There's too much friction in e-commerce

Many local businesses must now adopt online ordering due to covid-19 and social distancing. Restaurants, wine shops, coffee shops, and many other types of local retail businesses who likely never would've put much thought into the idea of taking online orders now need to provide their customers the ability to order online for pickup.

Local clothing boutiques, wine shops, coffee shops, and of course restaurants all have to think about physical space in a fundamentally different way. For some businesses like coffee shops this is probably more of a minor inconvenience, but for others it's a forced paradigm shift in consumer behavior, and their survival will depend on their ability to adapt to a digital-first existence.

Can a local clothing boutique survive in a digitally native world if customers can't roam around the store to look at products? The quality of digital tools and platforms will likely play a key role in answering this question.

Someone is going to build the Shopify for local retail, here's what I think it might look like.

Search, Browse, Discovery

One of the nice things about going to a local retailer is you get to talk to a human being who might have some expertise and point you in the right direction. At your local wine shop, you might tell the person working that you're having fish tonight for dinner, and usually they'll recommend a nice pairing.

But in an e-commerce shopping experience, you're on your own. Technology can and should support connecting you with someone who works at the store who can guide you, but we the tools themselves should make it easy to filter at this level.

The existing e-commerce tools are primarily geared for digitally native businesses, but for this new wave local retailers wading into e-commerce, the whole experience involves way too much friction.

Let's say I want to pick up a couple bottles of wine from my local wine shop. Normally I'd go in to the physical store, find the Italian section, and look around for wines from Piedmont.

Here's a photo of Helen's Wine here in LA. Below is a video of their e-commerce shop running on Shopify.

A couple things to note here. First, discoverability via browsing is basically non-existent. I either have to browse pages and pages or know exactly what I'm looking for. No filtering by region, varietal, price – pretty standard vectors people use when shopping for wine.

There are lots of ways we can leverage technology to improve upon the in-person browse and discovery process, but the above experience doesn't even match the in-person experience. In fact it's much, much worse.

Second, I made a minor typo in spelling nebbiolo, and I get an empty results page. Search results should be instant on every keystroke, and minor typos shouldn't effect my results.

Overall, the way we browse and filter products on online stores leaves much to be desired. It's inefficient, unimaginative and slow. It's hard to think of an experience that wouldn't benefit from instant search, contextual filtering and clicking and browsing only as a last resort.


Speed is especially important for a local business where, as the consumer, my goal is to get in and out of this digital experience and back to meatspace as quickly as possible, so I can get to the actual store to pick up the order. If I'm going to a wine shop's website to order a couple bottles, I ought to be able to get in and out in 30 seconds if I know what I'm looking for.


The current e-commerce checkout experience is rooted in a previous reality where e-commerce was less ubiquitous. But e-commerce adoption is accelerating at a rapid rate and consumers are fatigued with creating accounts and passwords and entering credit cards. The current e-commerce checkout experiences are rooted in this previous reality where e-commerce shopping was a destination rather than a distribution requirement.

In this new reality, there shouldn't be a checkout at all. It should just be pay and pickup. One page, no account creation, everything tied to mobile number or email. No one wants to create yet another account, enter the credit card details yet again to buy coffee or a couple bottles of wine. This should be a one-tap checkout via Apple Pay.

The checkout experience should add the absolute minimum amount of friction over what would happen in a physical store necessary to complete the transaction.

This checkout friction extends beyond local retailers trying to adopt digitally native e-commerce tools. Here's a long-running thread of Shopify users complaining about an overly complicated checkout process. And then there are companies like trying to create something of a simplified, decentralized checkout.

E-commerce as Digital Middleware

Local retail businesses use any number of back-office systems to manage inventory, market to customers, and manage their staff. A typical local retail business might look something like this:

  • Gusto for payroll
  • Square for in-person payments
  • Mailchimp for email marketing
  • Shopify for e-commerce (especially for business that ship things like wine shops and clothing stores)
  • Uber Eats + Postmates for delivery and platform sales channels
  • Possibly yet another system to track inventory

Any new entrant in this space must recognize this reality and integrate with everything.

We'll be in living in a socially distanced world for some time to come, and businesses and our tools must adapt to this new reality.

#product, covid19

A Disabled React component

Fairly often in a React app you need to disable a component based on a prop or some state. Using a Disabled component is a clean and reusable way to handle that conditional logic.

You could choose to implement disabled by not showing the component at all (eg setting display: none), or you can do as I've done here and change the opacity to gray out the component. Most importantly, you can easily disable click events by setting the pointerEvents css property to none.

#react, todayilearned, Work Journal

Tuesday Reading - April 14, 2020

  1. Headless Brands - Other Internet (Toby Shorin, Laura Lotti, Sam Hart, Bryan Lehrer)
    Deep, thought-provoking ideas on brand in the modern decentralized age.

    A brand is a cultural phenomenon that emerges only when these things come into contact with people. A brand lives in the minds of those who are aware of it.

    As a brand grows, it becomes more than a set of first impressions and associations. Its reputation precedes it. As impressions are shared across users and consumers, they often develop similar sentiments. In this way, a brand operates as a consensus system, facilitating a consistent set of beliefs across people.

  2. ActivityPub Could be the Future - Kye Fox
    A proposal for a newer publishing distribution system. ActivityPub has been around for a while but seems to have some new life breathed into it.

  3. Investing in Roam Research - Jeff Morris
    My good friend @jmj has officially joined the #roamcult.

  4. Roam Research Advanced Features

  5. The Day You Became a Better Writer - Scott Adams
    Hat-tip to @shanemac for putting this in front of me and encouraging me to write clearer.

#assorted links, roam research, culture

Weekend + Monday Reading

I fell into one of those wonderful internet rabbit holes this weekend, discovering some incredibly smart, insightful voices talking about this rare cultural moment.

  1. Spatial Software - John Palmer
    One of the more thought-provoking essays on modern software and culture I've read in a long time. Coronavirus is catapulting the culture forward into the need for spatial dynamics in our software.
  2. Open Transclude for Networked Writing - Toby Shorin
    An interesting proposal for a new kind of embed on the web, something of a modern successor to the block quote. I may integrate it on this blog and release it as an open source plugin for ghost blogs.
  3. He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus - NYT
    In the midst of a moment where the mainstream media has either failed or severely lagged the pace of information online, this is an incredible reminder of where the traditional media can be incredibly effective: investigative, long-form journalism.
  4. The Cultural Constants of Contagion - Ed Simon
    This essay looks at the social and cultural similarities amongst pandemics across time. What's old is new, and new is old.
  5. Two Hundred Fifty Things an Architect Should Know - Michael Sorkin
  6. 18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism

#assorted links

Tuesday Assorted Links - 03/31/20

  1. Once in a Lifetime - Ben Hunt, Epsilon Theory

    What do I mean by sociopathy and division?

    I mean the way our political and economic leaders beat the narrative drum about how this virus prefers to kill the old rather than the young, as if that matters for our policy choices, as if older Americans are lesser Americans, as if we should think of them differently – with less empathy – than Americans who are more like “us”.

  2. Why We Sleep — a tale of institutional failure - Andrew Gelman
    That latest tale of research malfeasance in the very popular "pop science" bestseller Why We Sleep. The author Matthew Walker seems to have very egregiously omitted data to support his hypotheses.

  3. The Corona Crisis vs. The Great Depression - Ben Carlson
    Sober-minded compare/contrast between now and the Great Depression. Some dynamics are similar, others are very different (a well-functioning Fed, social programs, Keynesianism).

  4. A Vision of Post-Pandemic New York - Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg

  5. Fiscal Policy during a Pandemic - Miguel Faria e Castro, St Louis Fed

    I find that UI benefits are the most effective tool to stabilize income for borrowers, who are the hardest hit, while savers favor unconditional transfers. Liquidity assistance programs are effective if the policy objective is to stabilize employment in the affected sector.

  6. Lockdowns and GDP Is there a tradeoff? - Andrew G. Atkeson

    If we lock everyone down, we save lives, but we lose economic output. But what if we go back to work now? We will lose lives, but will we gain economic output?

  7. Two COVID-19 initiatives - Alex Danco

#assorted links, markets, economics

Monday Links - 03/30/20

  1. Corporate Socialism: The Government is Bailing Out Investors & Managers Not You - Nassim Taleb
    I have major problems with Taleb's premise of the financial crisis bailouts – specifically that there was some quid pro quo with Geithner and "the financial industry" vis-a-vis Geithner supposedly defending the bankers. But I agree 1000% with Taleb's larger point that if the US Government is bailing out an industry, someone ought to take a haircut.

  2. NY Fed: Fight the Pandemic, Save the Economy: Lessons from the 1918 Flu - Sergio Correia, Stephan Luck, and Emil Verner
    The authors draw two main conclusions using city-level data from the 1918 Flu pandemic. First, higher mortality rates lead to lower economic growth. Second, non-pharmaceutical interventions (social distancing) lead to both lower mortality and better economic outcomes over the medium term (e.g. lower unemployment and higher growth).

    On the contrary, cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively experienced a relative increase in real economic activity after the pandemic subsided. Altogether, our findings suggest that pandemics can have substantial economic costs, and NPIs can lead to both better economic outcomes and lower mortality rates.

  3. The St. Louis Fed’s Financial Stress Index, Version 2.0
    This post provides great detail on how the Fed improved on the Financial Stress Index to improve it's accuracy.

  4. A Short History of Dead Cat Bounces - Ben Carlson

#assorted links, economics, markets

Friday Links

  1. An Explanation for Stock Market Gains from Nikolaos Panigirtzoglou (JPM) - MarketWatch

    Pension funds and so-called balanced mutual funds need to start re-jigging their portfolios in favor of stocks as the selloff in equities and rally in government bonds has driven down the value of their equity relative to their bond positions. Commodity trading advisors and long-short equity hedge funds have also had to cover their short bets on stocks.

#assorted links, markets

Thursday Links

  1. How Bill Ackman Turned $27 Million Into $2.6 Billion During the Coronavirus Crisis
    Shorting historically tight credit spreads, as it turns out. That's how you 100x $27 million.

  2. The Pandemic in My Neighborhood - Michael Lewis, Bloomberg

  3. FRED Restaurant Data

  4. The Changing World Order - Ray Dalio

  5. The Fed Goes All In With Unlimited Bond-Buying Plan - Jeanna Smialek, NYT

    Aggressive efforts must be taken across the public and private sectors to limit the losses to jobs and incomes and to promote a swift recovery once the disruptions abate,


  6. The Fed Asks for BlackRock’s Help in an Echo of 2008 - Matthew Goldstein, NYT

  7. How the Pandemic Will End - Ed Yong, The Atlantic

  8. The Cheesecake Factory Tells Landlords Across the Country It Won’t Be Able to Pay Rent on April 1 - Matthew Kang, Eater
    Cheesecake Factory is the largest dine-in restaurant group in the country, and they're not paying their rent this month. How do you think mom and pops are going to manage? It's gonna be a rough month for commercial landlords and CMBS.

  9. Nobody Wants a Margin Call Right Now - Matt Levine, Bloomberg

#assorted links, markets

Bill Gross: How Technology Can Solve the Climate Crisis

I had the privilege of seeing this presentation in person. It is a masterclass in presentation, critical thinking, framing, and so much more. In 25 minutes Bill successfully defines, educates, contextualizes, and presents (viable) solutions to the climate crisis, and does so in an engaging, entertaining, inspiring way. It's one of the best presentations I've ever seen.

Framing is Everything

Bill frames the climate crisis in terms that are easy to digest and quantify. A couple of choice bits that efficiently and effectively define the nature of the problem:

Each of us is putting our body weight in CO2 up into the atmosphere every single day.
The extra heat that we're adding to the planet, to the ground to the oceans, because of that extra CO2 is equal to three Hiroshima bombs going off every single second of every single day.
A billion animals died in Australia just last month.

When you read these stats, you fucking get it. There's a lot of hard science underneath these high-level qualitative headline stats, but they're not all that helpful for defining the problem. The goal here was to define the problem in order to inspire action. To do that, you have to contextualize the problem in terms your audience understands.

Framing really is everything.

Pick One Thing: Price

Climate change can be intellectually intimidating. This frames the one key metric anyone attempting a solution must solve in the simplest possible terms: price.

If the way to solve the climate crisis is to stop burning fossil fuels, then you can't solve them problem without solving price. You have to make any solution cheaper than oil.

Second & N-Order Thinking

In this slide, he sums up all the ways energy can be stored:

How can we use gravity in a novel way to store energy? I won't summarize the whole talk here. I'll just say that it's inspiring and illuminating to watch him walk through the process of distilling hard engineering problems to consumable chunks, and take you through the process of discovering creative solutions. It's "big E" Engineering before your eyes.

There's too much to praise and fawn over in this presentation. Enjoy.

#climate change, inspiration