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The Death of the Smart Shopper

by | Feb 10, 2023 | Guest Contributors

Internet retail was supposed to supercharge the informed consumer. What happened?

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Amazon is getting worse, but you probably already knew that, because you probably shop at Amazon. The online retail behemoth’s search results are full of ads and sponsored results that can push actually relevant, well-reviewed options far down the page. The proportion of its inventory that comes from brands with names like Fkprorjv and BIDLOTCUE seems to be constantly expanding. Many simple queries yield results that appear to be the exact same product over and over again—sometimes with the exact same photos—but all with different names, sellers, prices, ratings, and customer reviews. If you squint, you can distinguish between some of the products, which feels like playing a decidedly less whimsical version of “spot the difference” picture games.

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Last week, the journalist John Herrman published a theory on why, exactly, Amazon seems so uninterested in the faltering quality of its shopping experience: The company would rather leave the complicated, labor-intensive business of selling things to people to someone else. To do that, it has opened its doors to roughly 2 million third-party sellers, whether they are foreign manufacturers looking for more direct access to customers or the disciples of “grindset” influencers who want to use SEO hacks to fund the purchase of rental properties. In the process, Amazon has cultivated a decentralized, disorienting mess with little in the way of discernible quality control or organization. According to Herrman, that’s mainly because Amazon’s primary goal is selling the infrastructure of online shopping to other businesses—things like checkout, payment processing, and order fulfillment, which even large retailers can struggle to handle efficiently. Why be Amazon when you can instead make everyone else be Amazon and take a cut?

Amazon’s dominance has bent competitors such as Walmart and Target to ape the same tactics that can make the site so unwieldy: Other companies’ search results are now similarly dotted with strange offerings from largely unrecognizable third parties, devolving after a page or two into a heap of listings with indeterminate origins and quality. And then there are retailers like Wayfair, which offers seemingly unlimited home-decor options but holds almost no inventory of its own, instead letting a menagerie of mostly hidden suppliers ship their wares directly to buyers.

Ostensibly, the rise of online shopping promised a greater-than-ever opportunity for buyers to be discerning and well educated about their options. The appeal of Amazon and other megaretailers is primarily that of affordable abundance—somewhere in there is the right thing at the right price, and you can consider endless options until you’re satisfied. But what’s abundant lately is undifferentiated junk. In these conditions, understanding what it is you’re buying, where it came from, and what you can expect of it is a fool’s errand. E-commerce giants have pushed to the point of absurdity a problem that’s central to the consumer system: It’s basically impossible to be an informed consumer, and it always has been.

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What, exactly, it means to be an informed consumer in practical terms is somewhat nebulous, even though the notion is regularly invoked when buying jeans, used cars, surgical procedures, and basically everything else you can think of. In general, it’s the idea that people can effectively mitigate financial risk by doing their research and shopping around before buying anything. It emanates from the common-law doctrine of caveat emptor—“let the buyer beware”—which asserts that not only can you effectively mitigate your own risks, but it’s your legal responsibility to do so.

Caveat emptor, if only because it’s Latin, carries the imprimatur of ancient wisdom, but it’s still an important principle of modern consumer law in the United States. Products have to meet certain safety standards and sellers cannot falsely advertise their wares, but even when they violate the country’s consumer-protection laws, the burden of proof is usually on the consumer, and pursuing even a strong case can be prohibitively expensive and drawn-out. Beyond that, marketers, salespeople, and retailers are free to foster a casual relationship with the truth in ways that those without the benefit of rarefied legal training might describe as lying.

All of which is to say: The supposedly informed consumer has always been a misnomer. Purchases are fundamentally asymmetrical interactions. Sellers will almost always know more than you do, and they are free to hide most of it. When buying a home, taking a car in for repairs, choosing a doctor, or deciding whether you actually need a separate eye cream or it’s all just moisturizer in a smaller tub, you will generally end up playing whack-a-mole with your own ignorance. And that’s to say nothing of situations in which an informed decision would require, for example, understanding a product’s supply chain in order to avoid buying things made through forced labor.

The economist Walton Hale Hamilton once wrote as much while attempting to find caveat emptor’s historical origin: “The ordinary man, who ventures forth to market with only his senses as his chapmen finds himself face to face with the great collectivism of salesmanship, with its seried ranks to batter down resistance and render impotent his will,” he wrote. “As an individual he cannot be sure the article he was induced to purchase satisfies a need he really feels.” And that was in 1931.

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Hamilton could not have predicted how the internet would make the problem so much worse. Online shopping as it is currently constituted—highly mediated by Amazon, Google, Meta, and now TikTok—causes such problems because it’s good at feeling highly informative. Before you buy anything, you can read reviews, look up terms you don’t understand, find out what everyone else is buying, and watch videos to get a better look at a product. You can consult the opinions of people who should have better judgment or more information than you do—fitness influencers can tell you which leggings to buy, makeup artists can tell you about their favorite concealers, reviewers at sites such as Wirecutter and The Strategist can tell you about everything else. You can comparison-shop across multiple brands and retailers without leaving your home, culminating in the purchase of the best product or service at the best price for your needs. If you can’t figure it out, maybe that’s a you problem.

Sometimes, it all works. The customer reviews for a pair of shoes advise you to go up a half size and you get the perfect fit, or careful searching yields a coupon code if you buy from a different website. More common, though, is something like consumer vertigo: The search results are full of ads. You can’t come up with the right string of words to get more useful results. The reviews, both on the retailer’s site and on third-party websites you’ve mostly never heard of, seem fake. You can’t get the site’s chatbot—or is it a real person limited to an approved script?—to answer a basic question. You suspect that the influencers are being secretly compensated even when their posts aren’t tagged as advertisements, and maybe that they’ve never used the things they recommend at all.

At some point in here, you get annoyed and close your browser tab, or your child asks for a snack and you forget what you were doing. In two days, you remember that you still need to buy a new set of bedsheets or want a robot vacuum. You start again.

Because you’re shopping online, you can’t go look at most of the products in a store, and you can’t tell how—or whether—one thing is different from the very similar thing two thumbnails down. You can’t tell if a particular product will spy on you or sell your data. You’ll have already consented to whatever is in the lengthy, impenetrable legalese of its user agreement just by powering it up. You buy something cheap and hope it holds up—or at least tides you over—for a while. If it doesn’t, you probably can’t get someone on the phone to solve your problem, so you toss it or squirrel it away in the back of a storage closet. You watch some TikToks made by a seemingly endless array of women in spacious suburban homes whose job seems to be making short videos of all the actually good products on Amazon, which you can find in their customized storefronts. Do you need a silicone pouch that will hang off your bathroom counter and hold your flat iron? Maybe.

All of this might feel unforgivably trivial. You don’t feel confident purchasing a laundry hamper? So what? But the fact that the highly visible scaffolding of digital commerce—largely built and maintained by the same handful of companies that control much of the internet itself—is deteriorating so rapidly does not portend well for those of us on the business end of these systems, who are protected by little other than our own doggedness. And many of the people involved in the consumer system aren’t even afforded that. If you can’t differentiate one product from a dozen listings for a seemingly identical thing, you can’t even begin to understand the conditions under which it was produced, or at what cost to workers and the environment.

As it stands, tech companies and global manufacturing have taken the weaknesses that have always existed in the idea of the informed consumer and exploited them to their logical extreme. The sense of control that the consumer system claims to offer has always been mostly illusory, and that’s never been clearer than while watching the promise of information and abundance devolve into meaninglessness. We already know what a world run on Amazon’s infrastructure is like. We’re living in it.

Amanda Mull is a staff writer at The Atlantic.