I'm not ready for a relationship

We’ve all been there. You’ve found something you want to buy online and you’re happy with the price, so you pop it in your virtual basket and head for the online checkout. It’s all going swimmingly... but you’re not going to be allowed to just buy the item. Oh, no no no. The site asks you to log in. Or perhaps it asks if you’re a new or returning customer. Or perhaps it asks you to register or create an account. Whatever the wording, it’s basically the same demand: before you can buy this item from us, you have to get into an artificial relationship with us.

Some sites don’t make this demand, and I’m always confused by the little stab of relief and gratitude I feel for this: why am I grateful to a business just for taking my money without giving me a lot of unnecessary hassle?

I’m grateful because when it comes to online purchases, the whole unnecessary-hassle element is becoming the norm. I think I’m a typical online shopper in that I hate having to register and that being forced to register is often enough to put me off the intended purchase completely – but so many businesses persist in making registration a non-negotiable barrier to purchase.

Why? It’s easy to think it’s a necessary evil of the web, something to do with the insecurity (on both sides) of buying goods without a physical shop around you. But then I think about the times this has happened in a non-web setting, and I start to develop a better theory.

My first experience of this kind of behaviour was probably when I was shopping for wedding dresses, longer ago than I care to remember. With some shops you have to make an appointment, with others you just turn up, but they all had the same demand: wanting me to fill in a form with all my details, including the date of my wedding, before they would let me try on a single dress. That’s right. They were more interested in capturing the marketing details of future-me than they were in allowing present-me to try on dresses and quite possibly spend hundreds of pounds on one. That’s despite the obvious fact that present-me was clearly interested in making a very specific, expensive purchase within a certain time limit, and future-me might not been interested in buying anything at all. (I did get a few weddingy marketing brochures as a result of all those stupid little cards I had to fill in, but I certainly didn’t buy anything as a result.)

The other experiences that spring to mind are also clothing-related: for a long time before the credit crunch, it seemed almost impossible to buy anything from a high-street clothes shop without being offered a store card. Sometimes the sales technique for the store card was so pushy that I felt I would never be allowed to buy the item I’d brought to the till unless I signed up for one. Once or twice, I said “I would rather walk out of the shop right now, without buying this [item], than take out your store card,”which brought the hard sell to a grudging end. But eventually I started feeling nervous about buying anything from these stores, because I knew I would get the store card hard-sell, and I knew I would have to be assertive to resist it, and I often wasn’t feeling very assertive. (I wrote “before the credit crunch” above, but for all I know they’re still doing it. I haven’t been into a branch of Dorothy Perkins or TopShop for about seven years and now I think about it, that’s because my residual fear of the whole store card thing put me off to the point where I basically forgot those stores existed.)

So why? Why would you jeopardise your sure sale, your happy customer with cash in hand right now, for the chance of possibly selling something else in the future? Maybe because you’re not selling what the customer thinks you’re selling. If the staff in the clothes shop are pushing you towards the store card and don’t seem interested in letting you buy the trousers you’re trying to buy, perhaps that’s because the store card is a lot more profitable to them than the trousers are. It might even be because the trousers (and the dresses, and the reasonably-priced shoes) are just bait. Perhaps the point is to buy a piece of your debt, and selling you things to wear is secondary to that.

Or perhaps it’s just because the system of rewards at shop level is skewed. Maybe the shop staff get commission for signing you up for a store card, but nothing for selling you a jumper or a skirt. So they’re economically motivated to keep pushing the store card and ignore your desire to buy whatever it is you’re trying to buy.

The wedding-dress example makes less sense, unless I’m wildly underestimating the value of my contact details. I get it that women who are about to get married are rich pickings to marketers, but (thank goodness) I definitely wasn’t bombarded with marketing after reluctantly handing over my details. Did the dress shops simply realise that I was more likely than usual to comply? If someone asked for all that info before letting me buy a loaf of bread, I’d tell them to get lost and go to a different shop. But when you’ve made an appointment to try dresses on, and you’re half-nervous, half-excited, and you know the shop staff will be giving you their time and attention, and your mum is there hissing “Don’t make a fuss!” and you know that the person asking for this info will shortly be seeing you in your underwear and manhandling you into a succession of frou-frou dresses... suddenly your inner data protection champion seems to have wandered off.

But back to the web. You’re buying something from a website, which means the process is basically automated, so nobody’s giving you their time and attention and setting up a situation in which you feel indebted. Presumably none of the other factors apply either: you didn’t have to make an appointment, nobody’s going to see you in your underwear (well, not in connection with this purchase) and you didn’t ask a relative to help you shop. It’s not equivalent to wedding-dress shopping or shopping for a car; it’s more like walking into a shop and buying a tin of paint.

None of the compliance-inducing psychological factors are there, but you still comply with the demand to hand over your details. Why? Well, partly because there’s nobody there to argue with. The site’s systems make it non-negotiable: you register or you don’t get to buy the item. It’s become incredibly common but it’s worth thinking about just how arrogant and aggressive that is: “Your money is not good enough. Give us more, give us something personal, or you don’t get to buy.

I think I’ve written before about the myth of consumer power, the capitalist myth that customers’ desires can shape business behaviour. If only it was that simple. In reality, a whole host of factors combine to create a situation in which mostly, what the customer wants doesn’t much matter. So many things distort the lovely pure ideal where you give me the thing I want because I have the money to buy it: the sheer size of businesses, and their conflicting motivations, and the fact that they’re really selling one type of thing but pretending to sell another, and the muffling of signals you get from customers not bothering to complain and from businesses not bothering to do user testing... I could go on.

I’d like to think I’m reasonably smart and assertive as customers go. But on countless occasions I have unhappily handed over information that was absolutely none of the company’s business: gender, title, where-did-you-hear-about-us. I’ve filled in captchas to prove I’m human (no need for the business to prove it’s human before taking my money), I’ve created passwords which I know I’ll forget, I’ve painstakingly unticked all the boxes saying “yes, please spam me to kingdom come”. I’ve done it because I had no choice: because I wanted to buy something, and buying it in real life wasn’t possible, and the only sites selling it were sites for which my money was not enough. And this is one of the shady open secrets of modern capitalism: you might have enough money to buy what you want, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be paying with just the money.