Editorial: Shedding a Dim Light

New evidence that the history of direct marketing rarely gets the credit it deserves comes from a study of online shopping habits, the results of which were reported in The New York Times last week.

The study, conducted by two Brigham Young University professors and underwritten by IBM, surveyed 4,000 adults who had home Internet access. Respondents were asked whether they had made an online purchase during November or December 2000.

Most telling about this research was that it apparently failed to ask the respondents whether they had ever made a mail-order purchase, period.

Having watched so many Internet merchants who considered themselves retailers fail, one would think by now that more people would start to look for correlations between online shopping behavior and that of people who make distance purchases via other media. In any case, the BYU researchers divided the respondents into eight segments, which break down as follows:

Shopping Lovers (11.1 percent of Internet users): Enjoy shopping online and do so frequently; encourage friends to buy online, too, so they are an attractive target for online retailers.

Adventurous Explorers (8.9 percent): Think online shopping is fun, but also use the Internet extensively for other activities; need to be wooed by retailers.

Suspicious Learners (9.6 percent): Less sophisticated about computers and reluctant to buy online; not necessarily afraid to give out credit card numbers, but need coaxing through the buying process.

Business Users (12.4 percent): Very computer literate, but use Internet primarily for business, so are not enthusiastic champions of shopping online.

Fearful Browsers (10.7 percent): Have adequate computer and Internet skills, and spend time “window shopping” online, but worry about credit card security, shipping charges and buying products sight unseen.

Fun Seekers (12.1 percent): The least wealthy and least educated market segment; see entertainment value in the Internet, but are wary of shopping online; less attractive to retailers because of limited spending power.

Technology Muddlers (19.6 percent): Spend less time online than any other segment and show little interest in improving computer and Internet skills; not an attractive market for online retailers.

Shopping Avoiders (15.6 percent): Make enough money to shop, but do not like to wait for products to be shipped and like to see merchandise before buying; a lost cause for Internet merchants.

Meanwhile, catalogers have known for decades that their first order of business is to find people with a propensity to make mail-order purchases, because a significant percentage of the population simply won't and, therefore, are a waste of time for direct response campaigners.

Online ad services firm DoubleClick showed that it understood that this concept more than likely applies online when it attempted to use information from Abacus Direct's co-op database of catalog shoppers to identify remote purchasers online. But howls from the media and privacy advocates killed that deal. Nice job, guys.

Is it important for merchants doing business online to weed out the mail-order buyers? Or does the Internet give birth to a new type of remote shopper? Probably the former, but who knows?

Meanwhile, marketers trying to make sense of online selling have to glean what they can from studies like the one referenced above, even if they show no indication of an understanding that the Internet is a direct response medium.

“The descriptions in that article make sense to me, and I think they're logical so I absolutely give them [the study's researchers] credence,” said Richard Baumer, president of marketing services firm VentureDirect Worldwide, New York. “I just think if you change the verbiage a bit, the same things can be said about people offline.”

The bottom line, according to Baumer: “There are going to be people that are scared, people that are adventurous, people that are going to shop, people that aren't going to shop… I just need enough of them to make it pay.”

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