Online shopping – an emotional experience
This short essay explores the history of online shopping from the author’s perspective. The essay
concludes with a list of e-commerce features that should meet the needs of emotional shoppers.
A few years ago, someone prophesised that workplace offices wouldn’t need paper in the future. The
prophecy didn’t ‘come to pass’ though, largely because it overlooked some significant human emotions.
One such, was the emotional need for safety and security, which was undermined apparently by new
paper-less procedures. Another was the emotional satisfaction that we all derive from manipulating
tangible objects, which was also undermined by the sudden lack of paper.
Yes, paper-less working was one of those ‘flights of fancy’ often indulged-in by visionaries at the
forefront of exciting new technologies. These ‘flights’ are forgivable because enthusiasm, even
misguided enthusiasm, is a valuable resource in our sceptical world.
I must admit, when I first heard about online shopping, I was more sceptical than enthusiastic.
‘Assistant-less shops’ seemed just a little too much like ‘paper-less offices’. Yet, the online shopping
revolution has taken hold, to the extent now that some very big retailers see the Internet as a viable
and important selling channel.
Why was I, along with so many other potential shoppers, sceptical at the outset? So sceptical that I
held-off making my first credit card purchase via the Internet for several years.
Even when I did make my first purchase, boxed software as I recall, I experienced terrible feelings of
foreboding. The foreboding was worsened by the ‘cart’ summarily rejecting my first few attempts to
buy online, because I’d left spaces after every set of four digits, as I’d always done when buying by
card over the telephone previously.
During my long ‘hold-off’ period, the media had fuelled my scepticism and undermined my enthusiasm,
with scary stories of insecure servers, crackable encryption codes and stolen identities. Consequently,
one day I’d feel brave enough to make my first purchase, the next I’d decide to hold-off a few months
longer. In all probability, I could have gone ahead with my software purchase without any problems or
worries at all, as long as I’d stayed in the ‘right’ shopping neighbourhoods.
As with paper-less offices then, when the idea was first mooted, assistant-less shops made me feel
unsafe and insecure. This affected my subsequent shopping behaviour. Like many others I’m sure, I
wanted to be a part of the ‘dot com’ revolution. However, the perceived wisdom was that card
purchases over the Internet were inadvisable, if not dangerous. The whole industry was just too
immature initially, apparently.
As well as unsafe and insecure, I felt isolated and exposed in the early days of online shopping. I was a
hesitant pioneer, wary of being caught out in the open by ‘bandits’. I wanted to talk to other pioneers,
to share my experiences with them; yes, and to hide amongst them at times. As a species, we humans
like to belong to social groups. There’s safety in numbers, you see.
We also like to feel loved by others. However, some of my early online shopping experiences, when
customer support was still in its infancy, made me feel more like the enemy than a friend. Thank
goodness I was an able-bodied, young(ish), white, male Briton with English as my first language.
Otherwise, I might have felt totally alienated!
Another emotional need that wasn’t addressed well by early e-commerce sites was the need for
mastery. You see, I’d mastered a large raft of skills to do with shopping offline, in the real world, in real
In many virtual shops though, I felt de-skilled. Rather than online shopping being as much as possible
like offline shopping, many virtual shops were designed on a computer world somewhere beyond Mars,
or so it seemed. I wanted to offer some of the earliest online shop designers some advice. ‘Keep it
simple and, above all, keep it familiar,’ I wanted to say.
Let’s turn now to the emotions of shopping itself. Specifically, the emotions associated with buying
In the early days of online shopping, I sensed that the selection of goods for sale was more to do with
what could be sold over the Internet very easily, rather than what could be sold over the Internet.
Boxed software, with little ‘personality’ and simple shipping, was a ubiquitous offering. Very few online
shops though offered the kind of big, expensive products that often require multi-sensory approaches
When working in offices, we seek the security of manipulating tangible objects like paper invoices and
sales reports. Likewise, when shopping, we seek the security provided by stroking settees, smelling
their leather covers and listening to the noises they make as we sink into them.
To address the esteem needs associated with ‘prestige purchases’, like leather settees, many online
shops still have some way to go, even today. Thumbnail colour photographs for such items are
insufficient I’m afraid.
So, what have we learnt from this essay about the emotions of online shopping? In my humble opinion,
online shopping requires further attention in a number of key areas, if it is to fulfil its potential:
* Journalists and pundits have roles to play in ensuring there is no complacency regarding the personal
and financial security of online transactions. At the same time, the e-commerce industry must remain
proactive in its pursuit of secure purchases, free from fraud and trickery.
* Online shops should implement, where necessary, friendly forums and the like, which allow the free
exchange of concerns and ideas between shop staff and their customers.
* Online shops should be designed by people who live in the real world. The online shopping
experience should mimic as far as possible the offline shopping experience that shoppers know and
trust. Prototypes of new shops should be tested with potential shoppers from all backgrounds, including
age, gender, race, ability, language etc.
* Designers must continue to push the boundaries of what can be sold over the Internet. Some
‘big-ticket’ items will demand the innovative use of ‘rich’ media, like video and audio. Sometimes hybrid
media applications will be necessary, requiring the despatch of leather swashes say, to meet needs for
The ‘assistant-less shops’ revolution will succeed. To give everyone - including the isolated, disabled
and housebound - the information they need to make satisfying purchases, the e-commerce industry
must manage the growth of online shopping proactively and implement new media in innovative ways.