Jason Del Rey

Recent Posts by Jason Del Rey

Emotionless E-Commerce and the Death of the Joy of Gift-Giving

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I was sitting on my couch the other evening, my wife seated across from me, when I decided it was as good a time as any to start Christmas shopping for her. She had given me some ideas to use as a sort of inspiration set, but I thought that instead I would just buy a few of the exact items on the list to get some gifts under my belt before the calendar turned to December.

A visit to H&M’s website: Click, click, click. Done.

Then, a visit to Amazon.com: Click, click, click. Done.

Hardly a thought involved. No stress. Christmas in a neat brown box for the most important woman in my life, delivered to my doorstep in just two days.

This is not a new thing to anyone anymore, as we have all increasingly turned to buying gifts online, in part to avoid going out into the jam-packed real world. Instead, by letting our fingers do the shopping, we tell ourselves that we are freeing up precious time in our busy, busy lives. Oh, the things we’ll do with the time we save!

Except, at least in my experience, that’s totally a farce. The time saved? We end up allotting it to some other digital exercise. And along the way, we sacrifice almost all of the serendipity that emerges when picking out a gift in a shop in the real world.

I take the blame for part of that, because buying someone exactly what they asked for extinguishes some of the suspense that makes for the best type of gift.

But e-commerce sites in their current state should also shoulder some of the blame. By and large, they are too easy, too impersonal, and — really — too convenient. That impersonality is perhaps part of the reason why so many young, digital commerce companies seem intent on opening pop-up shops or permanent outposts in the brick-and-mortar world.

I firmly admit that I’m painting with a really broad stroke here, but that’s okay. Because right now, with few exceptions, that’s what the e-commerce world feels like — all ease-of-use, but no emotion.

I acknowledge that there are exceptions (or at least there used to be), e-commerce sites that made you feel something, mostly through the kind of wares they sold. Etsy, for example. In its early days, when it had a much smaller community of sellers focused on handmade goods, Etsy was a delight. So was Fab, when its unusual design aesthetic seemed a lot more focused, and before it tried being a lot of things to a lot of people.

No longer. In fact, it was Jason Goldberg, the embattled CEO of Fab, who wrote about a similar idea in a blog post this past spring titled “The 3rd Wave of E-Commerce Disruption: Emotional Commerce.”

“Commodity Commerce was/is all about getting in and out as quickly as possible,” Goldberg wrote. “One-click shopping. Emotional Commerce is all about getting lost in the moment. Emotional Commerce is all about taking the best offline shopping experiences — of being lured in by storefronts, of browsing through assortments and colors, of the joy of the hunt of finding something fabulous, or having fun while shopping — and making them even more amazing online.”

When I wrote about that essay in June, as Fab was raising a $150 million investment, I translated it as such: “To me, that means impulse buying — more specifically, the buying of things that you want, but don’t necessarily need.”

But now I would broaden the definition quite a bit to include e-commerce sites that are able to both establish a connection with their visitors and sell things that help the buyer connect with others, rather than just please themselves.

As I said on Twitter the other day in response to a tweet by Braintree exec Mike Dudas, I’m not sure if Fab can reignite and sustain that emotional connection, considering the scale at which Goldberg wants to operate.

But Fab’s Goldberg has his own opinion:

Perhaps it’s not a book yet, but there are some encouraging signs in a young crop of e-commerce startups that are going out of their way to convey the story behind the products to their site visitors, in an effort to establish a connection. Those sites include Grand St., Zady, Cuyana, Everlane and the new Domino.com, which has its roots in media, but is integrating shopping into the site pretty seamlessly.

I haven’t found one that nails it through and through, but, in this increasingly digital world, they make me hopeful, because there’s a whole lot of room to inject some emotion back into commerce.

And — especially at this time of year — to help make gift-giving a lot less about the 30 percent-off Black Friday deal, and a whole lot more about helping you ensure that when the woman sitting across from you unties the bow, what she finds within the box truly feels like a gift.


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