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'Sort by price' is lazy

Erin Holohan Haskell
Erin Holohan Haskell Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 2,326
I got this in an email update from author Seth Godin this morning and I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this. Here's what he says.

'Sort by price' is lazy

Sort by price is the dominant way that shopping online now happens. The cheapest airline ticket or widget or freelancer comes up first, and most people click.

It's a great shortcut for a programmer, of course, because the price is a number, and it's easy to sort.

Alphabetical could work even more easily, but it seems less relevant (especially if you're a fan of Zappos or Zima).

The problem: Just because it's easy, it doesn't mean it's as useful as it appears.

It's lazy for the consumer. If you can't take the time to learn about your options, about quality, about side effects, then it seems like buying the cheapest is the way to go--they're all the same anyway, we think.

And it's easy for the producer. Nothing is easier to improve than price. It takes no nuance, no long-term thinking, no concern about externalities. Just become more brutal with your suppliers and customers, and cut every corner you can. And then blame the system.

The merchandisers and buyers at Wal-Mart were lazy. They didn't have to spend much time figuring out if something was better, they were merely focused on price, regardless of what it cost their community in the long run.

We're part of that system, and if we're not happy with the way we're treated, we ought to think about the system we've permitted to drive those changes.

What would happen if we insisted on 'sort by delight' instead?

What if the airline search engines returned results sorted by a (certainly difficult) score that combined travel time, aircraft quality, reliability, customer service, price and a few other factors? How would that change the experience of flying?

This extends far beyond air travel. We understand that it makes no sense to hire someone merely because they charge the cheapest wage. That we shouldn't pick a book or a movie or a restaurant simply because it costs the least.

There are differences, and sometimes, those differences are worth what they cost.

'Worth it' is a fine goal.

What if, before we rushed to sort at all, we decided what was worth sorting for?

Low price is the last refuge of the marketer who doesn't care enough to build something worth paying for.

In your experience, how often is the cheapest choice the best choice?



  • Tinman
    Tinman Member Posts: 2,808
    I think for a commodity, shopping based on price works. If it involves customer service, knowledge, competency, skill, and the like, price means little to me.

    If I get the slightest glimpse that we're being treated like a commodity, I walk away.
    Steve Minnich
    HVACNUT Member Posts: 5,863
    I think if you're comparing 2 boxes of the same cereal at different locations, price might be a factor. But is the cheaper box 5 miles farther away from my home. Cost of fuel, time and convenience would sway me.
    In our business, what most home or business owners might see as an apples to apples comparison aren't told, and can't see the worms in some of those apples. And try as we might to show the discrepancies, they usually lean towards the cheaper price.
    TinmanErin Holohan HaskellCTOilHeat
  • Sal Santamaura
    Sal Santamaura Member Posts: 529
    In the America of recent decades, where consumers know the price of all things and value of none, sort by price is the rational way for a seller to present. It's why Walmart is successful. It's also why people who can't afford to buy cheap crap multiple times send all kinds of Chinese stuff to landfills, multiple times.
  • gschallert
    gschallert Member Posts: 170
    Not sure where this guy is shopping but none of my regular online stores sort by price as the default, I'd have to manually select that sort option on my search results. Amazon, Walmart & Best Buy all use Best Match or Relevance as the default sort criteria and price isn't a factor.

    His statement of "Sort by price is the dominant way that shopping online now happens. The cheapest airline ticket or widget or freelancer comes up first, and most people click." is what appears lazy to me, where is his empirical evidence to support such an assertion?

    The reality is that online stores offer customers multiple criteria for valuing products; customer ratings, customer reviews, price, new arrivals, best selling, etc. A veritable cornucopia of choices. No that's not what I would define as lazy marketing. That's called good marketing, making as much information available to the consumer as possible and leaving it to them to make value choices for themselves based on their own individual circumstances.
    Erin Holohan Haskell
  • KC_Jones
    KC_Jones Member Posts: 5,742
    "If you can't take the time to learn about your options, about quality, about side effects, then it seems like buying the cheapest is the way to go--they're all the same anyway, we think."

    This assumes that people don't do their research first. Personally I figure out which specific product I want down to the model number and then use the sort by price to get the best deal on the item I can. What is wrong with that?

    I wouldn't mind stopping into this gentleman's house because by his rant I would naturally come to the conclusion that he has the best of the best of everything in his home, you know because he isn't shopping by price. Best heating system included. ;)

    I would also like to point out that by what I see on his website (yes I checked it out) in addition to being a writer he is in marketing....go figure why sorting by price would bother him.

    "He was recently inducted into the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame, one of three chosen for this honor in 2013."

    I don't have a problem with marketing, but I do like to know the motivation people have to write these types of things. One does no write like this without some personal motivation.
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  • Fred
    Fred Member Posts: 8,542
    I can't debate this guy's perspective. We are the product of our own experiences. I do agree with @KC_Jones however, in that given his profession, his perspective may be clouded by his own desire for personal gain. I also agree with others who have said most sites offer an array of evaluation options, pricing being just one of those. I for one make my purchasing decisions based on getting the best quality product my budget will allow. I reinforce that by shopping locally and the Internet. That's not lazy. It's being financially responsible.By the time I reach the point of being ready to buy, I have usually done enough research to know exactly what I want. The only decision after that is finding the best deal I can get, for what I want. Obviously there are tons of products out there that are consumables and cheap. They are what I consider "throw aways" and I won't spend a lot of time evaluating all the options in the market but I still don't buy the cheapest. For those items, I buy what is convenient meaning when and where I need it. The typical cost and probably quality differences of most of those items is so marginal that it is irrelevant. If I don't like it, I'll try a different brand next time. Durable goods and services, is where research is critical to me.
    Having said that, I understand there is a large segment of our society that can't buy anything but the least expensive items. Putting food on the table and keeping a roof over the family's head drives their decisions. Even with durable goods, they may buy the cheapest because it will get them past an immediate need, for the least cost and they hope to do better or be in a different place, financially, when it comes time to replace that item.Those are the most vulnerable among us, especially when it comes to having to pay for a service.
  • Erin Holohan Haskell
    Erin Holohan Haskell Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 2,326
    Great discussion. Thanks to all for sharing your thoughts. Lots of food for thought here.


  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,545
    I find Seth's last line to be a good question to ask your customers, heating professionals.

    Seth Godin's book, Permission Marketing, is one you should all read. Erin and I built this site around it.
    Retired and loving it.
  • Fred
    Fred Member Posts: 8,542

    In your experience, how often is the cheapest choice the best choice?
    I wonder if there is a reasonably valid way to determine how often the cheapest choice is the only choice a family might have? At least at the time they have to make a decision. It would be interesting to put that into perspective and then determine, of the remaining population, those who can afford to make better choices, what % still buy the cheapest and what % chose not to buy the cheapest but still got a lesser product/service, either by not educating themselves or just plain ripped off. Might be a couple more good questions to ask customers but I suspect the customers of the Pros on this site may not be a very good cross section of the general population. They may be able to tell you how they got screwed but they are still able to engage a real Pro and pay to recover from a bad job/bad choice. Just a thought.
    Erin Holohan Haskell
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 15,784
    Whenever I shop for anything common, I sort by most reviews first I then start to look at pricing.

    If something has 10,000 reviews and is 4.5 out of 5, I'm betting it's a decent product vs one with 5 stars but only 50 reviews.
    This is how I generally roll when shopping for PC parts.

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