The Difference Between Buying and Shopping, and Why it Matters for Retailers
The words are often used interchangeably, but there’s a huge difference between "buying" and "shopping."
Buying is straightforward. It's when your bathroom light blows and you need to purchase a 40-watt bulb as quickly as possible. Buying is the process of locating and purchasing a product you know you want — it's intent-driven purchasing.
Shopping, however, is different. Imagine you’re walking through a mall. You went out for a new pair of sneakers, but along the way you spot the perfect gift for your sister’s upcoming birthday or a pair of running shorts that match your new shoes. That’s shopping — the act of searching for inspiration and discovering a product you didn’t know you wanted.
Understanding this distinction is essential for retailers and brands trying to navigate the shift to a world dominated by Amazon.com. Since civilization began, people have been trading goods and searching for the right object for their needs, but now, with Amazon’s growth snowballing, the balance between buying and shopping is starker than ever.
How the Internet Has Affected Buying and Shopping
The internet has mobilized around the act of buying. E-commerce giants have mastered efficiency and price. They’ve harnessed the data at their disposal to find customers where they have intent and offer them exactly what they want, when they want it. The entire online buying experience has evolved around this paradigm, but that hasn’t necessarily made everything easier for consumers, who are now expected to know what they want and type it into a search bar on Google or Amazon.
Statistics support this view of the current landscape. Efficiency, not satisfaction, has become king. Sixty-three percent of online shoppers said free shipping was the primary factor in deciding where to shop online. Seventy-one percent of consumers now shop online to find the cheapest price, even while they’re strolling around a brick-and-mortar store. And just two years ago, Black Friday saw a decrease in shoppers, as many wanted to wait for internet sales later in the holiday season.
However, retailers can choose to address customer needs that don’t fit neatly into a search bar. They can differentiate themselves as a shopping destination rather than engage in a war for the buying market.
Knowing the difference between shopping and buying is useful, but how can retailers take advantage of this difference to set their businesses apart? Take a look at these three guiding principles:
1. Discovery = Differentiation
With giant companies like Amazon and Alibaba cornering the search and intent side of the market, you’ll struggle to set yourself apart if you only consider the purchase. It’s impossible to “win” at being quicker and cheaper on a large scale than Amazon.
By opening up your experience to discovery, you can differentiate the service you deliver. It’s no coincidence that the brick-and-mortar retailers that have thrived in the last decade are discovery oriented. Destinations like TJ Maxx, Ross, and Dollar Tree have all created treasure hunt-like experiences that are difficult to replicate online but satisfying for shoppers.
2. If You Can’t Win, Change the Game
Too many retailers try to jump on the Amazon bandwagon and end up falling off the back. While it’s true that Amazon has set high consumer expectations around easy payments and fast shipping, it doesn’t have a monopoly on joy. Flip the script and show that a different model can be just as exciting.
Alternative shopping experiences show that customers can handle a shift in the rules. This was one of our goals for my company, Tophatter — we added elements of competition and gamification to provide even more satisfaction than just the products themselves.
3. Convenience Isn’t Everything
Some e-commerce businesses make the mistake of thinking that convenience is the ultimate customer need. They focus all their efforts on eliminating friction, but they forget about the other desires that play a part in customers’ experiences, such as a site's (or store's) design, how and when customers interact with a person (or prompt), and how those components impact the shopping experience. Consumers want to be entertained and surprised. If you can create a fun shopping experience, people will want to shop with you again.
The pleasure of retail is about so much more than being able to buy batteries with a single click; it’s the act of discovery and imagination that inspires customers to form a lasting connection to brands and stores. Focus on differentiating your experience and becoming a place that shoppers look forward to spending their hard-earned time.
Andrew Blachman is the COO of Tophatter, an online marketplace that's reimagining discovery commerce for the mobile era.
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Andrew Blachman is the COO of Tophatter, a marketplace that is reimagining discovery commerce for the mobile era. Previously, he was the CEO of GET ME IN!, a European online ticket marketplace acquired by Ticketmaster in 2008. Before GET ME IN!, Andrew was a consultant for StubHub as well as the European Director and VP Business Development for WideRay. Andrew began his career as an investment banker in Goldman Sachs' high technology group in Silicon Valley and Hong Kong. He is also an early seed investor in several online marketplaces, including SeatGeek, Bridebook, and Outdoorsy.