This week I had a rude awakening as to the current state of eShopping. I bought plane tickets on nwa.com and a desktop from Dell.
Both experiences were atrocious. The only reason I can see for this is that storeless shopping is now ubiquitous. It's no longer a cool novelty. We have to put up with it like we put up with automated phone services. Usability? - ha ha. It's all about cutting costs now, not about improving quality. Perhaps only Amazon has remained a great user experience (but they're getting really sloppy about shipping delays).
Northwest Airline's nwa.com provides a user interface that is pitiful. For example, you choose a date by popping up a little calendar. The default is the current date. Fine, but when you've entered your departure date and try to enter your return date, the default is still the current date. Other problems include how they handle Canadian orders; what happens if you mistakenly sort by price; and the inability to retain your information when something goes wrong (you have to enter your entire itinerary again). It took me nearly two hours to buy tickets to Memphis with a layover in New Orleans, and this wasn't my first time ordering tickets on nwa.com.
When I purchased my last computer from Dell, five years ago, the experience was great. After choosing the computer I wanted a page came up with a long list of options. Next to each option was a link to complete info about the option. I was able to quickly get exactly what I wanted. What a fabulous way to shop, I thought!
Five years on and Dell Co. has changed... a lot. The user interface is a hodgepodge of ill-explained products. Each model has several variants with different processors and so on... in fact I never figured out what the different products with the same model name had in common. They seem to be deliberately confusing. When I tried to make the purchase online, Dell told me that if I wanted free shipping I had to order through a sales representative on the phone. The sales representative upsold me, and managed to do this in two ways: (1) she quoted a much lower price until it got to the point of sale, when the price miraculously rose substantially; and (2) she convinced me to buy something she said would do what I wanted, and when I got the computer and it didn't she sold me extra components. How did I get conned into this? I can't explain it. I feel royally suckered - as well as frustrated, angry, and extremely inconvenienced.
Economists David Laibson and Xavier Gabaix describe consumers as either "sophisticates" or "myopics". Myopic customers, they say, are those who are fooled by companies into making bad purchases. Companies hide information from customers in a process Laibson and Gabaix call shrouding. Common shrouding techniques include branding, creating forced scarcity, confusing the customer, and creating hidden costs (eg selling cheap printers that require expensive cartridges). At this point I feel like a myopic consumer.
Dell quality assurance, by the way, has also become questionable. They sold me a hard drive that was so defective that it died during the first week I had it - just long enough for me to have invested a lot of time configuring Vista. No problem they said - return it and we'll send you a new one. No problem for them, for sure. I'm the one who had to pack the box and lug it to UPS.