“Social Shopping” in Sicily

Recently, between speeches, I’ve been restoring an old stone farmhouse in Sicily.  In many ways Sicily is a step back in time (a great tonic for a futurist); it’s also often a reminder of how life works in a culture where the virtual world is still just gaining a foothold.

One morning in Sicily I needed to order a bathtub.  I was buying from the same store where I’d initially seen the tub, they had sold me lots of other plumbing fixtures and already had all my financial information on file.  All I wanted to do was place the order.

In New York City we would have done this by email. In Sicily, however, there was another visit, coffee, nice conversation, the careful writing of the invoice by hand, a bit more conversation, then “Ciao”.  (Later I would receive, by email, an electronic version of the order; it had been entered into the computer after I left.)

On the same trip I asked the kitchen designer if he could email me PDFs of the final shop drawings.  Instead he set up an appointment.  A coffee, nice conversation, a careful and leisurely review of the shop drawings, some additional conversation, and only then—a copy of the shop drawings.

Efficient?  Certainly not.  But once I let go of my American timeframe, it was pleasant and enriching.  Somehow it reminded me of a morning, years ago, in Senegal, when I watched a street merchant selling kola nuts, the caffeine-rich berries that are West Africa’s morning cup of coffee.  Each customer would stand, perusing the tray of nuts, a conversation would begin and after a few minutes, the deal would be done.  Finally I went up and bought my own kola nut.  It cost something like one-sixth of a cent—an amount that to my American mind seemed radically out of scale with the amount of time each customer took to purchase.

Of course, in both Sicily and Senegal, the point wasn’t simply the transaction, but the social event as well.

For years I’ve told retailers that their virtual stores must duplicate the social environment of their physical stores; when I go into a virtual store I need to be able to look around and see if any of my friends are shopping there also.

That’s the element that “social shopping” startups are restoring to the world of e-commerce.  Sites ranging from Polyvore to Pinterest let friends and family make suggestions and comment on your shopping, mimicking the social event of a group visit to the mall.  And they’re driving a lot of purchases.

But what Sicily reminded me was that there is another social element retailers need to integrate: the relationship between the seller and the customer.  Sure, sometimes you’d rather just make the order and get out.  But other times, a salesperson who really knows their product is a great pleasure.  Beyond simple information, there is also a very old and traditional social exchange that can enrich both customer and salesperson.

Some might suggest that Americans no longer value that kind of exchange, but I suspect they’re wrong.  It’s something we need to duplicate in the virtual world, in some way that’s more tangible and social than pop-up instant messaging boxes.  And perhaps more importantly, that salesperson-customer relationship, properly managed, will continue to be a strong advantage for the brick-and-mortar world.