Would You Like Some Shame With That?

Joshua Gans cites research supporting the idea that ordering food on the Internet increases sales by reducing customers’ embarrassment:

A group of four management professors—Avi Goldfarb, Ryan McDevitt, Sampsa Samila, and Brian Silverman—has undertaken a project to measure the effects of social embarrassment in retailing. In a paper—which they weren’t too embarrassed to subtitle “An Embarrassment of Niches?”—they examined situations in which a shift in retail practice reduced human interaction and observed consequent changes in purchasing behavior. Their findings are surprising: Even in situations where the potential for social embarrassment would appear to be low, fear of embarrassment led consumers to sublimate their true desires, whether for a rarefied French wine or a pizza with extra bacon. The first case the authors document was a late 1980s change in Swedish liquor retailing that led to stores being moved from an “ask a clerk to retrieve a bottle” model to a “self-service” format. It turned out that, not only did removing a layer of human interaction spike sales (by 20 percent) but it also led to a shift in those sales toward a large number of difficult-to-pronounce drinks…

Was this fear of embarrassment or just a matter of convenience in communication?

It is hard to know for sure in the Sweden example. But two decades later, when an undisclosed pizza chain (similar to Domino’s, but with a regional focus) offered a new way of ordering online, embarrassment was more clearly in play. Order online and you remove the need to talk to a human over the phone or at a counter. You might think that this change would merely be more convenient, but wouldn’t materially affect the food you order. Then I thought about what my typical “conversation” with a pizza website might sound like:

“Umm, ok I’d like one Margarita pizza and a BBQ Chicken with pineapple. Oh no scratch that, can I have half the BBQ Chicken with pineapple and the other half with peppers. And I’d like the Margarita pizza to have a thin crust and, wow, what is a four cheese mushroom pizza? I’ll have one of those but can you remove the goat’s cheese … wait, does that work with this coupon?”

Suffice it to say, something usually holds me back from making such a speech to a fellow human being.