Who Do You Trust?

The image and promotional copy from an unknown merchant on your computer screen? Or the national name-brand retailer at your local shopping center?
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Posted September 12, 2019

On a morning when my laptop computer was being its usual slow-moving self, an ad from some unfamiliar merchant popped up on the screen.

It could have been speaking directly to me – which I know is the secret sauce of pop-up ads, anyway – except it wasn’t the result of any online shopping or Google searching I’d done. (Or maybe it was.)

The headline shouted, “Computer Companies Hate This Product, Which Makes Your Computer Like New In 10 Seconds.”

The copy read: “This product is causing computer stores and computer repair stores to lose big business. We spoke to a representative of a certain local store and he said, while sadly shaking his head, that if this product keeps selling that their store is going to lose millions and might need to shut down next year.”

That whole “retail apocalypse” meme.

This magic device turns out to be a USB stick that plugs into your computer and actually replaces its operating system. All for $34.99. “And you do not need technical knowledge!” Boy, were they talking to the right guy. But then, they knew that.

So I was preconditioned to react. Maybe this would improve my life. Or maybe… there’s one born every minute. Was I the minuteman of the moment?

Of course, all this promise-you-anything sucker bait didn’t start with the digital age.

The 19th century had its traveling snake oil salesmen. The 20th century had late-night TV pitchmen. We know retrospectively that you’d be a fool to fall for either of these two scams. The elixirs didn’t heal. The amazing chopper-slicer-dicer left the same amount of mangled tomato pulp on your countertop for its short three-day life.

In today’s “click while you’re in your pajamas” world, everyone is shopping online for all sorts of things, sight unseen, untested and untrustworthy. And yet, oddly for such a sophisticated digital native population, the trust seems unquestioned.

All right, I have to say at this point that this is not just another senior’s screed about this new-fangled interweb thing. This is about your world. Retail.

Remember that world? You’re checking out of a Best Buy and you see, on the impulse counter, a device that promises to make your computer look and act like new. It seems great, but how do you know it’s legit? Well, you know that Best Buy stands behind it, if only because it carries it.

And if it’s truly a unicorn-shaped puff of pink smoke? You can always take it back to the store. Best Buy may not have any legal liability. But it doesn’t want unhappy shoppers, either. And you’re standing right there at the counter, waving your receipt and the hapless item in the box it came in.

Today’s retail world? First, the pop-up itself worries you, coming out of nowhere. What if its nefarious purpose is to get you to click so your computer is infested with malware?

I know the current thinking. “Nobody wants to go to the store anymore, unless you provide an ‘experience.’” But if I saw this ad and was truly interested, I’d be inclined to go to Best Buy, or somewhere else carrying this item, and check it out. Talk to a sales associate. Hold it, sniff it, read whatever’s on the packaging. Maybe not for socks or a table lamp, but certainly for something I didn’t entirely understand.

Today, that seems a quaint observation. Today, those in doubt do a Google search, visit tech blogs (where much of the conversation is largely incomprehensible), or maybe watch a YouTube tutorial. Who are those experts counseling and guiding you? Do we even know?

Even at a store, of course, you don’t always trust the sales associate’s words of encouragement. Is he or she simply driving up commission? Does he or she even know more than you do?

But at least, pertinent to this conversation, the retailer is your recourse if anything goes wrong, malfunctions or fails to deliver as promised.

Whereas, clicking “purchase” for something that is going to replace your entire operating system? Maybe it’s routine, but it seems awfully risky to me. I once had to replace my OS to rid myself of ransomware that had locked up my system.

It was, at least for me, an arduous task to repair what was lost and restore my normal operations. But at least I was in the hands of someone I trusted. Not a snake oil peddler riding into town with amazing promises to heal all that ails you. And then riding back out of town before you realize that his elixir hadn’t healed anything at all. It had only corrupted your operating system. Oops.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.