Product Search…

Why is finding a particular product online such a pain in the r…ear/post-ear-ior?

This week’s case in point is: Headphones, or more specifically, earphones (see what I did there?), but other previous examples include cycling gloves, computer parts and accessories, vitamins, and even carpets. Certain other things that are more unique tend not to be the problem which I talk about here, but for many of us who have found ourselves shopping more and more online I think there is still a lot of improvement to be made.

A key problem with online shopping is the amount of choice we’re faced with. If you know specifically what you want (when you have a make and model to look up) things are pretty each, you then just need to compare prices and find what you want in stock.

With the earphones I was looking for this week I didn’t have an exact model preference but I knew I wanted black ones, not noise cancelling, and a price as cheap as I can get them (but functional and not going to disintegrate after a hand full of uses). Quick delivery was also required (i.e. not coming from China) but not something I am prepared to pay through the nose (or ear?) for.

Not too much to ask, is it?

I head to Ebay (my primary go-to site for this sort of thing) and, as expected, I’m bombarded with thousands of listings. Here I also realise I need to refine my search further to exclude wireless and Bluetooth earphones; I need theme to plug into the 3.5mm socket on my phone (and my ears at the other end). Still several thousand listings to sift through.

One bane of Ebay, which they actually have rules against, is sellers listing the same item multiple times. Really they’re not supposed to list the same item more than ten times, but if each seller of an item you’re looking for did this, then that can equate to a lot of scrolling. It gets worse with the Chinese sellers for which there can be a lot of them each selling essentially the same mass-produced item.

Early on in my searching for earphones I have a quick look on the Argos website to see what’s there and to set some sort of benchmark – they have a pair of Sony-branded earphones in their Clearance bin for less than £3.50 but my nearest Argos store is an hour’s ride away which seemed pointless for just this item, and I couldn’t justify paying their delivery fees (more than the item price in this case); if Ebay had what I wanted and the seller could deliver in a day or two for less, I’d prefer that. Amazon, also, are a consideration but I can rarely (if ever) justify paying their delivery prices for items that fall outside of their Free Delivery criteria and on this occasion they came up short.

However, here’s where ebay both excels and fails: “Fast & Free“.

Yes, highlighted in green text next to each item (and with the expected delivery date) that qualifies in the search results, this easy to spot feature is great for finding what you want when you want it quick. The failing is that Ebay, whilst surely keen to promote this feature to buyers (as well as encouraging their sellers to use it to attract buyers), don’t include it as a specifiable search criteria (not that I can see anyway). You can specify “items only in the UK”, you can specify items whose price includes “free delivery”, you can specify “Click & Collect” (something that’s no use to me since the nearest point is probably Argos!) but you can’t specify “Fast & Free postage”. Why!? Instead you have to stare at the screen as you scroll the listings past your eyes at the spot where “Fast & Free” appears. Thankfully the human brain (or at least mine is) quite good at this.

This isn’t to say that other listings might not be able to get an item to me as quick and at the same price, since they may have a lower item price but include a quick delivery service for a nominal fee, but taking this isn’t consideration just makes the hassle of finding what you want and comparing it fairly with other items more of a headache.

I sifted through pages and pages of search results, looking out for earphones that matched what I wanted, getting frustrated with still being shown items I’d seen before (but from other sellers and at different prices) and knew were no good for me but perhaps didn’t have something in their title that I could define in the search box for it to exclude “-that one there”: An image-recognition feature whereby you could tell the system to “not include any more items that look like this one” would be a god-send (you can use Google Images to find similar images, or Tineye, but not shopping sites).

In the end I’d probably been searching for about as long as it would have taken me to cycle to Argos; I usually set myself a rule of not scrolling through any more than 10 pages of listings (considering I have Ebay set to show 50 items per page this is a 500 item self-imposed search limit), at this point I have to pick one or give up. I’d found a couple of “okay” earphones, but compared to the “Sony” ones at Argos I wasn’t happy.

The next day I cycled to Argos; an hour’s ride out of my way, but in the end happy with my purchase and confident what I bought wont break any time soon. Win.

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