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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Stores move from showcase to online

December 22. 2013 7:09PM

THE ONLINE marketplace is an entirely new phenomenon, only a mere two decades old on the outside. When a new culture such as this rises suddenly, technologists who design and execute the system configurations get to control every aspect of the system.

Unlike the storefront, where sales clerks deal with customers in person, online systems must deal with customers through the step-by-step method to guide them to purchase what they want. The user experience that I have been writing about exists in both cases: in-store and online.

In general if any customer encounters less than a satisfactory experience in store, usually it is limited to clerk's attitude problem: either rudeness, inattentiveness, lack of knowledge, too aggressive salesmanship and/or all of the above. Customers seldom leave the store frustrated. The types and magnitude of customer frustration for those online are much more complex in multitude ways.

Let us look at the process of purchase at a store. Let us discuss two cases. In Case 1 the customer knows what to buy — say, a book. In Case 2 the customer wants to buy a color printer, a so-called all-in-one model.

In Case 1, the customer wants to buy a specific book. The customer walks into the store, and finds the book and takes it to the cashier. He pays for it with a credit card, and that ends the process.

It is also similar in the case of online purchase. He opens the website, and goes to the specific area of books. (It isn't that easy, though. The websites are usually crowded with all sorts of merchandise and various offers, and he must work in the so-called high visual noise environment.) Then the customer is led to a "shopping cart," where clicking it would tally the purchase.

Here the customer must carefully look for the shipping/handling costs, which are often added to the cost when he originally thought that was free. This is because places like Amazon are acting as an agent for third-party vendors, and the actual shipping/handling expenses are often tacked on to the item price if you don't carefully examine the itemized breakdown.

Many consumers end up paying more than what they thought they would pay because these hidden items are printed in a microscopic font.

However, one way or the other, the consumer would end up successfully purchasing the book. He would see the package in a few days. The main reason is that buyng a book is a simple process.

Case 2: Buying a printer.

The entire process of purchase is shown in the diagram FIG 1. The main difference between Case 1 and 2 is that the printer is a complex product with a multitude of specification items. The major and lengthy step in the decision process is to find out if the printer meets the customer's desire or specifications. In a store one can ask the sales clerk any questions regarding the product, and even see the actual demonstration. You can touch and feel the product, and see the various details of the features to your satisfaction.

This entire process is missing from the online purchase. In the online purchase process, any consumer thinking of buying a complex product such as an all-in-one printer would have strong anxiety about the correctness of his decision. If one makes an error in choosing, the product needs to be shipped back with restocking charges, return freight charges and other inconveniences. So a massive number of consumers have moved on to avoid this inconvenience by first visiting stores carrying the merchandise, and then after determining that the product fits their needs, they would look for bargains through online merchandisers.

Obviously the stores, now that they are quickly becoming a show place for the online consumers, are now fighting back. Best Buy, Staples and department stores are all urging consumers to go and buy from their own online sites. This is simply because the current online process of choosing merchandise just can't match the accuracy and comfort of visiting stores and looking over the products in person. Isn't this a grand waste?

In order to sell online, we have to have stores as showcases? So, my readers must now be wondering why I am writing about this issue, known to everyone shopping online. My point is that the standard way of describing products online is so crude, primitive and one-dimensional that it really demonstrates the lack of attention to that area of user experience. Online user experience must be drastically improved — a quantum jump to respond to the needs of 21st century.

If you have better ideas about significantly improving the online experience, please get in touch with me. The whole nation would benefit.


Shintaro "Sam" Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who improved our life. He is a businessman and an inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems, who is credited as the original inventor of today's portable fax machine. He also developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at

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