The snowball keeps rolling

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A recent study funded by the Government of Canada has answered a question that I’m sure had everyone on pins and needles – Do Canadians prefer shopping online or shopping in stores? The answer likely won’t surprise many… more Canadians prefer in-person shopping. I guess nothing beats the thrill of holding and inspecting items before purchasing them and getting to take them home that very same day. Plus, no credit card is needed, and the outing can be fun. Win win, right?

The study, called “How Geography Impacts Shopping Patterns, Habits and E-Commerce Across Canada”, found that 57.4% of urban dwellers and 63.7% of rural dwellers prefer to shop in-person as opposed to buying things online. I suspect that the number would be higher if not for the “snowball effect” that seems to keep changes rolling year after year. 

I prefer in-person shopping as well, but it has changed in the last decade or so. More often than not, it seems that stores can’t justify carrying physical stock of a wide variety of items anymore. This is especially true of large chains. They don’t like the overhead costs of keeping stock, so they only have commonly purchased basics in their stores, and either sell specialty items online, or don’t sell them at all. It can be frustrating as a consumer. I can’t count the number of times I have walked into a store, cash in wallet, to buy a specific item only to end up ordering it from Amazon on my cellphone from right inside the store. When stores don’t carry the things we need or want, shopping online becomes the only option. 

Humans are creatures of learning. If we attempt to make a purchase at a store and are disappointed, we “save” that experience in memory and learn from it. If it happens a dozen times, we may reach the point when we simply stop attempting to go to stores, and instead go straight to shopping online. That is simple operant conditioning. Store owners can’t expect to repeatedly disappoint consumers and keep their business. 

The problem gets worse because it forms a “positive feedback loop” (i.e. A feeds B, and B feeds A). When customers get sick of finding an item listed in a catalogue or on a website only to find that it says “online only”, they stop shopping in-person. When customers stop shopping in-person, stores lose money and have even more difficulty keeping lower priority items in stock, which drives more customers away, leading to less items available in-person, which drives more customers away, and so on. As Canadians know, once the snowball starts rolling down the hill, it just keeps rolling. Greedy retailers only have themselves to blame for pushing the Amazon snowball over the crest of the hill. 

If something has to be purchased online anyway, a lot of consumers get driven to Amazon rather than the website of a smaller company because of the lower costs and free, fast shipping. It’s hard to blame consumers who shop on Amazon, particularly during tough economic times, but as the snowball keeps rolling, we will get further and further away from the joys of in-person shopping. 

As one example, my son recently needed cleats for the upcoming soccer season and we were told in a Nike store that most stores, even sports stores, are moving sales of cleats exclusively online. To walk into a store like Nike and be told they don’t carry a basic piece of sporting equipment was astounding and shows the direction that shopping continues to take. 

One of the most nostalgic parts of watching older movies, particularly Christmas movies, is seeing the full store shelves and the attentive service provided by store staff. I used to love doing Christmas shopping in-person. It would only take a day or two of shopping to get everyone on my list. Now, even though my wife and I still visit toy stores to surprise the kids with a couple of unique things, their requested gifts are usually things we can’t buy in stores. I know of some people who simply let their kids place items in a virtual Amazon shopping cart now, instead of creating an actual wish list. This is not necessarily a gesture of support for Amazon, but rather a necessity after years of wasting precious time visiting store after store for items that are no longer sold in stores. 

How can we help? The short answer is – we can’t. Corporations will always try to save a dollar, even when they don’t feel the bullet entering their foot each time they frustrate once loyal customers. The long answer may provide more hope. Department stores are far less likely to carry specific items or “specialty” items than small, local stores. Supporting local businesses is often billed as a “favour” to them, when in reality, their existence is valuable to us. Where large, greedy corporations fail, locally owned stores can pick up the slack. Are small retailers more expensive? Sometimes. But if it’s true that well over half of us prefer in-person shopping, then we need to put our dollars where our mouth is. 

The lesson here is that it’s possible to catch a rolling snowball, even though we may take a tumble. Some snowballs, however, are worth chasing. I am not against change. The world will never be the same as it was a decade before it, and there is always just as much good change as there is bad change. The problem lies in changes that put money in greedy pockets, while taking away things we love. As for me, I took a stand! I didn’t end up with a nostalgic blast from the past, but my kid got a shiny new pair of cleats. 

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