Customers with money are seeking ways to buy things in a way that doesn't drive them mad.
Especially during the COVID-19 crisis, tech has solved the problem. Or has it?
I only ask because of an extraordinary email exchange I've just had with my friend Edith. She's retired, entirely sprightly, and we regularly chat about the state of the world and what's left of our minds within it.
The other day, she made a revelation: "I've just bought a mattress topper online. I've never bought anything online before."
"What? Ever?," I replied.
She insisted she hadn't. She also insisted she wasn't a rarity. She also insisted buying online is akin to performing your own pedicure with secateurs.
Please try not to be prejudiced about Edith and her age -- she's a little over 70.
She used to sit on the board of a well-known global company and enjoyed an extremely highfalutin title. She's comfortably retired with her husband Peregrine (yes, of course, I've made their names up). They travel regularly, are proficient partiers and Edith has done perfectly well without online commerce.
Account For Yourself.
Peregrine has tried buying things online. Edith explained: "His complaint is that every time you try to do something, it's a different format. I learned from him that to buy something you sometimes, but not always, have to go to something called 'account.' Well, as a novice, how would you know that? You just think, 'account', no it can't be that, I don't have an account."
It's logical, isn't it? Too many sites still want you to sign up for regular pestering before selling you anything. Why put up with that? Why think that's a good thing?
For Edith, however, her recent online purchase was born out of pure necessity. She's sheltering in place, has no idea when she'll be able to move freely again, and she very much needed a soft top for their new mattress.
The process was entirely painful.
She said: "I looked in numerous places on the screen, peering at pictures in an attempt to judge finish, quality, fixing arrangements, etc., sometimes being greeted with 'image not available.' Eventually decide to plump (ho ho) for one, make a minor error in bloody email address, realize after, and don't therefore know if this will foul up the whole thing."
She tried to rectify the potential problem.
"Hazard therefore a message to said company who respond with automatic message saying how busy they are, etc," she said. "I remain, therefore, in limbo. Naturally, you can't ever ring up. Finding a telephone number is like panning for gold." (Ring up is English English for making a call. Edith is very English.)
I Am Not A Robot. Or Am I?
She began to air more frustrations. This online thing is supposed to be easy. For those who didn't grow up with it, it may not be.
"Another development is that one now seems to be asked if one is a robot. What is the proper response to this? And if 'yes', what effects ensue? And if they're trying to avoid dealing with robots, then could it not be said that their automatic reply is rather like one from a robot? Should I ask them whether they are a robot?"
Edith has a point. Several, indeed. And what should make businesses shiver is that, unlike many millennials, Edith has much disposable income. If online retailers could make things clearer for her, she might even bless them with a little more money. She's like that. Instead, she regards them are marginally insane.
You see, she needed a little rug too. Or, as she specified in posh lingo, a kilim.
"Again, I spend hours peering at pictures, trying to work out textures, guess colors," she said. "I filter something in the region of two and a half thousand, whittle it to four, manage to find a phone number (yay!) to enquire about purchasing on approval, deliveries, etc. Told it can be done, but only for two, not four. Whittle again. Call back the following day, all is going well but then, disaster, they'll only take payment online. It's 'policy.'"
And so Edith went online to attempt something with which she's entirely uncomfortable.
"Get stuck early on," she said. "Ring him back to guide me through it. He tells me which bits I can skip. Oh, yes? Again, how would you know? We go through all the agony of filling things into boxes, filling in passwords, which, they only tell you afterward, need to contain a certain configuration of numbers and letters, capitals or not, etc. In some cases, you have to do this twice for some reason. By now I'm getting exhausted, but come on, keep going, it must be nearly over."
"Then the whole thing gets spat out," she sniffed. "Not authorised. 'You'll have to ring them,' he says airily. Can you imagine what it's like ringing a bank at the moment? When I try, (marks for determination here, I hope) what the, er, robotic message proposes is, guess what, more technology. 'Download the app!' 'Go to our website!'"
The Impersonal Requires Impersonation.
By this time, Edith may have been forgiven for never trying again. She may have been forgiven for tossing her computer in the direction of her pet alpacas. However, she's made of sterner stuff.
"So I go back to the kilim site, on my knees now, impersonate someone else -- not a robot -- no, Peregrine. Go through the whole bloody process all over again. It works! I am now ready for a lie down in a darkened room. I reflect that I have only succeeded in this fine endeavor by impersonating someone else. Result!"
Edith says she won't be giving up physical retail any time soon. She's frankly astonished how people can order things they can't feel with their hands or see in the right light. She wants to pay for things while preserving her privacy and anonymity. (I'm assuming she means cash.) She also believes physical retail -- at least for such household items -- has the advantage of certainty and no worries about returning items.
You might think Edith quaint. You might be tempted to chuckle from on high. But online retail comes with its own language and codes. For those not used to it, it's work. A lot of work. And, as Edith explains, a lot of stupid, incomprehensible work.
Official figures suggest that in the UK, more than five million people have never used the internet. Seventy-nine percent of them are over 65. How many more, though, only use the internet for extremely limited purposes because they're put off by what they see as ludicrous -- and even frightening -- complications?
You'd think there might be a market gap for online shopping that was specifically tailored to those who are unfamiliar and even wary.
Edith's greatest lament is that there's simply no personal service on the web. She said: "I recall decades ago it was thought that when the net came, businesses would divide into 'high tech' or 'high touch.' Where's the 'high touch' now?"
Truly, she can't bear it.
"Next it'll be hotels, where there'll be no reception, just a plastic box with a key in it," she mused.
Well, yes. That's right. It's called making the world a better place, Edith.