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Why do young men from lower socio-economic classes prefer shopping online?

By Shriram Venkatraman, on 3 July 2015

Shopping1

Photo by Shriram Venkatraman

Most of us on social media have noticed the static advertisements that are displayed on the side panels or the advertisements that intrude upon the videos we watch on Youtube. While some choose to ignore them some view them as an irritating factor that impinges on their personal space/time, and while some see them as distracting to say the least, for others they may be informative. The views are as myriad as the advertisements themselves, and are relative to the social context of the viewer.

However, this post is not about the different kinds of advertisements that get displayed on social media, nor is it about any kind of advertising strategy. My aim is simply to illustrate a finding, namely how advertisements on social media can transform the norms of consumption and shopping for the lower socio-economic classes in some societies by acting as a gateway to online shopping.

Let’s explore the case of how advertisements on Facebook have driven young men from the lower socio- economic classes in Panchagrami, South India, to explore the world of online shopping, and thus escape from subtle discrimination and embarrassment they sometimes face in shopping malls.

The young men of lower socio-economic classes in my field site have a fascination with online shopping. Though, most of them are school dropouts, one investment in particular that appeals to them is a smart phone with a 3G data pack. Access to Facebook or WhatsApp isn’t too far for these youth, as this becomes a natural extension of a 3G connection.

Other than socializing on Facebook, another significant aspect of their activity on Facebook is clicking on the different advertisements, specifically those which display colourful clothes, shoes or hi-tech phones. While at the beginning most did not know how to buy from these e-shopping sites, they didn’t have to look far to find informal tutors to advise them. Most of these tutors were educated IT employees who hailed from the same area and were childhood friends of theirs.

While it may seem as though their shopping on these portals is just a natural extension of them being on the internet or on social media, this turn to online shopping has much deeper facets that require attention.

Why Online Shopping?

While most online shopping still requires plastic money (credit/debit card), the Indian e-shopping portals offer a cash payment model known as ‘cash on delivery’ which perfectly fits the cash economy that dominates this demographic. They don’t have credit cards and some don’t even have a bank account. This model lets them choose and buy products online, then pay in cash only when they receive the products at their doorstep. This service gives them access to things from t-shirts to trousers to slippers etc. through these portals, without the hassle of owning a credit card.

Using e-shopping portals gives them an opportunity to experience better service and feel important. This was of particular importance because of the way they were treated by salesmen in malls who would look down at them when they asked too many questions, or if they asked for choices before they had made a selection. They also felt that, because of their skin colour, salesmen assumed that they could use their power and expertise to force products that they would never have chosen.

They very often said that they felt helpless and like fools when they walked out of a store. They also often felt too intimidated and embarrassed to visit upscale showrooms, and often felt out of place. The salesmen often just assumed that they weren’t worth his or her time because they didn’t see them as a potential sale. So, when they would ask questions, the salesman would obfuscate rather than waste their time.

However, this didn’t happen on e-shopping portals. It patiently showcased anything they wanted or even aspired for. Even though they had enough cash, a salesman always got irritated with them, but e-shopping portals didn’t.

Further, anything you asked for came to your doorstep rather than having to go out looking for it. In addition to convenience, this service has allowed them to showcase their power and status in ways that they previously could not.

The availability of cheaper products on these portals also allows them to consume products specifically intending to give them as gifts to their kins. This gift giving through buying things online automatically builds status among their social circles as well.

However, when it came to buying electronics, like smart phones, they preferred a showroom environment so that they could feel the phone before investing in it. They still used the e-shopping portals to compare models, before going to a showroom. Let’s suppose they want a Sony or HTC phone, first they go to the e-shopping portal and compare the visual features, then ask their IT friends to help them with the features, then they compare prices and look for other models and the associated visuals and features, then, finally, go to Youtube to watch videos of how the phone works. They go back to evaluate the number of stars (gold stars) the phone has received on the e-shopping portal. Finally, they decide on the model they want and go to a showroom in Chennai to get the phone.

Given that they are now equipped with knowledge regarding their intended product for purchase, they are more confident when it comes to shopping in mall showrooms and don’t feel intimidated with either the ambience or the salesmen. They often felt that they knew more than the salesmen after this process of acquiring knowledge about the phone through social media.

In other words the collective social knowledge that social media offers, transforms their shopping experience itself, from just being a passive buyer to an assertive consumer, who wouldn’t be put down so easily.

Such experiences have led them to click on more advertisements, as they realize that it was these advertisements that actually offered them a window to a new shopping experience.

A (Pre- ) Theory of Non-Usage

By Jolynna Sinanan, on 12 March 2015

Photo by Tom Jutte (Creative Commons)

Photo by Tom Jutte (Creative Commons)

Now that we are heavily into writing our individual books on social media, it’s the time to think about the original insights we have gained from our fieldwork in relation to wider themes and issues. This month, I want to deal with non-usage. Generally, Trinidadians are keen to be up to date; with fashion, pop culture and uses of new media. Trinidadians were very enthusiastic to embrace using the internet generally (see Miller and Slater, 2000) and similar to their use of Facebook, internet usage was more of a product of social norms and perceptions than it was a product that was exported from Silicon Valley.

I can appreciate that even the term ‘using the internet’ is outdated, I’m ‘using the internet’ throughout the whole process of writing and publishing this blog post but accessing the digital ether has become so normal and ubiquitous that we wouldn’t think of checking our email on our phone as ‘using the internet’.

I want to deal with an aspect of non-usage that I have called ‘digital resistance’. As resistance implies, there is a wilful refusal to something that is an imposed (or forced) expectation. There are two main reasons that drive digital resistance that came out of my fieldwork. The first is that people refuse to adopt technology for more social communication because their lives are already socially saturated, meaning that people already have too many face to face relationships (mostly family and extended family) that are demanding of people’s time. There are already enough expectations, obligations and negotiations digital resistors have in their lived social relationships that they don’t want to ‘keep up with the times’ or ‘get on board’. New communications media add yet more modes of conduct that they have to negotiate and strategise and learn for their relationships. They feel they become more mediated.

The second reason has a lot to with the first. For people who ‘opt out’ of using new media beyond a basic mobile phone for personal communications, social media not only represents an increase in mediation in already complicated relationships, but it also represents a lifestyle that directly or indirectly opposes their immediate way of life and values. There are gender, age and class dimensions that are intertwined with the values of people’s immediate way of life and why they would not want to be associated with using new media. For example, there were research participants who have the latest smart phones or keep up trends because they enjoy a lifestyle of having the newest fashionable things. The other side is that for people consider themselves as being more ‘traditional’, keeping up with technological trends and adopting social media means that their way of life, where they see face-to-face communication as more authentic, becomes less valued. Their social circles, for example, groups of mothers who are housewives, or farmers where all their friends are farmers, are made up of people with shared circumstances and values. These participants often frame not using social media as ‘not having the need’, but it is also that they don’t associate with groups who see social media as central to their social lives.

When we think about people who don’t use the internet regularly, or who don’t own smartphones, their reasons might not be so straightforward, or even easy or obvious for them to explain.