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Click and regret

Lifestyle/Technology | Online retailers learn the tricks to snag 'social shoppers'

Issue: "2009 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 19, 2009

According to the website Mashable.com, which tracks trends in social media such as Facebook and Twitter, "social shopping" on websites will be increasingly important this year. Social shopping includes the creation of customized online shopping lists to share with friends; shopping with friends online through Facebook.com, MySpace.com, or Twitter, so that shoppers can ask their friends' opinions; and other user interactions.

Retailers have taken note, improving their website shopping pages and enhancing their blogs. Many online retailers plan to offer free shipping, which is important because shoppers say concern about high shipping costs is one reason they don't order online. Shoppers say they plan to do more of their purchasing online because it's both convenient and easy to make cost comparisons.

Academics are now analyzing social shopping. Researchers at Stanford University's Persuasive Technology Lab are studying how websites-including popular retailing ones like Dealfinder.com and FatWallet.com-use sophisticated techniques to draw people to their sites. Folks in this new field, called "captology," examine the intersection between technology and persuasion and look at how "computing products-from websites to mobile phone software-can be designed to change what people believe and what they do."

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In a series of videos-Captology.tv-the Stanfordians explain some of the techniques that websites use to get shoppers to make repeat visits. The website Woot.com, for instance, offers one deal a day. It lasts 24 hours or until the product runs out, so if you don't get in on the deal early enough, you risk losing it-and feeling regret. Since humans don't like feeling regret when they miss a "disappearing opportunity," some get into the habit of checking out Woot each day, making it a part of their routine. That's a persuasive tactic called "alarm clocking."

The video explains why the regret is greater over losing a web deal than missing a sale at a local retailer. The web deal promises ease (all you have to do is click) and confidence (it's easy to comparison shop at other websites to make sure the deal really is a deal, and you can read other users' evaluations of the product). Consumers feel more regret when they miss an easy deal and have great confidence it is a deal, or as the Stanford scholars explain: Regret equals ease times confidence.

Some websites increase the pressure by having the price on an item decrease throughout the day so that users return repeatedly as they try to buy an item at the lowest price before it runs out. It's an online version of what some stores once did: Boston's famous Filene's Basement would knock off one-fourth of the price each week, and some shoppers agonized about whether to buy something at 50 percent off or hold out for the next week's 75 percent discount-if the product was still there.

Death and the salesmen

By Susan Olasky

Wal-Mart is now selling caskets and urns online. The caskets are steel, except for the most expensive, which is bronze, and range in price from $895 to $2,899. According to the FTC's Funeral Rule, funeral homes have to accept caskets from third-party vendors, so theoretically anyone should be able to buy a low-cost casket. On the other hand, Wal-Mart doesn't ship to some states, including Texas, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Oregon, and in other states ships only to select zip codes.

The news of Wal-Mart's foray into online funeral products brought out internet pranksters who had fun with the idea of buying caskets online. An Advertising Age blog noted that people began to post fictitious stories in the product review section-and Wal-Mart closed the comment section on its website. Ad Age's moral of the story: Monitor social media chatter and respond before it goes too far. But, as other commenters pointed out, the social media buzz-even if it was humorous-spread the word that Wal-Mart sells caskets.

Big spenders

By Susan Olasky

This recession has hit people at all ends of the income spectrum and also opened up opportunities. BillionaireXchange.com is an online auction/trading site that handles luxury goods. Recent auction items included: a Bible from a.d. 1250 (price tag, $185,000), a Mega Yacht ($49 million), and Dwayne Wade's Florida mansion ($4.6 million).

Will you be my robot?

By Susan Olasky

Is it possible to develop robots that will offer home healthcare for elderly people, especially those with dementia? A European consortium, CompanionAble, aims to do that by combining robotics and "smart home" technologies. Demographic trends, especially in Europe, explain why money and energy are focused on the project: More abortions mean fewer young people to help old people who are living longer. Before the efforts get too far along, Christians and others concerned with technology and ethics need to begin exploring the implications of having "companion robots" replacing human touch and interaction.

Makeshift microscope

By Susan Olasky

An assistant professor of electrical engineering, using about $10 worth of parts from the hardware store, developed a way to turn a cell phone with a camera into a microscope that will allow people far from hospitals to screen for diseases like malaria. According to The New York Times, inventor Aydogan Ozgan has set up a company, Microskia, to bring the product to market. One professor at MIT told the Times, "This makes it possible for ordinary people to gather medical information in the field just by using a cell phone adapted with cheap parts."

Higher prices ahead?

By Susan Olasky

Retail analysts are predicting that the period of steep recession discounting is coming to an end, and that consumers will have to get used to paying higher prices. Last year the bad economy and poor inventory control led many retailers, both upscale and not, to discount their merchandise heavily. But this year bankruptcies have reduced competition, retailers have better managed their inventories, and labor costs have risen in places like China. DailyFinance.com reports on a recent WWD Apparel/Retail CEO Summit: "One speaker after another urged retailers to hold off on markdowns and start bringing up prices."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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