Slow E-Commerce: Could It Become a Trend?

Originally published in The Drum.


If you read many articles about e-commerce (guilty), you might get the idea that the retail world is accelerating towards infinity. All major players are focusing on speed and looking for ever-faster ways to get products into consumers’ hands—in some cases in a single hour.


Oddly enough, however, speed may not be the way to win over a growing segment of the population: 91,000 people have looked at a YouTube video of paint drying, and 132,000 have looked at 10 hours of nothing. Nearly three million have watched a 45-minute video of comedian Nick Offerman savoring a glass of scotch in silence. And adult paint-by-numbers kits are big enough to have their own category on Amazon.com. As everything is speeding up, some of us are slowing down.

In fact, there is even a popular Slow Movement. Started in the late 1980s as a protest against McDonald’s in Italy, it has grown to encompass food, fashion, marketing, and even city planning. In each instance, followers of the movement try to slow down, live responsibility, and savor the moment.

Slow e-commerce may seem like an unlikely addition to this, but it’s not necessarily so. Most of us, for example, can divide our purchases into two categories: things we want now, and things we don’t mind waiting for. For example, camping season is over in most of the country, but if you are a camper, you know there are a few things you might want to pick up for next season. You don’t need overnight shipping for that, in fact, 45-day shipping is just fine. And if you can do that for 30% off, why not?

This may be the idea behind the U.S.-based moves of Alibaba, as well as a number of competitors. They seem to be betting that people are willing to wait if there’s something substantial in it for them. We can see this most obviously in the online mall and app, Aliexpress, which sources products directly from small- and medium-sized (mostly Chinese) suppliers.

Instead of shipping things from a warehouse overnight, Aliexpress sends an order to the company. The manufacturer, usually in China, then ships you the product via snail mail, and you receive it around a month or more later. When it arrives, you confirm receipt with Alibaba, and it pays your money to the manufacturer.

Often, the products come at a substantial discount, especially if they are relatively inexpensive. For example, here you can find two nearly identical snoring aids: one from Amazon, the other from Aliexpress. On Amazon, the cost is $10 for two, and you pay for shipping (or have Prime delivery). On Aliexpress, you pay $0.36 for one and it ships for free. Of course, you might not see it for six weeks, but you’re not going stop snoring anytime soon either. You’ll need it eventually.

If this model succeeds and is replicated elsewhere, it should be an interesting trend for brands and entrepreneurs alike. It would provide a direct channel without having to set up a direct channel—just as it does for businesses in China today—and it would offer much greater global reach. (Aliexpress is the top e-commerce site in Russia and Israel).

Slow e-commerce may also be a call to arms for large companies. If you’re a big brand producing a commoditized or off-patent product, you might find some serious competition. The only answer is to continue to innovate so that your products stay differentiated.

For consumers, the trend could work in a different way. It’s not merely about getting things cheaper, but having some measure of control over when and what you buy. It defeats the notion that you must buy now and allows you the leisure to let some purchases come when they will. I’ve used slow e-commerce myself and must admit there’s an odd satisfaction in knowing something is coming that you don’t need urgently.

Of course, there are problems with slow e-commerce sites today. For one thing, Amazon reviews tend to be brutally honest, so we trust them. But Aliexpress reviews are almost universally positive. Somewhat comically, for example, every single product in the iPhone charging cord category on the site seems to have a perfect, five-star rating. As a result, I tend to ignore ratings and focus more on how many people have purchased a product. In addition, some of the merchandise is obviously counterfeit, and returns are impractical (are you really going send your defective $0.36 anti-snoring device all the way back to China?).

Still, as people embrace the idea of slow food and slower living, they may like slow e-commerce as well. In any case, the slow movement is not small, and, true to its name, it’s slowly growing. If your consumers are spending their time watching paint dry, they probably aren’t looking for you to teleport your products to them. Slow and steady may win some races.

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