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Shopping is broken. In the fifties, if you wanted to buy a toaster, you only had a few practical choices. Maybe you went to the nearest department store and selected from the three models available. Or maybe you found your toaster in the Sears catalog. In a way, you were the hunter, and the toaster was the prey. You knew approximately where it was located, and you tracked it down and bagged it. Toasters couldn't hide from you.

Now you shop on the Internet, and you can buy from anywhere on the planet.
The options for any particular purchase approach infinity, or so it seems.
Google is nearly worthless when shopping for items that don't involve technology. It is as if the Internet has become a dense forest where your desired purchases can easily hide.

Advertising is broken too, because there are too many products battling for too little consumer attention. So ads can't hope to close the can't-find-what-I-want gap.

The standard shopping model needs to be reversed. Instead of the shopper acting as hunter, and the product hiding as prey, you should be able to describe in your own words what sort of thing you are looking for, and the vendors should use those footprints to hunt you down and make their pitch.

For example, let's say you're looking for new patio furniture. The words you might use to describe your needs would be useless for Google. You might say, for example, "I want something that goes with a Mediterranean home. It will be sitting on stained concrete that is sort of amber colored. It needs to be easy to clean because the birds will be all over it. And I'm on a budget."
Your description would be broadcast to all patio furniture makers, and those who believe they have good solutions could contact you, preferably by leaving comments on the web page where you posted your needs. You could easily ignore any robotic spam responses and consider only the personalized responses that include pictures.

You can imagine this service as a web site. The consumer goes to the section that best fits his needs (furniture, cars, computers, etc.) and describes what he wants, in his own words. Vendors could set key word alerts via e-mail or text for any products in their general category. Once they read the customer's needs online, they have the option of posting their solution, publicly, which gives other vendors and consumers an opportunity to offer counterpoints.

I assume this service already exists in some weaker form.
www.answers.yahoo.com is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't broadcast your needs to vendors. My prediction is that Broadcast Shopping (as I just decided to name it) will become the normal way to shop.

(Note: I am not using this blog post to solicit suggestions for patio furniture and toasters. Those were just examples.)



 
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+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 13, 2009
The government already does a lot of purchasing this way through the federal business opportunities website. Vendors can register to be notified when a new requirement is posted in a category they are interested in (we use the North American Industry Classification System codes). I've never seen anything for the general public, but this seems to be a workable frame for the idea.
 
 
Nov 13, 2009
Long time reader, and I registered just to vote up this blog post.

The overabundance of choice today is also a huge problem for me, particularly since I bought an iPhone. With thousands of reviews and price comparisons at my fingertips, it can be extremely difficult to just buy something at a real store.

For example, I just moved and was shopping at Bed Bath and Beyond the other day for some kitchen essentials. I needed them as soon as possible so decided to go to a real store instead of ordering online like usual. But, in the store, I couldn't help but look up even basic things like sets of plastic containers and can openers on Amazon to see if it was much cheaper there, and to check reviews.

Ugh, how much easier it would be sometimes if we were just presented with three choices for each item: cheap, medium, and expensive.
 
 
Nov 13, 2009
Shopping already works like this, but only for the uber-rich because of the previously mentioned problem with profit margins. What I need is a way to enter in the stuff I'm planning on buying in the next 1-6 months and then when an item on that list is priced well below market I get a notification. There are sites that post great deals for various things but I need all that in one place and customized for my wants and needs.
 
 
Nov 13, 2009
I think all you need to do is change how vendors list items for sale. Come up with a site that has vendors fill out a product sheet that includes fields like (all optional):
product type
price
main function
product style
compatable color schemes
special features

Then create a search engine that is indexed appropriately so that a user could enter in the search string that you did and they could get results.

To address possible spamming issues perhaps you have the site moderated to a point where all products submitted must be approved before being indexed.
 
 
Nov 13, 2009
craigslist.org/wan

Thought few corporate-types use it to find buyers of their wares.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 13, 2009
I'd use the Broadcast Shopping to mess with homeland security and local law enforcement agencies. i,e,

"Need to power six High Intensity Discharge lights almost continuously for approximately 18 weeks and unfortunately I can't use the local power grid. Looking for lots of battaries with long life expectancies."

or

"Looking for copious amounts of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Also looking for about a dozen large steel drums."

or

"Looking for decent sized cargo van with hidden compartments in the floor. Compartments must be large enough to fit 2-3 humans comfortably for short to medium distances."
 
 
Nov 13, 2009
I think you would be overrun with desperate vendors trying to shoehorn their overstocked (or high-commission) item of the day into your stated requirements. Kind of like spam is now, where they send Viagra advertisements to everyone in their email list, regardless of their age or gender.
 
 
Nov 13, 2009
I'm not sure this could work, as the website you type your initial search on will want to charge companies to be able to post replies, so you would end of dealing with only a handful of companies will to pay, mostly big box stores.

I find the best way to shop is to narrow down your toaster choice to features and colors, then see which retailer will offer the best price. This is of course dependent on whether they have a store nearby or are willing to ship for free. It would be great to find your dream toaster for $9.99, but if you have to pay $120 shipping, you might as well buy from eBay. If one store sells for $5 cheaper than another, but it is a 40 minute further drive away, you'll end up wasting the money in gas.

Get a subscription to Consumer Reports or some such magazine, and limit your buying options to the best rated appliances.

On the plus side, Scott. One of your ideas seems to have taken flight, sort of:

http://www.rideshark.com/

They just started operating in my city this month, it will be interesting to see how well it works.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 13, 2009
Alas, this post is a week too late for me. I made a shopping mistake.

After I had already ordered the item in question from a distributor in another country, it was brought to my attention that the same item is available directly from the producer *which is in my own country.*

The price would have been ~20% less, the exchange rate would have saved me ~10%, the shipping would have been much less (the supplier I ordered from will only ship by FedEx), and I will probably have to pay duty. All told, I'm probably paying double what I had to.

Surely, the company I ordered from would have known it would be better for me to order locally. We have an information problem. The vendors sure aren't going to provide it.
 
 
Nov 13, 2009
You'd think lead generation companies would already be doing the leg work on this. The hard part would be hitting a critical mass of consumers and vendors to make the site worthwhile for both groups.

btw in a couple years I may have to lie about having read this article. Nothing personal.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 13, 2009
I like it! I have been on both sides of this problem, and I would use this as both a buyer and seller. I think the 'no automated responses" part would need to have a threshold before it kicks in, though. You are not going to get a personalized response for a $20 item, probably not even for a $100 item, there just isn't enough margin to justify it. Also, responses shouldn't go to the shopper's email, but to a specific box on the 'Broadcast Shopping' site, in a non-email, photograph required, sortable and user rateable (so they can sort through the list and 'select' a shorter list of things they want to look at closer) before making their selection.

This does sound like VRM, but that looks like it is targeted towards business-to-business applications instead of the consumer maketplace. That also looks very theoretical still, without a lot of development that could be repurposed to the consumer app.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 13, 2009
Twitter could do this. But I don't think the vendors are going to buy into it, since they've sunk too much into the broken system.
 
 
Nov 13, 2009
Sounds like <a href="http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm/Main_Page">VRM</a>.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 13, 2009
Google is already trying to make ads targeted exactly to you. And they'll know when your toaster breaks before you do.
 
 
 
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