The Searchable Shop

Tried on-line supermarket shopping? It often takes me longer than real-life shopping, in terms of finding things. It’s great to be able to do it at all, but the product search interface is terrible. Imagine how much better it could be.

Let’s remind ourselves what it’s like walking into a current on-line supermarket to buy some sugar.

Dear shop assistant, I want to buy some sugar. You are holding up in front of me a long list of little boxes, each containing one bag of sugar, in an order that looks to me more or less random but you claim is “relevance”. Relevant to whom?, I wonder, beginning to feel you don’t understand me. Ah, there near the top is the own-brand white granulated sugar. That’s quite likely what I’ll choose. But no, that’s such a small pack. Do you have a bigger one? I beg your pardon, did you say I have to keep scrolling through the whole list and searching with my eyes to see if I can spot any other sizes that match the same description? Oh, please, won’t you just tell me?

If I were in the real shop, looking at the shelves, I would find the same products laid out sensibly: major groups from left to right, the basic cheap varieties towards the bottom, the expensive and wacky varieties at the top, and for each product type and brand the different pack sizes are next to each other.

How about showing me a photo of the real shop? I could point to what I want more quickly than searching through your list of little boxes.

Let’s try virtually walking in to the (fictional) Dyson-Apple-Google On-Line Grocery Shop.

Dear shop assistant, I want to buy some sugar. You are holding up in front of me a huge picture that looks rather like the shelves in your real shop. On the left I see the white sugars, then a column of brown sugars, then of alternative sweeteners. Towards the bottom are basic cheap varieties, and higher up I can see some wacky and expensive ones, and it looks like I would see more of those if I were to pull the picture further down. Niche products like those are in little boxes, but today I want ordinary sugar so my eyes focus on the products that occupy a larger shelf space. There! A huge bag of the own-brand white granulated sugar standing at the back of the shelf, with one of each of the smaller sizes standing in front of it. The label tells me the price per bag and per kilogram for a typical 1.5-kg bag as well as for the biggest and smallest sizes.

Today I want to order a big bag, as I won’t have to carry it home myself, so I click on the back of the shelf. The whole display changes, subtly but surely, to highlight which other brands and product lines also offer a pack size somewhere in the region of the one I selected. Maybe there is a less popular variety that I’d be interested in choosing instead. With a quick glance, I can see two alternatives. One is emphasizing it’s Fairtrade, in contrast to the product I have selected, and the other emphasizes that it’s British, both characteristics that I support in my buying choices; maybe the system has noticed that. The colour-banded price-per-kg indicators are showing me that one is considerably dearer than the own-brand while the other is only a little more.

Sold. Easy decision.

I know that developing that kind of shopping software is a lot of work. You can’t just tweak the existing little-boxes software. But, dear on-line shop assistant, that’s the kind of shop I would like to shop at.

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