Internet consumers are driven more by value than price

Speaking of consumer sentiment, I fear I may have to offer an apology to the shade of poor old Oscar Wilde. The great Irish writer left us with so many brilliant epithets. And what have we done with them? Why, we've treated them with the coarse disdain normally reserved for potato-headed, cretinous step-children. We take the brilliance and cloak it beneath the clumsy contrivance of our own purposes, twisting the brilliance for a specific, often obscure use – and in so doing we brutally extinguish the sparkling fire of the genius's wit.

So at least I know what I'm doing when I pluck from its context the famous definition of a cynic from Wilde's fine play, Lady Windermere's Fan. The character Lord Darlington informs us that a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Wilde – if his spirit is a reader of this esteemed editorial space – will doubtless be rotating mighty quickly in his grave when I apply that epithet to the world of online retailing, or e-tailing as it is known in some quarters.

What seems to be happening, at least in Wildean terms, is that modern internet consumers are becoming less cynical. By that, I mean less driven price, and more by value.

Consider this recently published piece of research from Aberdeen Group, a firm of American consultants who have just published a report on the online shopping environment: "The rise in competitive shopping alternatives has given consumers the ability to judge retailers not only on price, but on available shopping tools as well. The accuracy of product search, display and merchandising schemes affect not only how often a consumer shops at a particular site, but also how well the retailer benefits from the advantage of viral and social marketing and other word-of-mouth marketing devices."

This may not be very scientific, but I have to say this feels right to me. Most of the online users I know – myself included – want an easy, pleasurable experience. Even if it's something as banal and as price-sensitive an item as an airplane ticket, I want to be able to use a site without being made to work. The convenience and ease of the transaction is very important, and right up there with its cost.

Internet business people have long talked about touch and feel, but now I truly believe that the consumer experience is coming to make itself felt. That said, the internet has been a fantastic force in pushing back prices. The deflationary effect of technology is potent and remains so. The machines have given us the latitude not to worry too much about price (because we can compare so easily online).

In my favourite piece of Wilde's work, his marvellous essay on aesthetics and social values, The Decay of Lying, Wilde posited a machine that would do all the hard work for society and allow us the leisure to be creative – which he more or less defined as lying in a beautiful way to create an emotional truth at the centre of a thing called art. Well, the internet does not primarily bring us art. But it is a machine that makes life much easier (or at least it should do). As such, it really is a minor manifestation of that aesthetic thought. Enough of a manifestation, I hope, to stop Wilde spinning right here.

Online user sentiment key in social media deals

Online consumer sentiment is certainly the prime mover in the embarrassing acquisition and subsequent fire sale of the social media company, Bebo. Bebo has just 5.1 million members, as opposed to the 210 million users of the social networking market leader, Facebook. Bebo's owner, AOL, may not be able to recoup any of the $850 million (Dh3.12 billion) it shelled out two years ago if a buyer cannot be found after the company has been assessed by the end of May. But why is Bebo so unpopular in comparison to Facebook? Critical mass is one factor – although the companies were once roughly the same size. Other than that, I understand, it's mainly look and feel – the user experience.

Quantifying what makes a good user experience online has to be the Holy Grail of the modern world of e-commerce, e-tailing and social networking.


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