Adding friction to your online shopping experience

Shopping in the modern world is an experience to behold: access an unlimited array of products any time of day from the comfort of your own home and with only a few clicks have it delivered to your doorstep, sometimes, in only a few hours.

Online shopping wasn’t always this easy. Retailers started shifting their stores online in the mid to late 90’s but even in the late 00’s, a good fifteen years into the transition, the shopping experience was unreliable and cumbersome. The combination of mediocre technology and immature design created a lot of friction and diminished the experience.

The advent of the smartphone brought with it a new set of challenges. Retailers had to figure out how to keep consumers engaged on smaller screens and maintain a consistent shopping experience. But the smartphone also brought new opportunities. The rise of social networks was accompanied by a lowering of privacy barriers and an increase in the number of consumers willing to share their personal data. This, in combination with better online tracking tools and mature designs, gave retailers a wealth of information that allowed them to present consumers with the ultimate shopping experience: seamless, customized, and with very little friction. What used to require a few clicks can now be done with a voice command.

The convenience is useful but it’s not without its downsides. Shopping is now so easy that we hardly notice the difference between browsing and buying something. We purchase many products on impulse, based simply on recommendations, without an underlying need. And the only way we know to recover from the inevitable disappointment, that failure to “satisfy” the need we never had, is with another unwarranted purchase: the efficiency tax.

No one is immune to the psychological forces that prompt such behavior. Even the most rational consumer is prone to moments when they are bored or distracted and give in. But even this isn’t reason enough to abandon online shopping entirely. For one, the convenience and cost savings are unparalleled, and two, an increasing number of products, particularly those that allow customization, are only available online.

The only thing to do, then, is to adopt measures that limit such senseless behavior. As retailers march towards more integrated and frictionless experiences, consumers need to add their own measures to add some friction to the process. With that in mind, here are some suggestions you can add to your arsenal to combat mindless shopping.

Design good default options

Think of a good default option for those times when you’re unsure of a purchase. When I was young, I had to follow a procedure anytime I needed my parents to buy me something. I had to write down what I wanted on a piece of paper, hand it over to my parents and check in with them the following week. Most of our desires are strong only in the moment and fade away very quickly – precisely what happened with most of my wants. I use a version of this procedure my strategy for online purchases. My default option for online purchases is to add the desired item to a wish list andonly allow myself to buy things that I revisit often. I use a simple note to track items available from sites that don’t have a wish list. This doesn’t eliminate purchases but it’s certainly not impulsive and has definitely saved me a good chunk of money.

Avoid mobile applications

Mobile applications play a significant role in distracted buying. Resort to using your desktop or laptop to make purchases and you can eliminate a good chunk of impulse purchases. If you must use the mobile app at least remove it from your home screen or hide it in a folder and turn off all notifications.

Don’t subscribe to anything

Weekly deals, monthly deals, price alerts – unsubscribe from any list that promises deals. You want to know if there’s a deal only when you need something, not to be prompted to buy because there’s a deal. In any case, there are easier ways to save money when making a purchase. Two of my favorites are honey, a chrome extension that finds lowest price online, and camelcamelcamel, a site that tracks prices.

Turn off recommendations

If you’re buying something because someone recommended it then you probably don’t need it. Even if that someone is Amazon. Although it’s not apparent, there is a way to disable recommendations on Amazon.