Digital Life
11:47 am
Mon April 9, 2012

An Online Shopping Passion Keeps Them Clicking

If there's a new frontier in online shopping, Anne Houseman has settled there.

There's almost nothing she won't, or doesn't, buy online. The end tables in her living room came from Overstock.com; the dining set was purchased off Craigslist. Houseman has purchased a bedroom mattress, dressers, baby goods, handbags, wine, mirrors, curtains, posters, electronics of all kinds and even some food items all online, where she prides herself on getting discounts and free shipping.

Come to think of it, Houseman says, she and her husband even bought their Woodbridge, Va., house online, from the Web-based brokerage Redfin, and the two cars in their driveway were both purchased at AutoTrader.com.

In all, Houseman estimates 80 percent of her spending takes place online. By comparison, last year, 7 percent — or $202 billion — of overall U.S. retail sales were logged online, according to the research firm Forrester. That percentage is expected to continue increasing as more and more people shop with tablets and smartphones, and more and more retailers either have to shift their strategies to adapt, or continue closing stores.

"Kids who are growing up today are going to come into a world that's very, very different," says John Burbank, president of strategic initiatives for Nielsen, a market research firm. "There'll be different technology; there'll be different business practices; there'll be all sorts of incentives that don't exist today to move them to shop in different ways."

That's already manifesting in Houseman's life. Her shopping habits have changed around flash sale sites like Gilt and Rue La La. These sites offer sales for a limited time on limited quantities of luxury items. Houseman says she often structures her lunch hours around when these Web boutiques open.

"I think Rue La La opens at 11 and Gilt is at noon. I can't wait for that," she says. "I'm not making impulse purchases, but it is nice to see ... what's new and what might be there that I need anyway that I can find at a deal."

Over the years, Houseman says her love of convenience has trumped any initial misgivings about the security of using a credit card online, as well as those about having to make returns. She says she even gets better customer service online, with some e-tailers responding to tweeted customer complaints.

Her husband, Andrew Houseman, likes the ability to custom-order things on the Web. When their subdivision was looking for a specialized sign, he discovered it was easier to design and have one shipped from a Web shop based in Australia. He also has custom beer steins he designed and ordered off Zazzle.

Andrew says he now finds it difficult to shop anymore without the reviews, ratings and research he finds online.

"When you're standing in the aisle of a store," he says, "it's hard to know what you're looking at."

So even on the rare occasion when he does set foot in a store, he uses bar-scanning applications on his phone to see what other consumers have to say.

There are some downsides to deliveries, though. Some find the cardboard boxes wasteful and space-consuming. In New York City, the burgeoning number of boxes has created demand for more recycling storage space in apartment buildings.

But the Housemans don't see that as much of a problem. They use some of the boxes for mulch in the yard, and, besides, Anne Houseman loves coming home to stacks of boxes.

"It's like getting little presents in the mail," she says. "You get the satisfaction out of it twice. You bought it and you were happy then, and then you're happy when you get to see it."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Over the past decade, online retail has increased fivefold. Last year, it accounted for about 7 percent of all retail revenue according to the research firm Forrester. There are many reasons for the surge. In some cases, better service, better price, better selection. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, these days, you can find just about anything online.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: There's almost nothing Anne Houseman won't or doesn't buy online. Take for example her living room.

ANNE HOUSEMAN: So both of our end tables, we got at overstock.com. We hadn't seen them in person, but we just saw them online, read the reviews, thought they were great and ordered them.

NOGUCHI: And the adjoining kitchen.

HOUSEMAN: So here are our dishes that I was saying, our entire dish set. So we got our coffeemaker, Le Creuset pot over there, got that online.

NOGUCHI: Nearly all of the bedroom was also purchased online.

HOUSEMAN: Everything from our mattress was purchased from overstock.com, this entire bed set, the bedspread, the pillows, dressers. We have two different dressers here.

NOGUCHI: And since Houseman is expecting a baby girl in July, she used Pinterest - the online scrapbooking site - to help her design a nursery. Then she furnished it largely from items purchased online. Come to think of it, Houseman says, you could say they bought their home in Woodbridge, Virginia, online, using the Web-based brokerage Redfin. And they bought both their cars on autotrader.com. Houseman embodies the new frontier of retail. Over time, her love of the convenience trumped concerns about using credit cards online and the hassle of returns.

Customer service, she says, is better. Some e-tailers even respond to tweeted consumer complaints. By her own estimate, 80 percent of what she spends goes to e-tailers. John Burbank is president of strategic initiatives for Nielsen, a market research firm. Retail behavior, he says, is changing very quickly.

JOHN BURBANK: Kids who are growing up today are going to come into a world that's very, very different.

NOGUCHI: They use mobile apps to research or comparison shop in the store. They rely on Amazon Prime, a service that charges an annual fee in return for almost unlimited free shipping. But that, Burbank says, is just the beginning.

BURBANK: There'll be different technology. There'll be different business practices. There'll be all sorts of incentives that don't exist today to move them to shop in different ways.

NOGUCHI: And the Housemans are very receptive to incentives. In the past couple of years, Anne Houseman has changed her habits around flash sale sites like Gilt Group and Rue La La. These sites offer sales for a limited time on limited quantities of luxury items. So Houseman actually structures her day around when these Web boutiques open.

HOUSEMAN: I think Rue La La opens at 11:00, and Gilt is at noon. I can't wait for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOUSEMAN: I'm not making impulse purchases per se, but it is nice to, like, see, like, ooh, what's new and what might be there that I need, anyway, that I can find at a deal.

NOGUCHI: Andrew Houseman, Anne's husband, likes the ability to custom-order things from the Web, like the mugs he has in his hand.

ANDREW HOUSEMAN: These are all custom-made beer steins from Zazzle.

NOGUCHI: He also says it's difficult to shop without the reviews, ratings and research he finds online. On the rare occasion he goes to a store, he uses bar-scanning applications on his phone to get information on products. When the Housemans come home, there's usually a stack of boxes waiting for them. They keep a small knife by the door to open them. Today, the stack is six deep.

HOUSEMAN: This is an item that I didn't know was coming, so this is good.

NOGUCHI: The haul includes a film to put on windows to conserve energy, a changing table and a red and chartreuse summer jumper for the baby. To many, the boxes are a wasteful nuisance, a downside to deliveries. But even this, Houseman doesn't consider a problem.

HOUSEMAN: When the boxes actually arrive, it's like getting a little present from the mail. You know, you get the satisfaction out of it twice. You bought it, and you were happy then, and then you're happy when you get to see it.

NOGUCHI: And at any rate, she says, recycling day is tomorrow. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.