This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.
A few winters ago, I and many other American women purchased the Amazon Coat, a fairly affordable piece of outerwear that grabbed attention for a hot minute. It’s an OK coat, but I keep forgetting the name of the manufacturer. I doubt that I’m a customer for life.
I’m not an oddball in this respect. One way that our lives online have rewired our brains is that we’re more comfortable buying from an unfamiliar brand. And those same changing habits may also be making us less loyal to anything that we buy.
I was talking about this phenomenon recently with Josh Lowitz and Michael R. Levin, the co-founders of the research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. We talked about the ways that online customer reviews, relatively low-cost social media advertising, and newer shopping destinations like Amazon and Instagram have reordered how we evaluate and buy products. It’s thrilling in many ways, and not so great in others.
Think about the ways that you might have bought something in the Before Times — like, before 2010. Maybe you drove to your local hardware store looking for a cordless drill, and it stocked only DeWalt models.
You trusted the store to sell a good product — or if you didn’t, it was your only option anyway. That’s what you bought. The retailer essentially made the choice for you, Levin and Lowitz said.
That’s not usually how we shop anymore. Instead of having that solo choice, we can browse the gazillion cordless drills on Amazon from our sofas and evaluate online customer reviews.
Start-ups like Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker proved that a clever product and canny advertising can turn us away from old standbys. We don’t need the store to be the arbiter of what we buy anymore. We might just need nudges on Instagram to persuade us to try new cookware.
In many ways, this is awesome. A one-person company might need only a Shopify website, listings on Amazon or a Facebook page to compete with multinational conglomerates. Powerhouses like Nike or Levi’s can’t rest on their laurels for a century. We get more choices, are more open to trying something new and great products can break through.
But like me and my Amazon coat, it may be harder than ever to form a lasting relationship. Maybe you bought the vacuum cleaner that you saw everywhere on TikTok, but will you ever buy from that company again? These young companies, as Lowitz described, “succeed in making sales but not customers.”
What happens if companies focus solely on selling us something immediately, not on making us loyal customers? If companies need only to persuade us to buy something once, I wonder if it creates incentives to make meh products.
There is also a cost to choices. There are more chances for us to get duped from bogus reviews or other online tricks. Sometimes, it’s a relief to have only one option of cordless drills rather than having to pick from an ocean of them online.
Molson Hart, the owner of the educational toy company Viahart that I wrote about earlier this year, told me that he believed it was still possible to build a great brand with lasting customers. It just takes fresh skills.
Products that might have been drive-by purchases on Amazon can encourage repeat buyers by tucking in welcome messages in the product packaging, or reaching out to people who post raves on social media, he said.
The idea is to be in people’s minds, so that they’ll come back for another purchase, leave a positive review on Amazon or both. (Not all customers love these tactics. And some Amazon sellers go too far by offering gift cards in exchange for reviews, which is against the company’s rules.)
“Whether it is a store, Shopify, Amazon, a billboard, an advertisement … whatever. If you can get people’s attention and get them to think your product is good, you’re creating a brand,” Hart said. “It doesn’t matter how you do it.”
We don’t usually step back and think about why we buy certain products. When we do, it’s remarkable how much we’ve changed, and all the ways our habits have bent the shopping world.
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Tip of the Week
Digital video games or the real thing?
Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, tackles a burning question for video gamers, particularly the novices.
This week, Greg Bensinger from The Times Opinion team asked me for holiday help:
“We got our kids a Nintendo Switch for Hanukkah,” Greg said. “But it’s been so long since I owned a console of any type. Is it better to buy the physical versions of games or download digital copies?”
There are pros and cons for each format, and you can mix and match. Here is my advice for Greg and others making a similar choice.
Game downloads: Instant gratification and convenience are the biggest advantages of buying digital copies of video games. You don’t need to drive to a store or wait for a game to arrive in the mail. Downloads also don’t clutter your living room the way physical games do.
But downloading games may cost more. Stores drop the prices fairly quickly for older games, but that typically applies only to physical versions. Digital titles stay at original prices for longer, and price cuts may happen only occasionally.
Another disadvantage of going digital is that the games quickly clog up storage space on the console. On the Switch, this can be remedied by buying a memory card.
Physical games: One benefit is that you can loan a game to someone else once you’re done playing it or trade it in at a reseller like GameStop for store credit.
There is no difference in performance. Video games run just as quickly if you’re playing a digital copy or playing it off a cartridge.
Games you hold in your hands have another major advantage this time of year: Gift wrapping a game is much more festive than emailing a digital download code to a loved one.
(And if you’re curious, Greg decided to go for physical games for his family’s new Switch.)
Before we go …
Good news for your wallet and the planet: It would be annoying and expensive if you could get your car muffler replaced only at the dealership. Until this week, that was essentially how Apple controlled repairs for the iPhone. Brian explains the benefits of Apple’s agreeing to start selling parts, tools and instructions to any repair shop and home gadget fixers.
An odd side effect of the U.S. embargo: Mailchimp, the software company that powers emailed newsletters, temporarily blocked at least three independent news organizations in Cuba from sending their information to subscribers, Rest of World reports. The account bans appeared to be related to the decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba, but Mailchimp reinstated the news organizations’ accounts.
They want a piece of the potential U.S. chip boom: My colleague David McCabe went to Taylor, Texas, to see one of the many U.S. cities or states that are trying to get a new computer chip factory in their backyards. Their tactics are raising questions about how far communities should go — and how much taxpayer money they should pay — to get a piece of the high-tech economy.
Hugs to this
Baby Ruffles is believed to be the first native-born harbor seal in New York’s Jamaica Bay for nearly 100 years. The local news publication The Wave said that the birth was a sign of significantly improved water quality in Jamaica Bay.
Join us for a virtual event on Thursday to discuss the secrets of productive and healthy online communities. Read this to learn more about the event and reserve your spot.