Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The importance of exposure

I see frequent complaints about the destruction of retail stores in the face of warehouse access and online shopping.

People always mourn the loss when a cool store (or entire chain) goes under because they can't keep the doors open anymore. "I LOVED THAT STORE," they say, "AND I LOVED GOING THERE."

The benefits are hard to ignore. Browsing behavior is very different if it happens online. Electronic shopping is more geared toward knowing what you want already and going there to get it, shopping by keyword, manufacturer, or specific use. Then other people who reviewed the thing tell you what to think of it and other people who have bought similar products indirectly tell you what else you should want. It's very smart, but it relies on algorithms and patterns established by others. It is far from useless, but it doesn't operate by the same factors people use when they shop in stores.

In physical stores, a display might catch your attention for a product you didn't know you wanted just because they're good at marketing and know how to make. Or you might just happen to find an item because it's next to an item you came in to find. Or you might just go to the section of books on a topic or in a genre and end up walking out with a new favorite instead of a recommendation. Retail stores still base their sales on patterns invisible to the consumer--manufacturer promotion, bestseller lists, political opinions of the store owners--but it's a little more organic.

One of the problems is that people really do like to browse, but then they don't want to pay for that part of the experience. (And understandably so: they've taken nothing physical, and they're just looking!) The problem is, someone has to pay to keep the register staffed and the floor staff available and the computers running and the shippers driving and the building leased and the lights on. To provide an environment for people to walk around in and select merchandise, the overhead is much higher than it would be if everyone individually accesses the store using their own power (a computer, their own electricity, on their own time, without individualized help), and their payments are processed by a robot and sent to them by an underpaid group of warehouse workers and delivery drivers.

Customers who are used to the prices on websites may be dismayed at the higher in-store prices, even though they're paying for at least three benefits: 1. The ability to browse in a retail store; 2. The ability to examine the product in person before consenting to buy it; and 3. The ability to own it immediately without waiting for delivery. They may take their dismay out on retail employees and display anger as if they are being cheated, or they may request or demand price-matching that isn't really fair, or they may do the worst thing of all: use the retail store's environment for free and reap those benefits, only to purchase the product online for cheaper.

"Too bad," say some. "That's capitalism."

Well, putting aside the things I would tell you about capitalism (including that adopting it as a too-bad-so-sad/whatever-makes-the-money life philosophy is literally killing people), you might want to think about another aspect of all this that you may be overlooking.

How do you know what you like?

Most people find new things they like based on things they already liked. If you liked this author, try that one. If you like this food, try that restaurant. Here is your curated group of things that are enough like other things you already like that you may adopt them as likes too.

Where do you start, though? How did you acquire islands of new interests?

Random exposure, probably.

You listened to the radio, which is way more like a retail store than the website of that store, and suddenly you heard an innovative song that made you realize you might like this kind of music (or at least that artist). You got invited to a family party by your friend whose home culture is very different from yours, and you found out that you love their home country's cuisine. You were babysitting and the kids wanted to watch some dumb show that turned out to be amazing. You heard of something on the news and it was completely foreign to you, and the novelty of that inspired you to seek it out, and now you can't imagine your life without it.

I'm not saying people should spend their whole lives actively trying to escape their comfortable inclinations and preferences, because those are legitimate too. But exposure leads to novelty in ways that algorithms rarely predict.

Having places where we can explore new options as well as access established options is very important to avoid stagnation and falling into a rut. It also exposes people to things they may resist but need to see--such as the fact that books from their religion aren't occupying the only "Religion" section in the store, or how many perspectives from political movements unlike theirs are actually available to access straight from the believers' words (rather than, you know, having someone who thinks like you telling you what Those People think and what THEY want to do to good people like you). 

Being able to isolate ourselves to only see things that are similar to what we already like is a great way to become part of an echo chamber and to become ever more divisive in our politics, opinions, and everyday lives. 

This might seem like a weird take considering I started this talking about retail stores folding in the face of online stores, but I think it's all connected. And I think that if we value that experience of exposing ourselves to variety and having the option to browse through What's Out There, we should act like it. We shouldn't just cry next time a bookstore closes. We should reward businesses that are providing a service we find valuable. And though I'm not "against" electronic shopping whatsoever, I think some industries are already in danger of having no alternative to it.

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