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Dvorak: The future of retail is search

This week in PC Magazine, John C Dvorak said the future of retail is search. He’s right.

Here’s the problem with retail: Last week I went to a big-box store with a long shopping list. I had a coupon that was good for a week, and I needed to spend $100, and I had a short period of time to do it. So I went around the house and gathered up all of the little things that needed to be done.

Then I searched the store’s web site for each item I needed. I didn’t really know, going in, whether I had $25 worth of items or $200 worth of items. So I gathered the name of each item, the in-store SKU, and the price, and plugged everything into a spreadsheet to give myself a running total. All told, I had around $130 worth of merchandise when all was said and done.

I didn’t even know what some of the stuff was. I needed a strike plate for a screen door. I learned that by searching the web site. When I started, all I knew was that I needed the thing that holds a screen door closed when you lock it. I still don’t know exactly how I learned that, but the more important thing is that I got my answer, and I used the search function from the store’s web site (on my home PC) to get me to that answer.

So I printed off my list and went to the store to use my coupon. Most of the stuff on the list was easy, like a doorknob and a couple of light switches. A couple of the items were harder, but I knew they were in one of two places–is silicone bathroom caulk in the paint aisle or the plumbing aisle?–so I was able to chase those down.

But you know the 80/20 rule, or the 90/10 rule. Whatever you call it and whatever proportion you assign to it, there’s always a small percentage of the work that takes up a disproportionate amount of the effort. That turned out to be the strike plate.

I thought it would be easy. I also needed a screen door closer, and I knew where those were in the store. So I got that, then I figured the strike plate would be in the same section, because the two items are related. The closer took 30 seconds to find. I looked for a good 10 minutes for the strike plate, to no avail.

So I looked throughout the aisle, and in a couple of other aisles, to no avail. Finally, I found an employee who was stocking items in that aisle. He would know, right?

Well, we found it, and in plain sight, in the same section as the door closer. I’d overlooked it the first time. But it took the employee a good five minutes to find it too, even though he knew what he was looking for and where to look for it, and I had all the information I’d gleaned from the web site to help.

This kind of thing happens a lot. There’s always one oddball item that’s harder to find than all the rest, and it happens whether I’m shopping for groceries, home improvement hardware, computer hardware, kids’ toys, or anything else. And it happens whether I’m shopping for something I know well, or barely know at all. I think it’s more frustrating when I’m shopping for computer hardware, which I know exceptionally well, and I can’t find something I know is in the store somewhere (usually an odd adapter or extension cable), but it happens regardless.

The problem extends beyond retail, too.

If you want to know why Amazon is flying high while Ebay is a has-been, I think this has a lot to do with it. If Amazon has something, I find it quickly. Even if Amazon only has something similar, I find it quickly. This week I thought it might be a good idea to get a case for my modded Nook Color, so I searched Amazon and quickly found a couple of cases for around $5 that looked like they’d do the job and didn’t look terribly flimsy or gaudy. Then I picked a department and tried to sort by price, which brought up a bunch of unrelated stuff–junk to me, really, like plastic screen covers, cases for phones and other tablets or readers–and what I really wanted was buried deep in the results. Eventually I decided it wasn’t worth trying to find something almost as good for $3 or $4.

Not the best experience.

But contrast that with trying to find something on Ebay. Searching for a Nook Color case is guaranteed to turn up a sea of plastic screen connectors, cases for phones, Kindles, “special report” PDFs telling you how to hack a Nook Color, SD cards containing Cyanogenmod for the Nook Color, a paperclip autographed by Richard Dean Anderson of MacGyver fame, a Walker Texas Ranger Matchbox car, and maybe, if you’re lucky, a few actual Nook Color cases, and the shipping on some of them might be less than $20. Ebay desperately needs better search, and needs to take the anarchy out of item listing.

Ebay and the hucksters listing this unrelated junk are hoping for those serendepity purchases that Dvorak describes–like me realizing once I got into the store that I also needed a package of cheap light bulbs–but rule #1 in marketing is to make things easy to buy, and before you can make something easy to buy, you have to make it easy to find. It doesn’t matter how easy it is to buy something if it takes me an hour to find it.

Amazon still has some work to do–it’s very good at helping me find a specific product, and finding the best price on a specific product, but not as good as it could be at showing me a bunch of very similar products and helping me narrow that list down. But they’re miles ahead of Ebay.

And there are times when Amazon gets my purchase just because they make me work the least. I read a suggestion months ago to coat the pins on Lionel train track with conductive copper anti-seize compound to ward off corrosion in places you can’t see. I wanted to buy the stuff locally so I could buy it on a Saturday or Sunday and try it out that afternoon, but I couldn’t find it on the web sites of any stores near me. I could have driven there and asked for it, but they might not have had it, or the price might have been terrible. I didn’t want it badly enough to be willing to spend all afternoon driving all over St. Louis in search of it. I ended up just putting it on my Amazon wish list. This past weekend, when I needed something else, I bought the compound along with it to get my order above $25 and get free shipping.

I actually do that quite a bit. I’ll find things that I know I’m going to want or need eventually, but don’t have a specific timeframe on it, then I put it on my wish list. Then if I’m ordering something else that costs less than $25, I’ll add something from my wish list to the order to save shipping costs.

Retail stores with physical locations will have a hard time competing with that. But if they can make things easy to find–avoiding my 45-minute nightmare trying to buy a microSD card at Best Buy a year ago–it can only help. Because, after all, when you need something fast, they can offer something Amazon can’t. The faster retail can make itself, the better its chances of survival. That’s how convenience stores get away with charging more than regular grocery stores for a very limited number of items.

At a library or a big book store, you can walk up to a computer, punch in an author or the title of a book, and it will tell you where to find it. If I could search a big-box store the same way, entering a SKU or a product number, it would give them an immediacy you’ll never be able to get online.

2 thoughts on “Dvorak: The future of retail is search”

  1. Dave, this column might be one off from your usual excellent writing, but would you PLEASE consider using a double carriage return between paragraphs? It may be just me, but uninterrupted blocks of text seriously impede my understanding of the logical flow and order of an essay.

    And now for something completely different… Got any advice on buying tires?

  2. Jim, thanks for pointing that out. It was an HTML problem. It happens from time to time and I usually catch it before the blog publishes it, but not this time (and I think one other time this week–time to go check that.)

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