An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Has online shopping become too easy? How companies get you to buy before thinking

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Shopping online has always been convenient, but never has it been so easy - targeted ads, free shipping, free returns, stores built into Instagram or TikTok, logins saved on your browser, payment information saved on your device. All that makes it easy to order essentials and may be too easy to impulse-buy expensive and inessential things. Amanda Mull has written about this for The Atlantic, and so on this Black Friday, we've given her a call. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AMANDA MULL: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Was there one specific moment that maybe it struck you online shopping had become a little too easy?

MULL: Yes. I remember this so clearly. It was 2018. It was the summer. I was sitting on my couch in my apartment, waiting to go meet some friends and just sort of, like, idly paging through Instagram to see what everybody did the prior evening. And I hit upon this pair of Nike VaporMax sneakers that were baby pink and very futuristic looking. And just something broke in my brain. And I had to have them in that moment. And I clicked the ad. I clicked through to nike.com. My login information was saved somewhere in the depths of my phone from when I had last visited that website. My credit card information was saved in the browser. Just all of a sudden, I had spent 200 bucks on pink sneakers that I had not really even thought about as like a physical object more than like, oh, shiny.

SHAPIRO: There's this term called friction, which is kind of like how much work it takes for you to get from I want to buy this to it's on its way. And the friction has only decreased since that moment you described in 2018. How important is it to the companies that do sales online to reduce that friction?

MULL: It is so, so important for online retailers to reduce friction for their goals. Online shoppers are really, really easy to derail. Within the industry, it is generally agreed that about 70% of carts that are filled up on retail websites are abandoned before anybody ever makes a purchase. So it is incredibly important for them to take away everything that provides any sort of, like, moment to slow down and think about what you're doing or decide not to do what you're doing as possible. They want all of that out of the process.

SHAPIRO: You're talking about this as though it deserves a warning alarm siren, but it could also just sound to a lot of people like customer service, like convenience. Who wants to type in every digit of a credit card every time they want to buy something?

MULL: Absolutely. The way that these moves are sold to consumers in general is as conveniences. And that has the advantage of often being true. Like, I hate having to type in my credit card number. I hate having to remember my login information. I hate all of that. But sometimes the things that, like, are slight inconveniences in life are an opportunity here and there to stop and think about what we're doing.

SHAPIRO: You write that you have taken to doing secondhand shopping as a way to counteract some of these problems you're writing about. Why?

MULL: I got into looking at secondhand sites as sort of an outgrowth of selling some of my extra stuff on them. And by being on these services like Poshmark and Depop and eBay, I realized that there was a lot of interesting stuff that other people were selling because I am fundamentally, at heart, a shopper. And you start looking around those websites, and it feels a little bit more like shopping used to feel online. And it feels a little bit more, in some ways, like shopping in person.

Because secondhand platforms generally do not offer free returns, they may not offer returns at all. And you have to sort of look at pictures closely. You have to look at measurements. You have to understand as much as you can about the physical reality of the product you're buying as a result of those other limitations. And the outgrowth of that has been that I wear and use the stuff that I buy secondhand way more consistently than I wear and use the stuff that I buy brand new, because those purchases are just much better considered.

SHAPIRO: Amanda Mull of The Atlantic. Thanks a lot.

MULL: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.