Online shopping:

Online shopping’s had many recognized or anticipated effects, from thinning profit margins to boosting sales of specialized items, but I’m enthusiastic about how it makes “word-of-mouth” consumer information possible again.

As an example, I was looking to buy a pair of really comfortable walking shoes. I cared about comfort, comfort, and––oh yes, sturdiness. Don’t want them to fall apart in six weeks of regular wear. I’m retired, I can wear any damn shoes I want. Fibromyalgia makes my feet hurt all the time, and most shoes aggravate it.

So I went online looking for Clarke’s walking shoes, which had been recommended highly to me about 20 years ago. Back then spending $100 on a pair of shoes was out of the question. Today it has moved up on my priority list, and if I find a pair I like, I only need one pair. My searching took me to the online shoe emporium Zappo’s. They had a bunch of styles of Clarke’s. They also had customer comments for each, dozens of them. By the time I had read through the comments for 2 styles, I was sure that Clarke’s were not for me. Once made in England––terrific; then made in Portugal––pretty good; now made in China––forget it. The Chinese-made Clarke’s were reported to be stiff, uncomfortable, not true to size, and not holding up well.

I browsed through other shoe makers’ offerings at Zappo’s, following pointers from people who said things like, “Brand XY didn’t fit my narrow heel, but Brand ZZ was perfect, ” or “This one looks comfortable but is too inflexible, not like the last three pairs I got, so I am switching to Brand A.” I arrived at Keen’s shoes and read all the comments for half a dozen styles that looked possible, made my choice, and am very happy with them.

Back when communities and stores and numbers of products were smaller, people could do this sort of thing by literal word of mouth. Not so easy now. And, many of the comments I read included very specific idiosyncratic reviews, depending on what was important to each person. One said, “Great shoe but the sole really clogs up with mud and tracks it in; okay for city wear.” I live in the country; this shoe would have been pure aggravation, though it looked good in other respects. Another said, “Really comfortable and sturdy and provides good footing, but the uppers aren’t shiny and I can’t stand that about them.” We all have our priorities.

I suppose companies will begin posting numerous false but very specific testimonials (and anti-testimonials for their competitors’ products) but until then, reading a few dozen reviews about a product seems like a good way to check out how it has worked for others.

Brands in themselves don’t necessarily mean much any more, since “branding” has become a PR effort similar in intent to Pavlov training his dogs. The food in the dish now may be made (poorly or poisonously) in China––but the bell of “brand identity” is still supposed to make us salivate. Customer reviews give us a way to get up-to-date reality checks from a variety of other folks.

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