyone could laugh or joke or discuss and simply be together to enjoy whatever they were watching.
That app is now Teleparty, and you can enable it on a bunch of streaming services from Netflix to Hulu to Disney+ And it’s not going to go away.
The online group experience with entertainment as entertainment will remain part of our culture.
I have no idea yet how book people can use this, but we’ll figure it out. I do know that there are places like Wattpad and other subscription services that have managed to make a small group experience work. While they appeal to some readers, they’re not appealing to the majority of readers.
But do they need to? As you can tell, I’m spitballing here.
Other trends that started in the pandemic that will continue from now on are things like order online and pick-up in person. A lot of retail stores developed systems for this as well as restaurants. Many bookstores did as well, but dropped the system the moment the quarantine restrictions eased.
I’m not sure that was a good idea. A lot of people are going to remain socially distant for a year or more, and they’re not going to want to go into a bookstore (or any other retail establishment) and touch books others have touched. (Not to mention breathing the same air.)
Online discoverability for books has always been a problem, and it’s gotten worse as other shopping experiences have gotten better. Essentially, the reader needs to know what she wants when she goes to a bookstore—even Amazon. Windowing is hard. Finding new product harder.
Social media is helping in a variety of ways. Influencers truly do make a difference, even in books, but not the kind of difference you see in other industries, although BookTok on TikTok might prove me wrong here.
We need, as an industry, to figure out how to match discoverability with the shopping experience. We’ve been struggling with this for a decade now. But there’s something niggling at my brain between the omnichannels (see the previous post) and squad shopping and Teleparty. There’s a lot of room for growth here.
And that doesn’t even take into account the global publishing market, which, thanks to the pandemic is growing at leaps and bounds. We will deal with that in the next post.
This one is just me, noodling. Feel free to noodle in the comments as well. Everything is changing because of what we’ve gone through (what some of us are still going through) and I’m just starting to look ahead. It’ll take all of us to wrap our arms around this future.
I’m sure we can do it. But it will take a while to settle in. And we have a lot to learn in the meantime—and a lot to develop.
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“Business Musings: Shopping As Experience (Jumping The Digital Divide),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Paha_L.