I’ve made many impulse purchases in my life, but the first one that I found genuinely unsettling was a pair of Nike VaporMax sneakers. It was July 2018, and I was mindlessly tapping through Instagram updates while waiting to meet friends for lunch. That’s where I saw the sneakers, tucked between photos of last night’s outfits and this morning’s bagels: futuristic, baby pink, and a new arrival, according to the ad. This was the heyday of artificial sneaker scarcity, when every design worth a damn sold out before you even had a chance to decide if you liked it. I pounced.
The order took maybe 15 seconds. I selected my size and put the shoes in my cart, and my phone automatically filled in my login credentials and added my new credit-card number. You can always return them, I thought to myself as I tapped the “Buy” button. Almost as soon as I’d paid, I snapped out of the mania that had briefly overtaken me, $190 (Jesus Christ) poorer but with one pair of Jetsons-looking shoes on their way to my apartment. It’s always a little horrifying to realize that advertising has worked on you, but this felt more like I had just watched the velociraptor in Jurassic Park learn to use the doorknob. I had completed some version of the online checkout process a million times before, but never could I remember it being quite so spontaneous and thoughtless. If it’s going to be that easy all the time, I thought to myself, I’m cooked.
That experience wasn’t the result of any particular just-to-the-market technology. Instead, a handful of small changes to the mechanics of online shopping had begun to accumulate into something meaningful: Advertisers were amassing stores of personal data with which to tailor their ad targeting. Retailers were offering free shipping and free returns on everything—buy now, decide later. Browsers and operating systems were urging users to save login credentials and financial details within their software. The expanded use of payment shortcuts such as Apple Pay and Shopify’s Shop Pay was circumventing the need to create a new account or log in to an old one. “Buy now, pay later” services including Klarna and Affirm were beginning to pop up at more retailers to soften the blow of spending.
In the intervening five years, these changes have become the default infrastructure of online shopping, maximizing convenience over all else in an effort to make buying as effortless as possible. As retailers are all too eager to tell everyone, buying things online has never been so simple, so seamless, so easy. So easy, in fact, that we might all be better off with a few more speed bumps.
In the consumer system, friction refers to anything that slows down a potential buyer on the path toward completing a purchase—wondering which size will fit, remembering their password, getting their credit card out of their wallet. An estimated 70 percent of online shopping carts are abandoned without a sale, which does suggest that potential purchasers are incredibly easy to derail. Sometimes, just the realization that you’ll need to get up and get your wallet is enough to stop you from ending up with another novelty T-shirt or new throw pillows.
Retailers, of course, regard friction as the enemy. The history of online shopping is that of tamping down friction at almost any cost. Free shipping and generous return policies are an expensive way to do business—an e-commerce return for a $50 product costs retailers an average of $33, according to a recent estimate by the reverse-logistics firm Narvar. But these policies became the default precisely because buyers accustomed to shopping in person looked at the internet and thought to themselves, This seems like a bad way to buy shoes.
Reductions in friction are generally sold to consumers as matters of convenience, which often has the benefit of being true. I hate resetting a password, typing in my shipping information, doing any of the paperwork that stands between me and the hit of dopamine that ordering something new provides. What online shopping keeps getting better at is ensuring that you arrive at that point as efficiently as possible. By its very nature, it already foists many of the putative inconveniences of buying something onto other people: Someone else is doing the work of locating the actual product and moving it from a retailer’s inventory to your home. You don’t need to drive to the store, find a parking spot, stand in line, interact with a human, or do much of anything at all.
Convenience, though, tends to be a hollow virtue on its own. Much of the consumer system is constructed to generate retailers’ desired outcomes as frequently as possible. When something is made convenient, it’s because that convenience benefits the company. Sometimes, your interests and those of the retailer can align—it takes me about a minute to reorder a 15-pound bag of my dog’s kibble, for example, and I don’t need a moment longer to be sure I’m making a good decision. Other times, conveniences are put in place in order to short-circuit your ability to act in your own best interests, even if just for a split second. Hence, my pastel-pink spaceship shoes.
Over the past year or so, exhausted by the tedious sameness of so much new clothing and disenchanted with its terrible quality, I’ve found myself buying most of my clothes through secondhand platforms such as Poshmark and eBay. At first, this shift seemed risky to me. Buying pre-owned goods is full of the type of friction that makes buyers mistrustful: The photos vary widely in quality, and the listings vary widely in content. Return policies tend to be extremely restrictive. On many secondhand platforms, ponying up seven bucks for shipping is still the norm. Everything about the buying process reminds you that you should read closely and choose carefully. I was nervous that I’d spend money and end up with little to show for it except a bunch of stuff that didn’t fit or that I didn’t like.
Those fears were misplaced. As it turns out, my entirely reasonable trepidation was useful and productive. Not everything I’ve purchased has been exactly what I’d hoped for; one dress arrived as described but reeking of stale cigarette smoke. But of the clothing I’ve ordered this year, I wear my secondhand purchases far more frequently than I do the things I ordered brand new. These garments—things like a 1980s oversize button-down with tiny cherries embroidered on it, or a pristine, finely knit cardigan in mustard-yellow wool—feel like things I actually chose instead of stuff that just happened to move through my field of vision in a weak moment.
In hindsight, that’s not such a surprise. When buying something feels like making a real choice, you have more opportunities to slow down and consider whether it might be the wrong one. Secondhand markets are some of the best places to relearn what a better, fairer version of online shopping might feel like right now, if only because using them requires a conscious acceptance of a certain amount of risk. E-commerce’s greatest trick has been convincing us that risk can be escaped, but of course it can’t. Even with the smoothest shopping, there’s still the risk of waste, of disappointment, of future inconvenience, of money lost to the fine print. Frictionless shopping might be convenient, in a sense, but it’s a bad system for making good decisions.