Shopping vs. Buying

It’s Valentine’s Day and blogging about e-commerce just feels right… Keep your fingers crossed for ice.com, one of our recent e-commerce investments. It’s a big week for their business.

I had a good discussion today with a friend of mine who was one of the founders of Mobissimo (travel search) about the difference between shopping and buying.

Much of the Internet is optimized for buying: if you know what it is you are looking for, everything from Google to comparison shopping engines will help you find it quickly and at a reasonable price. Search is a great metaphor for this. Tell me what you are looking for. Here is where you can find it.

Shopping is about the “if” part above. It is about product discovery. Discovery is a big deal because it happens before an intent to buy is formed. How a purchasing decision is framed during the discovery process may determine which product ends up being selected. Great sales people everywhere know that cold.

OK, everyone wants an iPod (search works great for that) but does everyone want a Bob jogging stroller? What if they are just looking for a jogging stroller but don’t know what kind they want to buy? The Google query results are just not that helpful to me. JoggingStroller.com is a great site but how do I know they cover enough of the universe of jogging strollers? How do I know I’m not missing that One Great Jogging Stroller? I can open a few more sites but they are all geared towards buying and not towards shopping.

So I go to the thefind.com and search for jogging stroller. I get 12,189 results from 540 stores. I’m not sure about you but to me that answer is both annoying and depressing. Annoying because I bet there aren’t 12,189 types of jogging strollers out there. It shows that thefind.com has good crawling tech and pretty poor equivalence matching algorithms. Depressing because those kinds of numbers just make me feel like I’ll never be sure I picked the right one. (That has to do with the paradox of choice.)

Determined, I go to become.com. The same query delivers 687 products. That’s better. I like products. I’m looking for products. I wasn’t looking for “results”, which is what I got on thefind. Beyond that, become.com doesn’t offer any meaningful help in finding the right jogging stroller. Also, as Siva from thefind points out in the comments to this post, there is a qualitative difference in the result sets between thefind and become.com, though I wonder whether the average consumer will know and understand that difference.

Jonah posted in the comments section that trying this out on shopwiki produced 387 results, all legitimate products. Per Siva’s comment above, I’m not sure about shopwiki’s business model so I can’t say whether this result is good or bad. The user experience on the site doesn’t help much with shopping, though.

These sites miss something that any good salesperson knows about. The right match between a buyer and a product is as much about the buyer as it is about the product. Ever tried to buy a digital camera at Best Buy? The good salespeople are curious about your life and how you want to use the camera. They are not just building a relationship (though that’s important also). They are restricting the product set that makes sense for you in order to simplify the comparison shopping process. They want to know enough about you in order to present 2-3 reasonable models for you to choose from. The bad salespeople give you an earful about the specs of all top-selling models.

Which sites out there do a good job of discovery, i.e., helping people figure out what to buy as opposed to helping people buy what they know they want to buy?

About Simeon Simeonov

I'm an entrepreneur, hacker, angel investor and reformed VC. I am currently Founder & CTO of Swoop, a search advertising platform. Through FastIgnite I invest in and work with a few great startups to get more done with less. Learn more, follow @simeons on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn.
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12 Responses to Shopping vs. Buying

  1. Daiji says:

    Hi Sim! Normally I would suggest that this sort of thing is provided for by companies providing recommendation engines, which would generally attempt to provide “discovery” to shoppers by recommending things based upon their history. I figure that you’re familiar with that list. Do you distinguish between those sorts of companies and actual sites providing discovery? If so- how would you define the distinguishing characteristics?

  2. Siva says:

    Hi Sim,

    You have a good point about “shopping” vs. “buying a specific product”. You are also right that at this point TheFind is tailored well to find you any product you want to “buy” from all of the stores selling them. To make this point clearer, if you were actually looking for a specific stroller, say “graco quattro tour duo stroller”,
    http://www.thefind.com/query.php?query=graco+quattro+tour+duo+stroller

    you’ll see all of the stores (47) selling them on TheFind including major national retailers like Target, Babies R Us and Walmart, and not just from the 2 lesser known stores on Become.com.
    http://www.become.com/graco-quattro-tour-duo-stroller?&qet

    Further, if you want to find one near you (say, near Palo Alto, CA) to see if this is the right one for your needs, only TheFind can show you how to find it at a store near you.

    We are definitely working on enhancing the “shopping” aspects so do keep an eye open for this later this year. “Buying” thus has better consumer options on TheFind.

    However, showing that another shopping search site has a paucity of choice does not automatically make it a better for “shopping”. What I mean is that a narrowing down of your options (less number of results = less choice) is not editorially driven or merchandising driven, at these engines. “Shopping” as you describe it has to have some element of winnowing down the choice to the best results based on editorial or merchandising. However, such a limited selection with a few merchants is done purely by the “paid placement” business model – the comparison shopping sites like Become.com only show products that are paid listings. We however crawl all of the e-commerce web sites to find all of the products carried by every store like you expect from Google for web pages.

    Cheers
    Siva (www.TheFind.com)

  3. Jonah Keegan says:

    Shopwiki.com. Search on: jogging stroller and you get 387 results, all of which display with product thumbnails and all of which appear to be unique, plus a buying guide with lots of info about differentiating features. You can also refine your search by price, brand or color. (I have no affiliation with the site.)

    Still passive discovery though. I’m curious to know your thoughts on replicating the “guidance” you get in face-to-face environments in a scalable fashion online. Do you run a giant warehouse full of CSRs trained to “learn more” about the customer, segmented by retail expertise, and push them to shoppers on your site via web-chat? Do you push simple surveys to visitors on a shopping portal and build profiles you can mine for future visits or potentially extend to new visitors who intersect on X number of targeting metrics? This is a highly competitive space, is better discovery a defensible unfair advantage? (for example, the patents for push web-chat are licensed to any buyer of Instant Service et al)

  4. Siva, I’m a big fan of thefind for buying.

    I don’t think that Become.com showing fewer results is better in an absolute sense. It is definitely better in a psychological sense, though.

    Also, I agree with you that working with paid listing feeds alone is a bad idea. It artificially restricts the choice universe for consumers.

  5. Hey, Daiji–long time, my friend.

    For those of you reading who don’t know Daiji, he was on the team that built the first attribute-based personalization engine back in the good old days of Bubble 1.0.

    Yes, I do see a difference between personalization technologies and discovery technologies from two angles.

    First, personalization works on the serendipity principle. Serendipity is important (big part of the Costco business model) but you can’t rely on serendipity when you are on a mission to buy a jogging stroller. You need discovery for that.

    Second, it is not easy to make personalization work across sites. (Not a technical problem but one of how does the consumer engage with personalization across sites.) I don’t care to buy a jogging stroller on Amazon or joggingstroller.com specifically. I care to buy the “right” one at a “decent” place.

  6. Jonah, I don’t think a warehouse full of CSRs will solve the problem for an intermediary site (like thefind, etc.). CSR engagement, however, has been used successfully by etailers. They have the advantage of having the sunk cost already, though.

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  8. Simeon – My bad for coming upon this story late to the game but it touched a (positive) nerve and I wanted to offer an idea that we are up to at our company http://www.giftgirl.com. When we launched we thought we could make a conflict free site offering an advisory service to guys trying to find things for their girl (we traditionally stink at it!) We think we got the 1st part right and there’s a huge unserviced need. We went against the grain with a membership model and no ads, no paid placement and purely filtered material by expert staffs featuring things we knew women of all sorts wanted. 6 months later we have more women than men members! and we put our heads together to create the feature that fills in the gap. Soon women will be able to fill out very cool and intuitive profiles that paint a picture of their style, likes, etc and their guy (dad, husband, etc) will be able to see items matched up with relevancy and provide all the help they need. The women members helped build this feature. It doesn’t exist on the web (I don’t think) and could go a long way in this particular area when you 1. Don’t know what you’re looking for and 2. When you do you don’t know which one. Your thoughts are appreciated. Regards, Mike Pratt (COO, Gift Girl)

  9. Lou Bruno says:

    Sim – I couldn’t agree more with your last paragraph. My wife and I are expecting and we experienced the online nightmare of searching for the crib we wanted. In addition to the 79,776 hits and 1300+ stores we received back, each crib had a different descriptions/spec. Imagine shopping for an automobile, without similar features to compare – MPG, # of cylinders, tire size, etc. If you have ever shopped for a crib with your spouse or sold a crib to an expectant couple, you quickly realize this is just as important of a purchase as an automobile, yet no one has thought to standardize the comparable traits/features.

  10. Keith says:

    I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have a lot of info to put INTO this conversation…but I wanted to thank you all for what I was able to take OUT OF it. It should really help my wife and I as we start our family dream career of owning our own store online.

  11. Fabio says:

    Sim, I wish I had discovered this post months ago instead of just today… anyway, I agree with your point.

    I’d just raise a little, benevolent, taunt. What if the best shopping site would be something more in the lines of StumbleUpon? So, you don’t search for something, you truly discover something. And in your example I still see a lot of ‘searching’, a lot of ‘buying’… IMO the main reason being that you still have quite a specific need if you’re after a jogging stroller, while the best results for discovery vs. search are returned when you have a more generic interest and someone gives you recommendations about what you might like. And the more this ‘someone’ gets to know your taste the better the recommendations become.
    In my case this ‘someone’ is my project – Veedow.com – which went live a few months back in private beta and now is open for everyone. You might want to check it out: http://www.veedow.com
    We’re based in London, UK and serves mainly a UK audience at the moment but we have plans to grow internationally.

    We still have a long way to go but posts like this only validate our idea and strengthen our dedication and we’re eager to be an important player in the social-shopping wave that has just started.

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