The Challenge Of Bringing Group Shopping To The Web

One of the first revelations in the earliest days of E-Commerce was that there are two polar opposite ways that consumers shop: Utilitarian (buying a replacement battery, picking up a half-gallon of milk or a case of printer paper) and Experience (clothes shopping, comparing televisions, browsing a bookstore or test-driving cars).

The Web is wonderful at replicating—and sharply improving upon—the brick-and-mortar experience when it comes to utilitarian shopping, but brick-and-mortar has a huge edge when it comes to an enjoyable experience. Yes, for some people, shopping is a recreational sport and a social outing. By the way, those people tend to spend a healthy amount of cash.

Amazon.com was one of the first to tackle recreating the bookstore experience. It's first few attempts at recreating browsing a book fell far short, but it eventually mastered it with Look Inside.

Today, there are several companies trying to recreate the joint shopping experience on the Web. The problem is that early versions will truly be slow, non-intuitive and simply not anywhere near the fun of the real thing. Most of the efforts today involve two people logging onto a site and then clicking and dragging and annotating so that someone else can see what they're doing and reply.

I've gone through several such demos and I compare it not to shopping in a store but to two people simultaneously Web shopping while talking on the phone. Say what will for it's lack of elegance, but it's reliable, virtually free, fast and is the ultimate in intuitiveness.

One of the more impressive offerings comes from a startup called FriendShopper.com, which is offering retailer-agnostic software, which is a differentiator from others that integrate with one retailer at a time. It's impressive because it appears to be well-designed and thought out. But what's most noteworthy is that it still pales when compared with the decidedly low-tech telephone-Web-interface.

To be clear, FriendShopper offers several intriguing capabilities that are well beyond the telephone tactic, such as being able to create a personal online mall populated only with that consumer's favorite retailers. It can also keep a running list of a consumer's favorite products. It's sort of a merged registry and social networking experience. Very comprehensive and quite extensive.

But if my goal is to quickly go online with a friend, look at items for 20 minutes, get some immediate advice and make a decision, many of these offerings today are too clever for their own good. Many offer a wide range of clicks and drags and pulldowns that have to be executed to show which item is being discussed. On the phone, one could simply say, "I mean that red one in the right column, third from the top."

FriendShopper's approach is somewhat less complicated, but it's still optimized for offline viewing at a later time. FriendShopper CEO Josh Bochner painted a picture where five friends can share the experience but not at the same time. His system is great at that. The counter he offered is that it takes a shopper a lot of keystrokes to explain that it's the red one in the right column, third from the top. And that it might no longer be third from the top when the friend visits. The click function allows the friends to see precisely what the first friend wants to show.

These so-called shared shopping experience packages tend to be powerful at creating new experiences and especially at adding in the comments of a social network site, but they don't do much in the area they were supposedly created to dominate: replicating the in-store experience of two friends hitting the mall together.

Mentioned the Look Inside feature from Amazon because that has a lot of similarities. It proved that these social in-store experiences can indeed be recreated, but it takes a lot of sophisticated and complex programming to make an intuitive seamless experience. If a user needs more than one or two minutes training on an app, it's not that intuitive. How much training does a consumer need to figure out Look Inside?

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