Shop ‘Til You Sober Up

We all know the story.

An upwardly mobile gentleman in his 20s — a productive member of society — after a long day of work, decides to unwind at home with an alcoholic beverage. While relaxing with said beverage, the gentleman — who, apropos of nothing, has never spent a moment of his life in a canoe — decides to enrich his leisure time by perusing the Internet: He catches up on some emailing, browses his social networks, reviews current events on news, sports and entertainment sites.

One drink leads to another, then another; the gentleman finds himself logging into his eBay account. Maybe he has another drink…

The next thing the gentleman knows, it’s morning. Feeling a bit disheveled and perhaps carrying an indefinable sense of worry in the pit of his stomach, he’s compelled to find the source of that concern by retracing his steps — starting with those he made online. The gentleman takes a look at his eBay account and finds that:

He is the not-so-proud owner of a canoe that cost him several hundred dollars.

Perhaps we all don’t know that exact story (PYMNTS does because it was shared with us by an anonymous source who lived the experience firsthand), but we know similar ones. Embarrassing on an individual basis or not (although in the majority of cases, it seems likely to be — at least a little bit), drunk online shopping is a bona fide phenomenon. Last summer, incited by a piece in which its own writers shared their personal tales of regrettable, alcohol-fueled purchasing decisions, The Guardian was inundated with enough anecdotal accounts in the same vein from its readers to warrant a story of their own.

Far from being a dirty little secret of consumers that is kept their own business, drunk shopping is on retailers’ radars — and it has been for some time. Google reported earlier this year that nearly one-third of all shopping searches from July–September 2014 happened between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. It logically follows that some portion of those searches were conducted by shoppers with inhibitions and twitchy trigger fingers at checkout lowered by alcohol consumption. Ethical gray areas are by nature subjective; what’s much more clear are revenue opportunities provided by consumer behavior — and late-night, tipsy eCommerce fits that bill.

In late 2011, The New York Times reported on the expansion of “shopping under the influence” from high-end specialty retailers (personified by wine-and-cheese parties at art boutiques and the like) into the realm of mass consumerism, facilitated by the proliferation of Internet commerce. Even then, online retailers were making efforts to cater to inebriated consumers — and speaking openly about it.

“Post-bar, inhibitions can be impacted, and that can cause shopping, and hopefully healthy impulse buying,” Andy Page, then the president of online retailer Gilt Groupe, told NYT. At the time of that statement, Gilt was implementing a strategy to add more sales beginning at 9 p.m. in order to take advantage of a corresponding surge in traffic.

While there is little hard data that definitively illustrates a link between late-night online shopping and drunk online shopping, eCommerce businesses in large part make the common-sense connection. In that same NYT story, Steve Yankovich, then the vice president for mobile for eBay (he currently heads up product and tech commerce at the company), stated that drinking was “absolutely” a factor in making the 6:30–10:30 p.m. block (in every time zone) the busiest shopping hours for eBay.

The general practice of drunk online shopping has only become more openly acknowledged over time, carrying over into the realm of mobile commerce. In May of this year, the U.S. retail industry witnessed the birth of Drunk Shopping, a free, subscription-based app that — as the name implies — suggests items for purchase to users who are ostensibly intoxicated.

Hailing itself as “the shopping experience that delights in sloppy judgment,” Drunk Shopping instructs its subscribers — “when [they’re] wasted” — to text “heyyyyyy” to a dedicated phone number, in return for which they will receive “something dope to buy.” Pretty cut-and-dry — or, the exact opposite of the second part.

As online shopping moves from desktops to smaller mobile screens, app developers aren’t the only ones taking note of the alcohol-impaired shopping trend. UI/UX for drunken shoppers is increasingly sought after by those who power eCommerce sites large and small across the Internet. A perhaps unforeseen offshoot of that tactic is that it’s likely to improve the experience for all users — including stone-cold sober ones. As Command C, a design agency specializing in creating custom eCommerce experiences, recently put it in a blog post: “Planning solely for highly capable website users harms your business.”

“If you design for the outliers, you cover the entire range,” Robin Smail, a user experience designer based in Pennsylvania, is quoted as saying in the Command C story. “Everybody’s needs get met — drunk people, old people, exhausted people and others can use your website successfully.”

Viewed either as a profitable business tactic or a gateway to more user-friendly design, keeping the drunk experience in mind when developing online shopping experiences arguably makes sense. However, when the practice of deliberately marketing to consumers who are under the influence of alcohol (if not other, perhaps more illicit, substances) moves beyond encouraging at-home behavior, it becomes less passable with just a wink and a smile.

Fast food chains, who have for years targeted the late-night party demographic, may be the first to experience a backlash in this regard. While cheeky online promotions by Jack in the Box and Taco Bell have for years flaunted late-night “munchies” menus, these messages have been met with mixed reviews and, in some cases, civic action.

Now, with Taco Bell set to test-launch alcoholic beverages including beer, wine and frozen drinks in a new location outside of Chicago later this summer, the consequences for once seemingly benign marketing tactics could be getting all too real. Atop the image-based concerns, serving alcohol also adds a level of complexity and liability to fast food operations — which profit in part due to low operational overheads.

Whether fast food chains will be able to stomach the real-world ramifications of serving tipsy guests remains to be seen. However, the jury seems to be in on at-home drunken eCommerce — it’s a win for nearly all.

Particularly for those who, drunk or sober, are genuinely interested in owning a canoe.



Latest Insights: 

The Which Apps Do They Want Study analyzes survey data collected from 1,045 American consumers to learn how they use merchant apps to enhance in-store shopping experiences, and their interest in downloading more in the future. Our research covered consumers’ usage of in-app features like loyalty and rewards offerings and in-store navigation, helping to assess how merchants can design apps to distinguish themselves from competitors.

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