Probably not very, judging by our past flings with online fads.

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By Sam Wood

We love an internet shopping novelty. For a while.

Maybe you were part of the brief mania about a decade ago for discounts that lasted just an hour or a day, like those from Gilt Groupe, Woot and Groupon. Later, we fell hard for monthly shipments of clothing, pet toys, makeup or dirt (really). The fad of subscription boxes has mostly faded.

Even Amazon’s Prime Day, the yearly summer shopping holiday that starts on Tuesday, might not be immune to our tendency to grow bored with online buying fads that once felt fresh.

Yes, we are fickle shopping monsters. But the problem is not us. Companies keep mistaking our fleeting e-commerce crushes for enduring love, and blowing money on ideas that don’t deserve it.

My colleagues wrote last week about the rise and fall of Wish, which dangled products that were too weird and cheap to resist, like $3 “leather face diapers” for cats. Users have tuned out. Young people love to resell secondhand clothes on apps like Poshmark, Depop and ThredUp, but those companies stopped doing great once the pandemic’s isolation wore on people and shoppers stormed back to real stores.

(The hottest shopping trend of the coronavirus age has been rather old-school: buying pedestrian stuff like groceries, bicycles and slippers from familiar retailers.)

Online shopping carnival barkers will keep trying to entice us with something NEW! and COOL! It’s fun to experiment with something fresh — until it starts to feels stale. This happens again and again, but naturally no company believes it will be just a fad. I will whisper this part: Most of them are.

“Everyone thinks they’re the next Amazon,” Sucharita Kodali, an e-commerce analyst with the research firm Forrester, told me. “History tells us that it’s really, really hard to break out in retail, and it’s highly unlikely that you will.”

Perhaps this is just the way of the world. Novelty fades, whether it’s an iPhone app, a new skirt or buying oddball stuff from Wish. Faded shopping trends do sometimes leave behind lasting ideas. Still, it’s probably wise for shoppers and companies that sell stuff not to become too infatuated with what may be our brief infatuations.

That might apply even to mighty Amazon. Some analysts who keep close watch on the company believe that Prime Day has lost some oomph.

It and similar summer buying days from big-box stores have carved out a lasting spot in the shopping calendar alongside Black Friday. Still, analysts say the average order size on Prime Day has decreased from a few years ago and sales growth has come down. With Americans anxious about inflation, it may not be an ideal time to persuade people to buy stuff for no good reason.

It’s not easy to spot a shopping flash in the pan until it’s over. But there are a couple of clues.

The first is if a company spends gobs of money on promotions or advertising to get our attention. Wish, for a time, was the top advertiser on Facebook and Instagram. Groupon’s marketing budget was so high that the company argued with regulators over an accounting number that made the company’s spending look less ugly.

Unsurprisingly, a company that spends a lot of money to get our attention will have it, at least for a while. But when our interest fades along with the pitches, it’s a sign this was just a fad.

Second, it’s alluring to believe that a smart idea in one area of shopping can apply to all others.

It was a clever innovation to sell directly to shoppers products that are annoying to buy the conventional way, such as razors, mattresses and eyeglasses. But when companies started to sell cheese puffs and leggings this way, the store skipping had gone too far.

Some novelties have stuck, or at least left a lasting mark. Kodali cited Etsy, the website for handcrafted goods, as a relatively new and enduring shopping habit, along with the online furniture seller Wayfair. Even if Wish will never be an e-commerce superstar as its backers once imagined, it, Amazon and Shein, the trendy clothing app of the past couple of years, have proven the appeal of selling goods directly from Chinese factories.

I won’t try to predict what the next online shopping fad might be — but there will one. People are more willing to take a chance on buying something from a company we’ve never heard of. The flip side is that with so much of everything online, hardly anything that screams NEW! NOVEL! feels compelling for very long.


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