Smart Online Shopping: Think Twice about Your Search Results

From Amazon to Target and Walmart, retailers are more likely to steer you towards their own versions of products.

In an era of online shopping and search engines, retailers are especially invested in what you're searching for most often, what brands are selling best, and how they can direct your searches to their own products. In the case of Amazon, the company has control over what products appear in your search results for a range of goods from batteries to apparel. Depending on the retailer, they're interested in promoting their own in-house brands or brands they have personal stake in - whether you're aware of it or not.

The reasoning behind retailers' self-promotion isn't solely about profit greed. Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business, describes Amazon's tactic: "I think, effectively, you have a company that has conspired with about a billion consumers and technology to destroy brands. Their attitude is that brands have, for a long time, earned an unearned price premium that screws consumers."

But some commodities are easier to replicate than others, so you're more likely to stumble across so-called "Best Sellers" of certain in-brand items than others. From Amazon to Target and Walmart, retailers are more likely to steer you towards their own versions of these products.

Household Goods

Daily household items are easy to copy in knock-off brands: paper towels, batterie, and extension cords. Whether it's AmazonBasics or Target's Up&Up, your online search results on those websites are programmed to recommend the in-store brand.

Staple Food Items

With online food shopping growing in popularity in densely populated areas, coffee, cereals, and even perishable items like butter and eggs are the most common items offered by retailers' own brands. From Target's Market Pantry and Archer Farms to Walmart's Great Value line, you're pushed see these goods at the top of search results. James Thomson, a former Amazon executive who now works with brands hoping to sell their products to Amazon, told The New York Times: "Amazon has access to data that nobody else has. I can't just walk into a store and say, 'Excuse me, did you look at this brand of cereal this morning and decide not to buy it?' Amazon has that data. They know you looked at a brand and didn't buy it and they're not going to share that data with any other brands."

Basic Apparel

Simple clothing like T-shirts, button-ups, and sneakers are universally relevant to all demographics, which means there's a flooded marketplace for them. Amazon creates and promotes private labels that use customer data to create the most appealing product. Cooper Smith, an analyst at Gartner L2, says, "Amazon can analyze those reviews and figure out why customers were dissatisfied with a certain product. Amazon can then turn around and create a private label for a similar product but improve upon it based on what customers say."

How trustworthy your recommended search results are depends on what you're seeking. While you might see more genuine feedback for niche or tech-oriented products, basic items are so easily replicable that you're probably only searching online to decide which brand you should trust. Retailers have vested interests in your attraction to their own in-house or private labels, so as an exercise in digital literacy you have to treat the results with skepticism.

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