Last-Minute Shoppers

If online suppliers can deliver what you want exactly when you are ready for it, then why order anything in advance?

The term “last-minute shopper” may have originated in the culture of the Christmas shopping season. There, the term is used with a degree of hyperbole. A Christmas gift purchase made on Christmas Eve or a day or two before is considered “last-minute.” But in the digital age, “last-minute” has become almost literally accurate.

One irony of this situation is that shoppers may buy less if they no longer have to plan ahead.

This effect was most obvious at the peak of the ebook business.

When ebooks were new, many avid readers treated them like a half-off sale, buying any book they were excited to read if the price was favorable.

That approach was out of balance, as readers were buying books faster than they could read them. After accumulating 20, 100, or 500 unread ebooks, even the most avid reader would realize that they did not need to buy an ebook until a minute before they were ready to start reading. Some readers swore that they would not buy another book until they had read the books they had already purchased.

Ebook sales numbers tumbled and have taken years to recover.

The same effect may be seen in music, movies, video games, computer software, and many other categories. Now, with online merchants competing in same-day and next-day delivery, something similar is happening in physical goods.

To manufacturers, the effect is the same: total purchases can actually decline. Less planning means fewer errors in planning.

I can remember, for example, taking three books to read on a vacation, but having time to read only one. With the ability to purchase ebooks instantly, I might not take a book along at all on my next vacation. If things slow down, I can purchase a book to read then, but I don’t need to make that decision in advance.

So why not apply the same logic when hosting a party? Instead of planning for the wildly successful party scenario in which dozens of my friends show up and stay late into the evening, I might buy only half as much food, knowing that I can order more after the party has already started in the event that the number of guests is larger than the scale of the food I had prepared. At nine parties out of ten, the extra food delivery will not be needed, but the fact that it is available reduces the need to plan ahead and overprepare — so it reduces my total party food purchases by almost half. It is the same dynamic that we saw years earlier in the ebook market.

Alvin Toffler wrote about this kind of shift, in the most general terms, twenty years ago. When any one area of the economy is optimized, it just means that the costs and risks are being shifted somewhere else. In the current case, marketers’ insistence on a smoother purchasing experience means there is a need for, as one example, greater capacity and flexibility in the delivery mechanisms.

Habits change slowly, so it may take years for households to adjust to the possibilities that more rapid deliveries make possible. I don’t think I know anyone who would postpone the purchase of their next pair of jeans until the only jeans they have are being held together by duct tape. The trend is inescapable, though. When you know you can postpone a purchase for another hour or another day, many of those purchases will be postponed, and then some will never happen at all.

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