Monday, March 23, 2009

#7 post for real

Okay, here's my legit entry for item # 7. I should preface this with a disclaimer that this post is largely conjecture, and I have no economics or sociology background, so it may very well be nonsense. However, it has to do with Web 2.0, so hopefully it still counts.

Last week I was watching something on Hulu and an ad came on for a website that allowed consumers in the U.S. to conduct business almost directly with third world artisans. I can't remember the name of the site, but it seemed to be similar to Ten Thousand Villages

It got me thinking about how the internet has changed the world of commerce, not just in that many companies now have their products online, but that other forms of trade are gaining larger crowds. With the emergence of eBay and other auction sites, average people without any company to represent have become independent salespeople and retailers. Classified ads sites such as Craigslist have pages in which people offer goods or services in exchange for other goods or services, with no cash changing hands, creating a barter system.

This article from Business Week Online talks about the lack of innovation in online shopping in recent years, and offers some suggestions on how companies can make their customers' shopping experience more convenient or more enjoyable. It speaks of new upstarts leading the charge, since most of the established big guys currently seem to be resting on their laurels. But I wonder if, especially in these bleaker times, perhaps a growing number of people are looking for different ways to shop via new avenues rather than better ways to shop via the old ones.

While I realize that neither eBay nor Craigslist are new and both are extremely popular already, I imagine there are many people who have yet to give them a try. American culture is often criticized for what many see as rampant consumerism, but now that so many consumers have watched their buying power take a dive, they may be looking for other forms of commerce in order to meet their needs and wants. When your spending power is limited, second hand items that can be obtained through auctions or barter (or even better, absolutely free) start looking much more attractive. I wonder if these sorts of sites will see (if they haven't already) a major upswing in traffic as people leave the major retailers for cheaper deals. Recent history has shown us that Americans may not be especially smart when it comes to saving our money, but we do love a good bargain when we spend it.

So what does this have to do with that Hulu commercial? Well, maybe not much, I'm kind of winging it here, because the commercial had to do with free trade and assisting those in underdeveloped parts of the world, and that's not really what this entry is about, but it did get me thinking about the varieties of online commerce. If the eBays and Craigslists and Freecycles out there do become an even more powerful element of our economic structure than they already are, and more and more people become used to a world of shopping that exists outside of department stores (whether online or at the mall), this might encourage more business not only for the swaping of secondhand goods, but also an increased trust in and market for smaller companies or individual artisans, farmers, or whatever. People may love and trust established labels, but with all the news of taxpayer funded bailouts, the major companies that own those labels could lose the loyalty, and the cash, of the average shopper. This article indicates that a lot of major brand names, even those from supposedly safe or recession proof companies, are having trouble. The emerging culture of sustainable living, with its emphasis on support of local businesses, is pulling some customers away from grocery store chains and toward independent markets. Could this also happen with manufactured goods? Seems possible.

This may all be old news, or not really even news at all. Like I said, I'm no economist, so I don't know. When the web was first emerging, we were all amazed at our ability to communicate with people halfway across the world. If a change in the way we buy and sell and barter is in the works, then Web 2.0 is going to play a huge part in how we do that not with people around the world, but also in our own backyards.


  1. I believe the site you are thinking of... maybe... is . You can make a loan to an entrepreneur in the developing world.

  2. I don't think it was that one, but it was something similar. The original site involved buying goods like baskets and pottery directly from the artisans. One of it's taglines was something like "$40 may not be much in the U.S., but it can feed a family for a month in some parts of the world." I haven't seen it on Hulu since that first time, but if I do I'll post the name on here.