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Shopping Sucks Now

The internet has created a tyranny of perfect information, so there is more to know about which thing is the right thing to buy than any human can comprehend.

by Casey Johnston
Dec 13 2019, 5:37pm

Collage by Casey Johnston

If I look up “gloves” on Amazon with the goal of buying gloves, the site returns over 100,000 listings. Even Amazon cannot bring itself to communicate the exact, unconscionable number of the kinds of gloves it has for sale.

If I look in my heart, what I’d really like is a lined leather glove, because I aspire to be classy and refined, like a lady about town. Looking up “lined leather gloves” yields 40,000 results. On the first page, there are two different gloves listed, one for $17 and one for $60, that look exactly identical and come in the exact same colors. Both have the same exact star rating (4.5/5) and hundreds of positive reviews.

I’d love to only spend $17 except there is no way 17-dollar leather gloves won’t be fake and off color and smell of gasoline when they arrive, and after only a few wears the lining will pill or develop holes. I’d love to just buy the $60 gloves except that seems like a pretty large amount of money to spend on non-weatherproof gloves, and how can I, when there are identical $17 gloves right there. I could buy both, except then I’d have to return one, which would involve repacking them in a box, locating a printer where I can print off a shipping label, going to a physical UPS store or, worse, a post office, and waiting in line to deliver myself of these gloves I just had to see for myself.

After many more hours of online research, I decide it’s impractical to own only a lined leather glove living in the Northeast, so after conducting some research, I decide to invest in some real outdoor gloves. I go to any number of shopping digest sites, which tell me one or a few of the best things of a particular category to buy, in this case, gloves. But The Strategist’s list of, I don’t know, 21 Best Gloves Loved by Northeastern Moms, has endorsements like “these are great for playing with my kids in the snow,” which does not help me at all.

After yet more hours of research, I finally isolate the perfect pair for me. I don’t want to buy them and have to online-return them—and they are sold out online anyway, due to having been recommended by most of the online shopping digest sites on Earth—so I find out they are sold in-store at a particular big box store in the city, supposedly in my size.

I arrive at the store and locate the glove section and the type of glove I’m looking for, only to find several completely empty racks, except for one pair in size XXXXL, and in a children’s version, with one glove inexplicably missing. Having again reached my tolerance for feeling like an ineffectual idiot unable to buy a simple pair of gloves, I give up and walk home gloveless, my hands freezing in the wind.

For a long time, our problem was there were not enough things to choose from. Then with big box stores, followed by the internet, there were too many things to choose from. Now there are still too many things to choose from, but also a seemingly infinite number of ways to choose, or seemingly infinite steps to figuring out how to choose. The longer I spend trying to choose, the higher the premium becomes on choosing correctly, which means I go on not choosing something I need pretty badly, coping with the lack of it or an awful hacked-together solution (in the case of gloves, it’s “trying to pull my sleeves over my hands but they are too short for this”) for way, way too long, and sometimes forever.

The degree to which you feel this problem definitely depends on your income, or at least, being in the privileged position of not having to make do with the only thing you can afford. But for people with even a limited ability to make an investment purchase, if it’s worth it, there’s even more pressure to get it right. Knowing you wasted a big chunk of money on a cheaper, worse thing that falls apart when you could have spent a little more money on a thing that is good and lasts feels like failure. You’ve then wasted your money, wasted your time, you’ve contributed to global warming, and now you have to start the entire thing over again and hope you don’t somehow end up making the exact same mistake.

Figuring out how to choose used to be part of my job when I was an editor at Wirecutter, a site that publishes guides to the best products of a given category (vacuums, computers, even gloves). We had to figure out what was important about any given object, then how important those important things were to the imagined person who needed help choosing this kind of object. Wirecutter has caught a lot of guff recently, for its referral link model and for not being able to pick single objects that work for absolutely everyone (ironically, this criticism comes from outlets that each exist but for the grace of extremely wealthy Silicon Valley benefactors). But even Wirecutter, as much as I love and use it, often manifests imperfectly: people frequently complain the chosen models are too expensive, especially since the New York Times took ownership, and often the items are chosen to appease enthusiasts, not normals. The best gloves for someone who needs to plow snow every day are not the same, at least in the world we live in now, as the best gloves for someone who just needs to be able to walk to work every day. The ideal guide-writing process is figuring out who needs the most help with investing in a particular object, which is not the same person who needs to use it once a year. That leaves many people bereft, forced to execute their own Wirecutter winnowing process, if they simply have the time and patience.

If big box stores represented the problem of the “tyranny of choice,” the problem is that now, somewhat suddenly, perfect knowledge of the perfect glove, for you specifically, exists, if you simply do enough research. Now instead of tyranny of choice, we have the tyranny of perfect information. And this is actually a two-part problem: It takes x-approaches-infinity amount of time to achieve this level of knowledge; theoretically, as much as you ever wanted to know about gloves, the internet, (and by extension anyone who might ever offer you yet more info on what makes a good glove) can teach you. Then this all has to be refracted through what makes the perfect glove for you, and how much of that is the same as the platonic ideal of a glove. How waterproof? How warm? How thick? How dexterous? Should it be touch screen compatible? Should it be leather, nylon, wool, nylon lined with wool, leather lined with fleece, Goretex lined with cashmere? Are all of these things stupid and it should just be a polyester job you throw out and buy a new one of next year? But isn’t that terrible for the environment?

But then, if you did, somehow, against all odds, achieve perfect knowledge of the best glove, you’d find that it probably doesn’t exist, or it exists but almost certainly costs more money than you would want to spend. And then you are faced with the choice of, do you spend $90 on an optimal glove? Or do you spend less than that on a less-optimal glove, knowing at some point in the future you will realize its shortcomings and wish you had just spent the $20 or $40 or $70 extra to get the glove that would have at least worked better than this?

I'm realizing what I actually want is not the perfect glove; what I want is for the world to be small again. This infinite-market stuff was all well and good when being able to buy almost anything was an opportunity, but now that I can consider everything in the interest of saving time and money on buying subpar stuff, it’s an obligation I can’t ignore. But then I inevitably end up wasting a lot of time and money trying to save that time and money, making everything about this my fault.

If I don’t write this article and get immediately accosted by some Instagram drop-ship company pushing a Single Perfect Glove ad campaign, it will happen next winter. They will either be shockingly under- or overpriced, and either way they'll be of shitty quality, but millions of my peers will buy them because they, too, just want the glove problem to be over, and it will be, until the glove falls apart and we all learn it is not, in fact, the one perfect glove, but just a glove like most of the other gloves.

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