The first shopping I ever really did was online. My formative memories of purchasing things for myself don't come from toy stores or big-box retailers. Music stores barely figure, and then only in the form of the Borders CD section (may it rest in peace, along with its bookshelves). Instead, I remember long stretches of careful consideration and then sudden dopamine rushes from pushing the big buy button on websites like Amazon, Best Buy, or even Circuit City (also now deceased), then waiting the requisite weeks for packages to arrive.
For as long as I've made my own semi-independent financial decisions, online shopping wasn't just for Cyber Monday, the Internet offspring of Black Friday that passed early this week, but every day. This year's Cyber Monday netted over $2 billion, a higher benchmark than ever before and a 17 percent growth over last year, according to the digital analytics company comScore. Walmart.com reported it had the most online orders in its history on Monday, with mobile shopping—something I haven't quite graduated to—making up 70 percent of the traffic.
I'm clearly not alone in my commitment to buying online. In fact, as Cyber Monday sales have grown, Black Friday sales are actually falling. Total purchases on the more traditional shopping holiday decreased by 11 percent this year, reports the New York Times. The 133.7 million people who showed up to shop early that morning was 5.2 percent fewer than 2013, and the $380.95 they spent on average represented a 6.4 percent decrease.
It's not just that more retail is moving online. The entire shopping experience, particularly around the end-of-year holidays, is becoming more diffuse. Black Friday is stretching out into "Black November," a new coinage that subsumes online shopping and regular retail into one month of commercial bacchanalia. But what might look like a signal that American culture is finally disappearing into its own consumption habits (how long until Thanksgiving is just renamed Dark Thursday?) is really just representative of how traditional retail as a whole is failing consumers.
Physical stores have plenty of advantages. Customers are actually able to see and touch the products they're considering before they buy, avoiding possible disappointment and a lengthy return process. Theoretically, store clerks are there to answer questions and make educated recommendations. Still, we're increasingly trading the trip to a store for a single click online. It's more convenient, of course, but I think that gives short shrift to online shopping's actual benefits.
Buying online has become a much richer experience than shopping IRL. On the Internet, we already have experts we trust. Reviews are available beneath every product, whether it's a popular book or an obscure vitamin supplement. Through social media, we've made a consumer-driven community around buying that simply wasn't possible before.
When I was searching for the perfect pair of headphones or computer speakers as a kid, I knew I could wander onto forum sites to ask for specific advice. I remember posting on a music message board once to inquire which beginner's bass guitar I might buy for my brother one Christmas and getting an informed answer almost instantly. The venerable CNET website was there to direct me toward just which mp3 players to consider, with their huge 64 megabytes of space.
That ecosystem has evolved considerably today. My favorite recent wrinkle in online shopping is the boom in affiliate marketing and referral sites, which direct users toward specific products and then receive a cut of the price if a visitor goes on to buy the product on a retail platform like Amazon. The practice can be sketchy—the businesses do have a stake in pushing you to buy the most expensive items, and as fast as possible, before their referral time runs out. But if you know where to go, these sites will provide better buying context than any store.
The Wirecutter, founded by gadget expert Brian Lam, carries out extensive testing to let readers know exactly which umbrella, laptop, or television to buy. Its sister-site The Sweethome does the same for home goods like towels, pillows, and ice trays. The proof is all in the process—writers explain just what experiments they carried out to determine which version holds up. It's less about reviews than it is about proof, and the results are wholly convincing.
The Nightlight takes a similar approach, but focuses specifically on baby products, doing the kind of safety evaluation that will calm new parents' fears. Slate even launched its own affiliate marketing website with Slate Picks, where readers can buy further in to the site's brand and follow its tastemakers. Food52 hosts the equivalent of a minimalist comestibles store online, where it sells everything from Japanese spice mixes to ravioli rolling pins.
As shopping, like so many other interactions, moves online, we're developing services that map better to consumers' actual desires, creating a decentralized ecosystem that allows for more, better marketing, and more positive shopping experiences than waiting in line outside in the cold on one November morning. It's a great step for consumers and retailers alike—that is, if they can keep up.