The Psychology of an Online Shopping Pioneer


Sidney J. Levy (2001) ,"The Psychology of an Online Shopping Pioneer", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 222-226.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 222-226


Sidney J. Levy, University of Arizona

On July 19, in the year 1660, Samuel Pepys wrote the following entry in his famous diary.

"I did lie late a-bed. I and my wife [went] by water, landed her at Whitefriars with her boy with an iron of our new range which is already broke and my wife will have changed, and many other things she has to buy with the help of my father today...afterwards, to the Dog Tavern, where I did give [guests] a dish of anchovies and olives and paid for all..."

In the year 2000, also on July 19, I prepared for this conference of the Association for Consumer Research the following entry in my diary.

"July 19, 2000. I did not lie late a-bed. Early to the office and immediately to the computer where I transcribed the above quotation for July 19 from Samuel Pepys’s diary 340 years earlier.

Then to the Web where I read the following entry from the Diary of Bruce Weinberg.

"July 19 "I was going to order from, however, I decided to give a look. I was surprised and delighted to see that Amazon offered the same Energizer rechargeable products sold by (in their Electronics section); even better, both the charger and batteries were on sale and priced significantly less than at The Amazon price for the needed items was $36 without shipping. I estimated a shipping charge of around $5-$6. I decided to place my order with (By the way, the information about the items at was terrific. The customer reviews helped a lot.) "I decided to shop around and see if there was anything else I wanted to get while I was at Amazon. Incidentally, part of my thinking this way was because with any orderCI believeCone is already incurring the base shipping charge (i.e., what Amazon terms the "Per Shipment" shipping charge), so why not order something else now rather than later (assuming one has a good idea that one will want to get something else soon) as the incremental shipping cost will be only for each item."

Making use of a sample of one person is an old tradition. Individuals may be used as respondents who tell about themselves and as informants about other people as well. Samuel Pepys’s diary tells us a lot about himself and about life in England in the middle of the 17th century, and Bruce Weinberg’s diary tells us a lot about himself and modern life, as you can see from the example of his ruminative report and the rest of his diary at his Web site. Bruce vowed to avoid retail stores since September, 1999, and instead to do all his shopping on the Internet. I printed out the record he posted on the Web (Weinberg 2000), of his experience from September through August, 2000. I then treated that record as a year-long longitudinal interview of around 365 pages, as if he were responding to the prompt, "Tell me about it." I went through the protocol the way I treat an interview with the first respondent of any qualitative project I might undertake, reading it closely to see what insight, understanding, and hypotheses I could generate. Introspectionists are often accused of being self-indulgent, as if it were a bad thing to gratify one’s own desires. But that seems just an envious or puritanical view. Weinberg indulged himself; and I surely indulged him as well by reading his shopping autobiography of some 365 pages. That length also raises the issue of parsimony; that is, how much is enough? After wading through several months of data, I found the general incremental gain to become less and less, although Bruce became more self-expressive and gave more details. Some self-indulgent entries were not about online purchasing at all. For example, he gives several pages of NCAA tourney March Madness results, names Ryder Cup players, and on May 1, Bruce lists 38 big shots with whom he mingled at The CEO Summit Conference, La Quinta Resort, Palm Desert, California. And his tracking of the RBI’s by someone named Luis Castillo left me totally blank.

My analysis will sum up who Bruce Weinberg seems to be from the protocol, as I do not otherwise know him personally. Then I will talk about his experience shopping on the Internet and what comes across to me about that, especially compared to shopping in other ways.


Dr. Weinberg is a professor of marketing at Boston University. He is proud that he has a Ph.D. from MIT and generally that he knows his stuff; and he is anticipating his move to Bentley College because of its orientation to technology. Some people objected to me that he is not a typical consumer, that his shopping on the Internet would be unique, an individualistic activity just an idle curiosity, and therefore not generalizable. Also, his self-consciousness about what he is doing, being not just a shopper, but also engaged in a research study, adds a complexity that I have to take account of. Nevertheless, as a pioneer online shopper he describes events likely to be encountered by other venturesome individuals. He does represent various consumer segments in our society, sociologically and psychologically, so that his experience is of general interest.

Although he reports mainly his experience in shopping online, he makes numerous references to his family, his students, and a variety of his everyday life circumstances and events. From the description of his education, his occupation, his home, his cars, his aspirations, and his purchases, he is clearly an upper middle class man, generally secure in that social status and comfortable in the activities and behavior that go with it. He respects family traditions, liking the vision of himself as a paterfamilias taking his family for a drive in an heirloom Rolls Royce.

"September 15

"I am looking to buy a Rolls Royce silver cloud...Amy’s grandfather, Richard Mermis, bought a 1958 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud I in 1958. When the mood struck him to get one, he walked into a dealer and said, in essence, "I want to buy Rolls Roycenow." When he passed on, Amy’s grandmother, Kate, continued to operate the Rolls, and drove it, typically, on Sundays. Well, Amy’s grandmother passed on recently and the fate of the car is uncertain. Anyways, I would like to carry on the family tradition of driving a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud on Sundays, with family in tow, of course."

Bruce shows his participation in conventional American culture in many ways. He observes some Jewish customs such as building a sukkah to celebrate the Jewish harvest festival. As non-Orthodox, and an assimilated American, he includes the reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, sending a holiday greeting to the tune of Christmas Snowmen Wish, and eating lobster. He is an ardent sports fan, attends ball games, tracks some batting averages, and once ran the Boston Marathon. Despite his higher status orientation to names such as Rolls Royce, Lexus, Volvo, Tiffany, and Polo Cologne, Bruce’s purchasing has a strong conventional core that includes Disney and McDonalds. He collects Toy Story 2 and Batman figures and animation sericels; and he buys videos for the kids that include The Lion King, Aladdin, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The list of brands he buys sounds like a roster for the All-American team, including Charmin, Pampers, Diet Coke, Pepperidge Farm, Hershey’s, Ben and Jerry’s, Wheaties, Perdue, Tropicana, Finesse, Energizer, Mott’s, Frito-Lay, etc.

As a man with a family of three young children, much of his life goes on around his home, being a responsible son, husband, and father. He talks often about his wife, his children, his mother, and his mother-in-law, expressing his devotion to them with warmth, affection, and an eagerness to please. He shares information and is vigorous in acquiring it. He is a positive relative, friend, colleague, and teacher. His personal qualities are notable. He is intelligent and lively-minded. He is alert and quick, good-natured and witty. He is highly articulate and apparently able to type a blue streak. He has a remarkable ability to get on top of a great volume of detail. He enjoys expressing himself as well as observing himself doing so ("I’m not the shy type", he says). Although not quite up to Samuel Pepys who cheated on his wife and told about it in French, Bruce has an outgoing, exhibitionistic streak, manifest in his telling all, so to speak, on the Web, in his enthusiastic exclamations, and in his entertaining songs and parodies along the way. He comments that his "heart is warmed by the eBay transaction praise left online by ToyKlectrr for all the world to see." He is firm-minded, self-confident, and willing to assert criticism. When sufficiently frustrated, he has a small tantrum, is sarcastic, or severel rebukes the persons vexing him. He sometimes justifies this as for their own good, he being a marketing professor who is qualified to improve them. In one instance, he shouted in print at a recalcitrant vendor by insisting






But more generally he seems amiable and ameliorative in his approach, admonishing offenders toward improvement. He makes many side comments about his own remarks, finds himself amusing and is willing to question his conclusions, to qualify, consider alternative possibilities, and to offer constructive suggestions.


A Dedicated Internet Shopper

Bruce plays several roles in this project. A main goal is to dedicate himself to shopping online. He works hard to keep his vow to do that, and carries out a vigorous search for the products and services he and his family require. He shops for and/or buys food and clothing, furniture, books, toys, and hardware, cars, batteries, computer equipment, a hot water heater, videos, diapers, cologne, dry cleaning, travel tickets, etc. He realistically shows how one might learn to acquire these products, starting with a few familiar sites. However, before long we hear of Shoplink, Mercata, MicronPC, Costco, Peapod, OfficeMax, Staples, AcmeAnimation, eToys, KBKids, OnlineShoes, Onvia, Gomez, eCost, tirerack, Computers4Sure, Onsale, bizrate, Buy, CDWorld, Zoots, HomeWarehouse, Cooking, Williams-Sonoma, Kitchen, toysmart, ibaby, Send, CambridgeSoundworks, Hifi, LinkExchange, Outpost, Network Solutions, Register, Midwest Express, Ashford, ibeauty, Blue Mountain Arts, dogpile, CVS, Drugstore, TX, PlanetRx, DrugEmporium, Automotive, and numerous other automobile sites. Like most shoppers, he tends to settle to doing business with some main sites: eBay, Land’s End, Amazon, and ToysRus, with Streamline and Homeruns for groceries, and Kozmo for convenience items.

Bruce’s searching serves to find suitable sites for specific products. He thus illustrates the benefits of shopping on the Internet by tapping into a variety of possible outlets for what he needs. He believes that he is therefore able to be a superior shopper. He compares what is available, what it costs, and when it will be delivered. His extended scrutiny of the details he is comparing often seems excessive, obsessive, or ridiculous, as he recognizes, in these examples.

"January 6

", you fascinate me. On December 30, 1999, I placed three separate orders, within the span of three minutes, for several Misfit beanbag toys from When I placed the orders, I was curious as to whether they would be handled separately or would be combined and processed together (believing that CVS may notice that each order came from the same person within a short time interval)...On January 4, 2000, I received three emails from CVS indicating that my orders had shipped. The first email had a time stamp of 17:42:19 GMT (i.e., 42 minutes and 19 seconds past five in the afternoon, Greenwich Mean Time); the second email had a time stamp of 17:42:20; and the time stamp on the third email was 17:42:42. Unfortunately, the order numbers were not included in the body of emails. Therefore, I do not know which email was associated with each order. Given the proximity in which the shipping confirmation emails arrived, I thought that perhaps they did bundle the orders together into one large box or, if not, that they would all arrive simultaneously. I now know that each oder was shipped separately as the second order arrived today...The other orders were nowhere to be found. Fascinating. Three orders placed at nearly identical times, shipping confirmation emails received at nearly identical times, and, yet, the orders did not arrive at nearly identical times. I love it. Anyone who enjoys counting the number of sand granules on the beach would probably enjoy figuring this one out."

"February 21

"The shipping charge was $6.00. Therefore, the total bill came to $14.74. Does it bother me that the charge for shipping was nearly the same as the total price for the items? No. Well, actually, there is a story here. Originally, I was just going to get the two containers of seasoning for $4.96. The shipping charge for this would have been $5.75Cmore than the items. Now that, I didn’t like. So, my remedy was to order something else so that the shipping charge would be less than the price of all the items being ordered. Logical, right? Hey, who cares? I’ll be a very happy camper when that seasoning arrives and my broiled scrod or salmon will taste like heaven."

"December 16

"In case you are wondering, the full retail price for Tara Road is $24.95.’s price or the book is $17.47 ($12.47 with a $5 off coupon); their price with one hour shipping is $17.47 ($12.47 with a $5 off coupon).’s price for the book is $12.48; their price with regular shipping is $16.43, with 2nd day air shipping is $20.43, and with next day air shipping is $23.43 (by the way, specifies that next day air does not necessarily mean that the product will arrive the next day; it means that when they finally put the order together for shippingCcould be 12 daysCit will arrive the next day after it is shipped). Decisions, decisions."

This intent approach is partly due to Bruce’s desire to communicate explicitly about his thinking, but more generally because he is interested, because he wants to demonstrate that one can shop exclusively on the Internet, and that one can get good deals that way. It is also evident that he thinks in this detailed and focused way, that he is a quant jock who is capable of making and weighing all the calculations necessary to figuring out the best deal. He realizes that he overdoes in this vein, leading his forbearing wife, Amy, at times to say, "You should hear yourself."

As Bruce tends to buy well-known brands, he does not settle for merely cheap stuff, but rather works hard to get good values and good deals. He is alert to avoid shipping costs, and to derive various financial benefits. Some of the discounts and incentives he encounters may be due to these being early days of Internet marketing and a lot of these marketers are losing money; such advantages might decrease when Bruce’s vision of total online shopping arrives and there is less wooing and subsidizing.

In addition to the cost savings that Bruce claimed to derive (there being no true total comparison with what a savvy bricks-and-mortar shopper would have paid), there are other benefits. The issues of time, convenience, and enjoyment are more complicated. Bruce spends so much time at the computer doing his shopping that it is hard to imagine other shoppers doing that outside of the most hard-boiled computer buffs or the huge pornography crowd of ordinary guys buying their kicks, perverts, and masquerading FBI agents. Some of Bruce’s time must be attributed to his professorial activities, and to his insistent desire to demonstrate that he can do it. And, of course, a lot of time is accounted for by making the detailed record of his experience. Nevertheless, he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time to accomplish rather trivial purchases. Also, while it is impressive when makes deliveries within an hour, many products did not arrive for several days. Bruce ordered a computer online and it was delivered 12 days later. (I went to Costco, bought a computer with a big rebate, and a man delivered it and installed it the same afternoon.) He started shopping for an HP printer on November 4, and receivedit on November 17. He waited 8 days to get his Polo cologne and eleven days to receive a refrigerator bulb from A stroller took more than two weeks to arrive from babycatalog. He does brood some about the utility of time saved versus greater cost. The closest to a hassle Bruce reported between him and his wife, Amy, was about new beds for their boys: he wanted to order them online and she refused to wait 6-8 weeks for delivery, saying, "I’m not waiting for these beds. I’m just going to go get them." She did; and Bruce reconciled himself to it, by deciding that it was worth the $200 more they paid the dirt store to have the earlier delivery and to placate his wife.

More generally, Bruce justifies waiting for packages to be delivered by making it an asset, saying, "I loved the excitement of getting the item in the mail." Throughout, he emphasizes that placing orders on the Internet takes only a few seconds (except for those irksome occasions when it does not work out that way), that he can do other things while he waits for responses, and that going to the store to shop would have taken a lot more time and expense. His experience suggests that one must engage in a fair amount of planning ahead and be quite patient. Thus, he is calm about things that would drive me crazy, such as waiting so long for a refrigerator bulb, not being able to pick out his own produce, arranging suitable delivery times, never browsing in the supermarket and the mall, not being able to watch people as they shop, and having to be disappointed and send back unsatisfactory goods.

A Robust Consumer

The Weinbergs are substantial upper middle class consumers. They have a lot of material desires and the means to satisfy them. Although the focus of the data is on shopping, there is a lot of information about consuming as well. Their shopping is in the service of achieving and maintaining a high level of consumption. They buy all the products they find necessary to furnish a comfortable home, and to accommodate their growing family. They have a second refrigerator in the basement to hold food from They enjoy an ample diet, with lots of treats. Bruce says he loves to eat certain foods so much that he is willing to consume a steady diet of Maalox to ease his gastric pain. The family also fairly devotedly collect items from the world of sports and entertainment such as figures, cels, and videos.

In an earlier paper on "The Discretionary Society," (Levy 1970), I described consumers as either sufficing, replete, or omnivorous; the Weinbergs appear to be the latter, working hard at participating in the acquisitive segment of American society, fulfilling their wants in generous and often luxurious ways. I also characterized various attitudes toward shopping. Here is one description: "Some shoppers act almost 'pseudopodically,’ wanting to take in all they can, putting out many arms to sweep in a lot, unloading proudly all the substance at the checkout counter (p.324)." Bruce may represent this kind of shopper psychology in an Internet version, perhaps with a grander element of being able to conjure up resources from across the universe, commanding goods to come in from the vast realm of cyberspace. Instead of the labor of self-service in the store, electronic orders go out and the obsequious, fawning tribes of Amazon, Kozmo, and Homeruns send tribute, to be unloaded on the kitchen counter.

A Marketing Professor and Researcher

Being a professor and a marcologist accounts for Bruce’s determination to discover if it is feasible to survive via the 'Net, to test the hypothesis that the "dirt-store-less" future could be said to be here in a rudimentary but sufficient sense. Bruce’s experience shows that it is possible to survive as a consumer for the most part by shopping online and avoiding the stores he defines as brick and mortar. His definition of brick-and-mortar stores and his derogatory attitude oward them as "dirt" stores, is self-serving, as if avoiding retail stores were the goal, rather than finding one’s most beneficial shopping pattern. In fact, all of the commercial purchases that Bruce does make outside his home indicate that he would not be a happy consumer if he stayed home and survived on what he could order only via his computer. As a marketing professor, he knows (or should) that McDonalds is a retail store that sells prepared food, and there is no reason to violate his oath of research by allowing himself to go into restaurants, ballparks, and hotels, which he does when he wants a product, service, or experience that he cannot have online. Except, of course, that he recognizes his unwillingness to substitute the Internet when he acknowledges that he could follow a ball game on his screen. Also, when he has to buy a bicycle tire or gasoline at a gas station, what real difference does it make whether he pays outside or goes into the store? It just shows that buying gasoline online would be a problem. In addition, much of what he does could be done by mail, telephone, and fax rather than the Internet; and he makes use of them as well, presumably because they are electric companions to the Internet and not dirt stores.

Bruce’s anti-brick-and-mortar vow is an amusing way of setting up his project, and as a consumer, he is entitled to his enthusiasm for shopping on the Internet. However, as a research scientist he seems too devoted to his hypothesis, reminding me of the time I wrote a spoof on doing research and said, "My hypotheses were borne out; I know, because I bore them out myself." He exaggerates, saying that visiting bricks-and-mortar retail stores is "living in the dark ages." He tolerates many negative experiences. His insistent determination to find the superiority of Internet shopping tends to arouse counter-argument. Although the assets of shopping on the Internet are apparent, and I have used, Travelocity, Iomega, and eBay, I found myself defending going out to shop, and when I describe his project to other people, they tend to do that, too. One person said, "Only a technical man would do that," and even people who normally gripe about shopping immediately started describing the many pleasures of going shopping in retail stores and malls when faced with the possibility of never doing it at all.

Some of Bruce’s enthusiasms are ineffable or indescribable; he several times says something or other is fascinating without explaining why. He sometimes criticizes Web sites without specifying what is wrong with them. However, as he goes along, his energy for the project and recording of his experience is unflagging. The entries get longer and more detailed. His project grows as he gains skill, and he does not merely shop but issues Noosies and Brucies to indicate his displeasure or appreciation. He is candid in exposing his thoughts and self-evaluations, although he sometimes goes awry. On April 27 he says, "This was not the standard level of Kozmo service. I am surprised to hear myself make a comment like this as I usually am not one for service; has online shopping changed my attitudes toward the importance, meaning, and expectations of service?" However, despite this denial he has obviously been evaluating service all along, as he judges response times, observes whether or not customer service representatives are gracious, and describe his reactions to how he is being treated.


From the foregoing, I conclude the following.

Bruce Weinberg is convinced that he showed the superiority of online shopping in savings of time, money, and in providing a variety of other consumer satisfactions. He does so by playing up the advantages of avoiding retail stores and minimizing the disadvantages of shopping online. The Weinberg experiment with shopping online was not controlled by tight or systematic comparisons with shopping at brick and mrtar stores.

The venture is unnatural, as maintaining a Web site record of one’s search and purchasing behavior is like living in a fish bowl. Weinberg has an audience who pay attention, who send examples of their own experiences and approving email. They come from the media and other organizations to hold interviews and invite talks, and they include research analysts in the wings. All this is exciting and adds a show business flavor to the enterprise. Bruce revels in all this as a performer as well as a shopper, conveying the tone of playing a game in which he is Master of the Universe, lordly dispensing his Brucies and Noosies of approval and chastisement. All this presumably helps to foster his motivation and sustain his perseverance in the face of an accumulation of frustrating experiences with extended searches and poorly designed Web sites. Bruce encounters unresponsive vendors, stupid personnel, unsatisfactory products, omissions, inordinate delays, and mistakes. But, after all, we can get all that at dirt stores, too.

Focusing on successful sites will be essential. By now, HomeWarehouse and PlanetRx, are gone. Gary Putka (2000), in the Wall Street Journal, comments that "At midsummer 2000, the bloom is off the Internet rose. A lengthening list of e-tailersBBeauty Scene, RedRocket, Toysmart, Value American,, to name a fewBhave gone out of business, sold out under duress, or face financial crises. Many Internet stocks are down 50% or more from their highs, and the initial public offering market for an online company is no longer a rocket ride (p. R52)." The wonderful service that has provided Bruce may not continue; in the month of August the online delivery service laid off 275 workers.

Bruce Weinberg shows us that it is possible to shop online for almost everything, and he offers us a glimpse of what the cyberfuture might be like. Other data (WSJ 2000) demonstrate that some products and services are doing increasingly well on the Internet. The projected shares of market penetration for the year 2000 are already estimated to be as high as 29% for financial brokerage; 23% for computer hardware and software; 11% for books; and 10% for music and video, and other substantial shares for travel, event tickets, collectibles, consumer electronics, and toys. In general, the sites that do better are ones that also have the advantage of multi-channels (retail stores, catalogs) due to their convenience, established imagery, and marketing experience.

The online shoppers are all kinds of individuals who shop for particular kinds of goods. They are willing to tolerate the shortcomings of doing so and can be satisfied with reading about products or just seeing them. But Steve Nowlis (2000) shows the importance to some people of the ability to physically inspect and touch merchandise. (A good recent example is the man who devoted himself to crushing bread and cookies.) Those who make greater use of the Internet and shop more across the board are similar to Bruce in their ready access to computers, their facility with computers, their higher social status, and relative affluence. According to Jeffery D. Zbar (2000), the average affluent household owns two PCs; 46% of the affluent use their PCs for investment management (wired millionaires are 79% more likely to trade stocks online than a non-affluent counterpart), and when shopping online, they are more likely to buy across almost all product categories from books to clothing, hotel reservations to sporting goods. Sites they browsed a lot this year are,,, and

Currently, online companies face more competition from offline rivals, low employee morale, consumer reluctance to change buying patterns, and wary investors demanding that these businesses boost profits. But there is little doubt that access to computers will spread, the competition and skill of vendors will increase, and consumers will gain greater familiarity and comfort with shopping online. Doing so will continue to spread and to grow, just as shopping by catalog and telephone did despite the widespread irritation with junk mail" and telemarketing’s maddening dinnertime calls. Some devoted customers might try to do it all online, as Bruce Weinberg has been doing, vividly and with panache. But most people will add the Internet to their several customary shopping channels, just as I suspect Bruce will do when he frees himself from his vow.


Bayne, K.M., (2000), The Internet Marketing Plan, New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Bulkeley, W.M., (2000), "A Step Back," Wall Street Journal, July 17, p. R4.

Frost, R. D., and J. Strauss, (2000), The Internet: A New Marketing tool, Upper Saddle River, NJ.: Prentice Hall.

Levy, S. J., (1970). "The Discretionary Society." in Levy, S.J. (1999), Brands, Consumers, Symbols, and Research, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 319-328.

McLaren, C. H., and B. J. McLaren, (2000), E-commerce: Business on the Internet, Cincinnati, OH: South-Western Educational Publishing.

Nowlis, Steve, (2000), "Online vs. Offline Consumer Decision-Making: The Effect of the Ability to Physically Inspect Merchandise," (research in progress, Arizona State University).

Pepys, S., (1660), The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Heritage Club Edition.

Putka, G., (2000), "The E-Commerce Battleground," Wall Street Journal, July 17, p. R52.

Zbar, J. D., (2000), "E-tailing Fits in Upscale Niche," Advertising Age, August 14, p. s12.

Weinberg, Bruce D., 24/7 Internet Shopping Diary,, Sept., '99-Aug., '00.



Sidney J. Levy, University of Arizona


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28 | 2001

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