Shopping online is great. I think I probably buy 70% of my non-essential goods online and I only see that number increasing over time.
But online shopping really only caters to certain categories of goods. Mostly the ones in which I do most of my shopping – electronics, sporting equipment, media, etc. It’s usually products with well defined product name that is readily searchable and identifiable. Even collectibles can work online if there are specific attributes that are commonly used to describe the item (ie: The Wingless Quackers Beanie Baby)
But there is a whole other group of products for which online shopping just doesn’t work. I call these “experiential” categories. These are categories where shopping doesn’t happen through targeted search, but through serendipitous browsing. Also, the attributes used to describe these items aren’t very clear, and thus, it’s difficult to categorize these items in structured ways. Some of these categories include jewelry, art, pottery, home furnishings, fashion, etc.
At Ebay, we had a shopping platform that was 95% the same no matter which category users shopped in. This made for a pretty decent experience if you were looking for a “Nike Sasquatch Driver with 10 Degrees of Loft”. It was a terrible experience if you were looking for a wine rack that fit in perfectly with your home decor. I think I drove a lot of category managers crazy because we just couldn’t morph the search experience to accommodate the needs of these categories.
3 years later, online shopping hasn’t really changed that much. It’s still a bad experience for experiential categories. There are some sites here and there that do a nice job. I really like Etsy’s finding experience and how integrated they are in the artist community. My old colleague Shergul Arshad is at StyleFeeder which also targets fashion and home decor. But I think there is a lot more that can be done in this space. For example, jewelry is a $66B industry in the US, but more than 80% of it occurs offline, largely through independent jewelers and small chains. Talk about a fragmented and inefficient market!