The Myth of the Brave New Infinitely Savvy Consumer

One of the things that the World Wide Web is supposed to do is help us all become infinitely savvier and more efficient consumers. Shopping “bots,” which compare prices for the same item across multiple Web sites, are one example. But I wonder sometimes whether there is not a flaw in the theory of the infinitely savvy consumer: inertia. I think about this every time I use the e-mail account that I selected several months ago, that I don’t really like, but that I continue using anyway.

I rely on a free, Web-based service called Mailcity, which is part of Lycos. I actually signed up for free accounts at Yahoo and Hotmail at around the same time, but it was only at Mailcity that I was able to use a reasonable variation on my actual name as my user name. At Yahoo and Hotmail, I just used silly words, because every version of my relatively common name had been taken. So when I printed business cards and stationery, I put the Mailcity address on them–after all, all of these e-mail products seemed interchangeable, so what difference did it make?

Mailcity now drives me crazy. I ran into trouble at one point trying to send a mass e-mail. It turned out that Mailcity would not let me have more than about 15 names in the “to:” line of the message, so instead of sending it once to, say, 150 people, I would have to send it in 10 batches. Then it turned out that I couldn’t send e-mail to more than 100 addresses in a single day–something I discovered when I started getting error messages. Now, this was my fault for my own finite savvy in not reading the Mailcity terms closely enough. When I wasn’t able to send messages out the next day, however, I grew concerned. There appeared to be a glitch. I wanted to contact customer service but found that the only way I could do this was … by sending them an e-mail. When I tried to, of course, I got an error message.

Eventually this problem worked itself out, but I also find Mailcity to be generally clunky. More crucially, it seems that my e-mails from Mailcity sometimes do not arrive for hours, and in a couple of cases appear never to have arrived at all. So I’ve gotten in the habit of using my Yahoo account–whose interface I have found, over time, to be a little more efficient than Mailcity’s–to send really important, deadline-sensitive e-mail. For instance, I file this column by way of Yahoo.

So why don’t I just drop Mailcity? And, for that matter, why didn’t I do more research to begin with–reading articles on the Web and trolling Usenet for tips from fellow consumers and so on? I haven’t dropped Mailcity because I’ve already made the investment of printing the address on a bunch of business cards and announcing the address to everyone I know. But perhaps the more important point is why I didn’t do more research, which is because, I think, the theory of infinite consumer savvy is overrated. That is to say, I don’t have time, and I think most consumers don’t have time, to research everything. I don’t even have time to research which of the myriad shopping bots is best, let along the best free e-mail account. I am writing this column on a laptop from 1995. I know I need a new one, but I am dreading the process of picking it, because laptop technology has improved radically, and it’s going to take a lot of research.

I suspect I’m not the only person who feels this way, and that inertia is a force underestimated by the theorists who envision this infinitely savvy consumer class that will force businesses to remake themselves. Cable networks covet low channel numbers on the dial, for instance, and that seems like something that wouldn’t be very important if laziness and inertia weren’t key characteristics of the typical cable consumer (which is most of America). I’m sure there is some academic research out there on inertianomics, perhaps even available on the Web. Maybe I’ll take the time to track that down at some point. Right after I pick a new e-mail provider.