We have one common laptop between us. I take it to my office in the morning and once I return home, she monopolises it for the rest of the evening - checking mails, networking on Facebook - appreciating hundreds of friends/semi friends on their original/stolen/plagiarised posts, clicking likes on their never-ending changed profiles.
It is like the old city colonies which were known by the type of people staying at different locations - you don't have to be pally with all of them, but you don't mind exchanging pleasantries.
Facebook replicates this social norm in its own ways - the way one handles the likes, smiles, shares, comments and reciprocate comments and uploads are good enough instruments to calibrate one's social exchanges with members of the digital community. I got used to this pattern of her virtual socialising till I noticed a significant change in her Facebook sojourn. Like all changes, it did not hit me overnight; its manifestation was visible in a different chain of events.
I noticed that the most frequent visitors to my flat in the last couple of months were boys of different courier services delivering goods purchased online. The purchase had no predictable pattern - it varied from a revolving mop to a pack of dangerously shining set of kitchen knives shoved in a multi-slot wooden sheath stand, perfect prop for a murder mystery. One fine morning, I discovered a pack of tummy trimming oil in my shaving corner, with a hand written message (massage). This was too much and needed to be sorted out.
There were other unexplained behaviour patterns, too. Earlier, every purchase would have resulted in a very predictable dialogue pattern. "Let me show you what I have bought"; or "Do you like it ...good ... tell me ...na". I suddenly remembered that I had not been receiving indents of purchase messages in my mobile on my way back home. There were also zero requests at the weekends to take her down to some shopping mall for the past couple of months. Suspicion added suspense in the family drama.
I peered over her laptop. The Facebook page was replaced by sites like Homeshop 18, FlipKart, Olx, Jabong and even Makemytrip.com. I clearly remembered last year, when she turned down a request to book an air ticket online. "I don't like interacting with machines, there is no human face!" Also, there were those agonising moments when you have made an online payment and all you see is a vortex of uncertainty, spinning with the occasional warning "don't touch the refresh button". And then, everything stops with a penultimate verdict: Internet Explorer can't find the page. Oh my God! What has happened to my money? Has it sunk in the digital ocean?
That was just one year back; where did these problems vanish? Who sorted them out? Who engineered this shift?
The online shopping guys had done it, I realised, not by doing something new but by questioning/addressing some basic premises of traditional shopping.
-If you can make your product talk, the consumer will not miss the absence of a sales person. All you need is to provide the help of a neutral expert. In the tech world, they are the apps.
-Shopping alone can be exciting if the shopper's confidence of making a choice can be enhanced and encouraged.
-Price can be harnessed as a powerful surprise quotient, creating a sense of win which is still a rare feeling in real life purchase in India.
In the virtual world, you are the only customer. You have complete liberty to toy with idea of buying a brand. You suddenly connect with your larger than life self. The computer screen acts like a magic mirror, a sweat-less world of shopping where base things like haggling for price, extracting a bargain and fear of online payment/exchange are magically removed. You get discounts you can only dream of; the apps tell you which product in which price range is the best value for money and why. You don't need a so-called expert/friend to tell and approve your choice. And, don't worry about payments. Do it your way. Pay on delivery. If you don't like it, return. No questions asked.
Wow! That was a privilege for the rich and famous only a couple of years back. In fact, entire emerging India is salivating on it now, at the threshold of a huge techno-social change silently happening in small town India.
On my way to Roorkee from Delhi, I saw in the city bus stands young people under umbrellas in the scorching sun, selling apps to small town young and middle-aged men and women.
"I make quick bucks from selling apps," said one of them. "The net is full of apps on brands of dresses, accessories, tech products, loans, gadgets - even jewellery. I download them in the customers' comps, show them how to use it and they pay gladly."
People are purchasing electronic gadgets right, left and centre, online. I know a lady who has just brought a Nikon Coolpix camera after downloading an app on cameras. She is completely convinced she could not have a better buy at that price. Ever since she had cross checked the offline price of the model at a Nikon store in Delhi, she has forgotten to stop her smile.
Online is crafting out a new language of relationships. Among the young boys and girls, it is the harbinger of goodies; for them, the new gazal line is "courier aayee hain" and not "chitthi aayee hain".
Guardians and parents - it's time to upgrade yourself; visit your out of station children through Skype. Send your aashirvaad and good wishes online and in kind; they will love it! The other day, I called my daughter and could overhear her roommates whispering "tell your dad to order an online pizza, they will deliver within 20 minutes....got bored with hostel food." The pizza was dutifully ordered by dad from a distance of 2000 km and in the next 20 minutes, saw the Skyped images of girls dancing and eating, and, of course, thanking dear aunty and uncle.
The new commercials of online shopping also portray a new perspective on relationships. Take for instance an eBay commercial. The ad, which features a husband procrastinating about a Sunday shopping spree suggested by the wife, takes an unexpected turn once the wife sees the discounts on eBay. Suddenly, she is all understanding and eager to stay at home, to make most of the online deals.
Online jewellery store BlueStone's ad is even more interesting as it challenges the norm that buying needs an occasion. On being asked about the occasion for her purchase of jewellery, the wife replies, "My husband does not look at me anymore."A naughty, subtle slice of bedroom drama unfolds the new paradigm of the changing woman who lives life on her own terms.
Online marketing is a part of the emerging mindset of consumers who are questioning the status quo in an evolving world. Marketers please take note; it is better to be present online and wait for your consumer than losing the new wave altogether. By the time new research report proves the point, the opportunity is already lost. Online is no longer a selection of a medium of shopping any more - it is a way of life.
The author is vice-president, consumer insight & HFD, McCann India.