Why the internet sucks for buying things

Gosh, it’s hard work buying things off the internet! Or at least it’s hard if you have the temerity to be an educated buyer…

What’s one of those? Someone who is actively looking to purchase a product (“buyer”) who actually knows an adequate amount about the item he or she is looking to purchase (the “educated” part).

When it comes to purchasing something in person you are able to ask questions of the salesperson and – possibly – elicit further information that is not public and get personalised guidance. At the very least you get to pick the product up, feel the material, check the small print, see the quality, etc.

online-shopping

The internet however has allowed a whole world – literally – of retailers to connect with potential buyers giving those buyers greater choice than ever before.

While almost everyone would prefer to purchase as locally as possible under normal circumstances (e.g. margarine) there can be exceptions. When it came to purchasing my tent for my upcoming 150-night expedition I considered that item to be sufficiently important that it warranted special treatment with regard to budget, location, shipping time, etc.

There are even times when one must purchase items abroad because they uniquely exist there (e.g. electrical chargers, holiday home furniture, flowers for Granny in Australia) and there is little to no supply outside of that locale. It doesn’t even have to be foreign country. For example, a Californian wanting to serve fresh Maine lobster will purchase it from a fellow American but that supplier is further away than the entire length of Europe.

In the “old days” (aka the 1980′s) we either didn’t have the option of purchasing from far away, or we relied on a local friend, family member or colleague to help us out. But today we just Google for the item we want, check out the competing retailers and compare them for price, reliability, etc and then click a few buttons to make it happen.

In conclusion, the internet is a great boon when it comes to purchasing outside of our locale.

So far so good.

But now let’s get to the point of this article: a web site may be enormous in total but any given product probably only has one page dedicated it. Along with a few pictures (if you’re lucky) that are the same as on all other websites and a description usually copy-pasted from the manufacturer. A retailer very rarely writes unique editorial prose about their products, takes their own pictures or makes their own measurements and when they do it is always glowing and positive. And there’s nothing really wrong with that.

When you know what you are looking for in a product, websites often don’t give you the details you need to make an informed purchasing decision. And you cannot simply ask the website to clarify some vaguely worded term, ask its boss for help, or look up a specific detail you need in order to decide if the product is suitable for you or not.

Let me give you an example. I was recently looking for an an external battery to keep my phone charged on trail. Unlike the mass market of shoppers I actually know what electrical and physical specs I need (want). The main ‘specs’ that 99.9% of shoppers care about is capacity (how much juice it stores) and, of course, price. So that’s what the product titles, main blurbs and ‘reviews’ focus on.

Drilling down a little you usually can find out what the total output rating is (how much power it can give out to a device), though even that is not always considered worthy of stating anywhere. Once the battery has two USB outputs the story breaks down and you often cannot find out which individual port can supply, whether the device can charge devices while it itself is being charged, etc.

Beyond the key specs however I – being apparently an over-qualified buyer never before encountered – simply want to know one spec: what number of watts is the device capable of taking as an INPUT? This means: how quickly the battery charges up. There are three main levels: 1 watt, 1.5 watts and 2.x watts (can be between 2.0 and 2.5). A 2.0 watt input-capable device will charge up TWICE as quickly as a 1.0W device, a massive difference, so this spec is of real importance.

For a 4000mAh battery (a nice small-medium capacity capable of recharging a phone about twice) that can be a difference between 3 hours to recharge versus 6.

A regular civilian at home may not care about this because they will leave it to charge overnight, though I imagine they still would like to have their attention drawn to this issue before they buy. For a hiker it is almost more important than any other spec or feature. A thru-hiker may request the user of a power socket from a cafe, gas station, laundromat or other small business as they pass through. They don’t have 6 hours to wait. They simply need to suck up as much juice as possible in the time available, which could be as little as a few minutes.

So when browsing for batteries I was looking for this spec and would scan up and down a manufacturer’s range looking for this key spec and was willing to consider various price points, capacities, colours, form factors, even weight (another spec seemingly not important enough to often be worth sharing with the world, or being accurate when doing so).

How often did I find it? On the main product web page: maybe 20% of the time. Maybe. It felt like less but I wasn’t keeping count so I’ll be generous. Most of the time I was only able to find this spec it was by clicking through to the technical support section of the website and downloading the product manual in PDF form.

Sometimes I found the spec in a retailer website but not the manufacturer (always a concern regarding information integrity but since many devices are sourced from the Far East the manufacturer websites were often poor or unsuable) and sometimes I had to figure out what product really lay under the OEM brand and search for that instead.

And about 20% of the time I came up completely empty. If there were less options available I would have sent the manufacturer an email to ask (I did that to two knife manufacturers last week asking about weight and got no response) but since I managed to get a good shortlist together I didn’t feel charitable enough to pursue that avenue.

So I care primarily about one spec. It can be quoted in about 10 characters of text but 80%+ of the time it was not deemed worthy of space on the product’s web page. Some never made the information available in any form. Most hid the information in support documents, ‘FAQs’ or in other arcane sources you hope are accurate. One time I ONLY found the information as it was printed on the back of the box and a picture of the box was zoomable!

Without exception the very small handful of devices that support at least 2W of input were getting on for double the price of apparently identical rivals. If I was them I would be boasting about recharge times to justify the price difference.

Conclusion

The battery story was just an example of how frustrating it can be to use the internet for shopping when you know what you are looking for, counter-intuitive as that sounds. Websites offer very shallow information and focus almost exclusively on closing the inexpert undecided buyer.

If you actually want to know the facts before buying then you’re in the minority so good luck guessing.