Online shopping gets competitive

By By Steve Coons

By Steve Coons

Amazon recently advertised its Black Friday sale as an opportunity for the consumer to save energy. Christmas shopping, without ever leaving the house, has been a common marketing ploy for web-based entrepreneurial ventures for years, but only recently have the websites mimicked their big-box counterparts’ distortion of reality so effectively as with the lightning deals that Amazon has implemented.

The lightning deal is a discount only offered for an hour and only offered to a predetermined number of customers. As the available items are gobbled up, prospective purchasers can watch a bar graph that illustrates the percentage of available items claimed. The illustration can also be seen by prospective customers as their opportunity to buy leaking away. This is reminiscent of the doorbusters and other special, limited deals that are offered in large chain stores and mimic the rapidly shrinking pile of DVD players, bargain laptops and television sets.

The primary difference is that the frenetic shoppers, who can turn off potential buyers at Wal-Mart by making capitalism seem a savage endeavor, are replaced by invisible competitors on the Web. Sometimes these competitors can also be viewed as invisible connoisseurs, as is the case with Amazon, whose reliance on customer-penned reviews underlies its willingness to present the consumer as an expert. The performance-based anxieties are thus activated, as the potential consumer is left to wonder if invisible contemporaries know something that he or she does not. The increasingly visible leaking away of the opportunity to buy invites the consumer to be enlightened by the easily accessed customer reviews. Even reviews of the deal in question bombard the potential customer with statements such as, “This is a great deal” and “Finally, a quality product at a reasonable price.”

Amazon has gone even further with its latest advents. Products are voted on by customers, with the added caveat that they can only purchase the item at the desired price if it wins the vote. Consumers who voted for the winning product are then randomly selected from their equally successful contemporaries and are eligible to buy only that product.

This is interesting because the consumer is presented as a skilled participant, as opposed to the enlightened consumer of the lightning deal. Both are in direct contrast to the image of the stoic pigeon waiting in line in front of Best Buy through a cold November night, or the rampaging brute tearing a toy out of the hands of an expecting mother.

The perception of the purchaser as a skilled participant, though — allowing the potential consumer to present acumen for “The Price is Right”-themed contests — is enabled most by Amazon’s allowing him or her to decide whether or not a small chance of getting a great deal is better than a slightly increased chance at getting a less impressive deal, thanks to runner-up prices. This last advent, then, has finally accomplished what all the other marketing ploys could merely approximate. The presentation of the opportunity to buy as a reward, a victory prize, and an accomplishment turns the actual purchase into an afterthought.

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