Monday, December 16, 2019

Shopping Sucks Now

Casey Johnston (tweet):

Looking up “lined leather gloves” yields 40,000 results. On the first page, there are two different gloves listed, one for $17 and one for $60, that look exactly identical and come in the exact same colors. Both have the same exact star rating (4.5/5) and hundreds of positive reviews.


For a long time, our problem was there were not enough things to choose from. Then with big box stores, followed by the internet, there were too many things to choose from. Now there are still too many things to choose from, but also a seemingly infinite number of ways to choose, or seemingly infinite steps to figuring out how to choose. The longer I spend trying to choose, the higher the premium becomes on choosing correctly, which means I go on not choosing something I need pretty badly, coping with the lack of it or an awful hacked-together solution (in the case of gloves, it’s “trying to pull my sleeves over my hands but they are too short for this”) for way, way too long, and sometimes forever.


If big box stores represented the problem of the “tyranny of choice,” the problem is that now, somewhat suddenly, perfect knowledge of the perfect glove, for you specifically, exists, if you simply do enough research.


I’m realizing what I actually want is not the perfect glove; what I want is for the world to be small again.

It’s frustrating how long it can take, but I do like being able to (usually) find what I’m looking for. I think the keys are knowing when it’s worth spending the time to do a deep dive vs. “settling” with a quick decision; and knowing which area-specific sites to search, since Amazon doesn’t have everything nor always surface the best results.

Amazon reviews, as bad as they can be, have been extremely helpful overall. For example, they recently helped me figure out that almost all products in a particular category don’t work with 5 GHz Wi-Fi networks (the only kind my Google Wi-Fi supports).

Sites like Wirecutter are a great help. Although I don’t always agree with their picks, they at least get you started with an overview of the main options and what to look for. But they don’t always give you all the options. For example, Wirecutter’s humidifier review omits the entire category of console humidifiers. For less than half the price of their upgrade pick, I found a model that’s easier to maintain, has a 6-gallon tank (vs. 3-gallon for the largest they tested), and is much easier to fill (short hose from the faucet, no need to carry tanks around).

Update (2019-12-17): See also: Nick Heer.

7 Comments RSS · Twitter

I wonder how many people that shop for something knew *exactly* what they are looking for. For example, I am looking for a jean with these sort of materials and cutting, and needs to be these type of length because I am tall. Or like the example above where you are looking for a specific humidifier, and how many of these product do not have enough parameters for us to search.

@Ed In most product categories, I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for until partway through the process. In the humidifier case, it took buying and using several different types that sounded good and were highly recommended until I realized what the problems were. And then, sometimes, you can know exactly what you’re looking for but it (apparently) doesn’t exist.

I recently purchased a MFC printer (it's still in shipping, so I don't know how successful my purchase will be). My process was first check with SmartFriends(tm) for brand recommendations. That resulted almost unanimously in Brother & HP. Then looked in to Brother, found the printer I wanted, then looked at some YouTube reviews. But then, since I happen to have a Kyocera, and since (apparently unique to me) I want to be able to print envelopes, and I know that for the Kyocera I have to open the device, switch an internal switch, in order to print an envelope (unlike my old HP LaserJet 3330), I checked the Brother. And sure enough, I have to open a panel **on the back**, and switch some switches inside. Abandon Brother, start the process again with HP. Find the model (far far too many models, all separated by a few bucks, sigh!), decide of course I have no need for fax, so choose a slightly cheaper model order it, and then discover that the other difference with the non-fax one is non-duplex, which I'd actually like, cancel that order, and order the slightly more expensive (with useless fax) model. Interesting process. But almost all of it is made more complicated by the excess of choice. The entire process was vastly simplified by use of SmartFriends to limit it to two brands, which saved a chunk of time. But why have too many models? Why have three or four different models all within 10% price of each other?

>I go on not choosing something I need pretty badly

That seems like a pretty positive outcome overall. We buy too much stuff anyways, and if the paradox of choice lowers consumerism, I think that's great.

It doesn't work that way for me. When I'm not sure what I need, I often buy the cheapest thing I can find that looks acceptable, use it until I find out what I actually care about and what bothers me about it and what I need to look out for, and then buy an expensive replacement that does the thing I actually need. My brother calls me his personal Aliexpress, because when he needs something, I usually have at least two, and can pass one on to him.

>For example, Wirecutter’s humidifier review omits the entire category of console humidifiers

They also discount warm-mist humidifiers just because electricity costs more than gas, which is, in my personal opinion, a completely bonkers, backwards way of making that decision. At least they figured out that warm-mist humidifiers don't actually use more energy if you primarily use your humidifier when your heating is on, but come on.

>Why have three or four different models all within 10% price of each other?

This is a pretty recent, kind of odd development. I think it's now so cheap to introduce new products that companies try to have a product at every possible price point. Nvidia graphics cards used to exist at reasonable price tiers, where it was always obvious which one to get. Now, there are dozens of different cards, often priced 10$ apart from each other, and old cards that were ostensibly replaced by newer models just continue to be sold.

Sometimes, paying more nets you a slower card because you're getting the high-end version of the lower-tier card instead of the low-end version of a faster card.

BTW, a side-effect of the glut of different versions of the same thing is that it is now impossible to review these things. In the past, you could search for "product name review", and you'd find a few actual human beings actually talking about that product. Now, all you find is fake auto-generated review sites, and sites like Amazon. And since products are now often vendor-specific, you can't even compare reviews from multiple different shopping sites.

As Michael says, the key is to know when it's worth spending time on research and when it isn't also. Also if the author Casey really wants that smaller world he could actually go to physical shops (some do still exist;)

> Also if the author Casey really wants that smaller world he could actually go to physical shops (some do still exist;)

Casey is a woman, and if you read the article, you'll find out that she did go to a physical store :-)

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