Friction-free commerce? Hold on to your wallet.

I’ll admit it. I have a problem. It’s an iTunes problem. Apple doesn’t think I have a problem, they’re quite happy with me. My wife has the same problem, but it’s with Amazon, not Apple.

You see, online commerce has been pushing us all farther and farther down the road of “frictionless commerce”, where we can buy things without dealing with the pesky nuisance of actual cash. I’ve recently started contemplating how frictionless online commerce works, and I’ve begun referring to it also as “unconscious commerce”. It’s the same problem that has existed for years – and crushed many a consumer under its weight – with credit cards.

By not shopping with actual cash, we often cannot tangible assign psychological cost to the things we buy. For me, it’s a $1.99 app here, a $3.99 app there… a book, some music… eventually, it actually adds up to real money.

Amazon began removing friction from online commerce long ago with one-click buying. Throw in a Prime subscription, and it’s a Pavlovian experiment gone wild. Add something to your cart, quickly check out without entering any payment info, and salivate while you wait for your free delivery. I have many friends who have, use, and love Prime because it’s so convenient. I don’t – and don’t want my wife to, because I think it’s actually somewhat dangerous to our budget.

When it comes down to iTunes, the process is just as bad. One click rewarding.

I’ve mentioned before that I briefly sold cars after college. There’s something you have to understand about the car business. It’s built entirely to take advantage of the fact that car buying is an emotional process; that falling for a car will make you swoon and the typical tire-kicker will turn into a puddle of mush over a car when they fall for it. Think about the typical process… looking at cars, car Web sites and brochures, going for the test drive or two… it becomes an exercise in emotion, not an exercise in logic. There’s a reason why the icky part of car buying (Finance & Insurance, usually shortened to F&I) is saved to the end. The typical consumer is so head over heels that they’ll check boxes and sign things without reading them – much to their detriment when they come to several months later, and realize the financial obligation they just signed on to (See also: the mortgage crisis).

Too many of our commerce transactions are becoming frictionless. While frictionless online commerce sounds like a great thing, and it’s a great usability boon to consumers, it is innately geared to the benefit of the seller rather than the consumer. I’ve often debated with people why it is that Apple doesn’t have trials, and instead leaves developers to either:

  1. Build an app that is compelling enough, and a good enough value, that people just buy it.
  2. Build two versions of an app – a free version with some limitation, and a paid version that removes the limitation
  3. Build one app that behaves as the free version, with an In-App Purchase (IAP) to turn it into an unlimited paid version.

There are a couple of other options, but those are the main ones. In all of those cases, you’ve got some version of the app installed on your system. I’ve never talked to anyone at Apple, nor do I expect they’d ever discuss this on the record – but I believe that they don’t offer actual trials of paid apps because doing so could rattle the volume that comes in due to path 1 above, where consumers just say, “Screw it. The reviews look good, and it’s only $4. I’ll buy it.” Let consumers kick tires beforehand, and you’ve removed the emotion from the point of purchase. It’s actually funny to look back at how iTunes has moved from being a clone of a Website, with a basket and checkout, and now lets you one-click your heart out, bundling up multiple purchases in a receipt that is rolled up to you later. There’s a few really interesting results when you search the Web for how to turn off one-click purchasing in iTunes. Answer? You can’t. Either don’t have a credit/debit card stored, or be good about your purchases.

Back when online commerce sites were hard to browse, it was sketchy to trust purveyors, and items took time to receive, there were plenty of barriers that popped up along the way and may have tripped you on your way to checkout. Those barriers are rapidly disappearing, and it’s quite easy to get the shins kicked in your budget without ever noticing it. As frictionless commerce becomes the norm online, and it becomes more and more distant from the tangibility of our hard-earned paychecks, it is easy to get lost and spend more than you should. Think every time you check out. Add a little bit of mental friction to your emotional purchases.

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