Shame & Commerce: How Tech has Changed Consumer Behavior
It’s no secret that people generally don’t like to feel uncomfortable and will go to great lengths to avoid the judgement of other people. In avoidance of shame, consumers will alter their behavior, even in the way that they spend their hard-earned money. Purchasing potentially embarrassing products or services, tipping in line with societal expectations, and visiting questionable establishments may add mental friction to otherwise simple transactions. In the past decade however, technology has enabled the manipulation and removal of shame from many different transactional situations, resulting in rapid shifts in the way consumers spend.
For instance, take the case of Square, the popular point of sale software that often includes a tablet for customers to checkout on. Square changed the tipping experience for many cafes and restaurants from “opt-in” to “opt-out.” Rather than actively filling in the “tip” line on a credit card receipt or dropping cash into a tip jar, customers are now faced with a few different tip amounts as well as a “No Tip” option on Square tablets, and must pick one option in order to finish checkout. The shame of pressing the “No Tip” button — especially in front of the cashier or other patrons — likely pressures customers into tipping more or more often than they otherwise would. Hence, you end up tipping $1 on your $3 cup of coffee.
On the other hand, delivery services like DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Postmates often disassociate the action of tipping your delivery person either temporally or personally. Whereas paying for a pizza delivery in cash was historically accompanied by the expectation to hand the driver an acceptable cash tip, delivery apps have removed this pressure. Has this resulted in users tipping less than in the past?
Delivery services can also empower consumers to order food from restaurants that they otherwise may be embarrassed to visit in person, removing the humiliation of potentially being sighted. Perhaps the best example is McDonald’s, specifically in health-conscious cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles. While it may be unfathomable for some people to step foot inside the depressing interior of a fast food joint, their guilty pleasure may be worth the added cost of delivery. Uber has even boasted that Uber Eats accounts for up to 10% of McDonald’s food sales at participating locations.
This removal of shame in commerce has even bigger implications than tipping or eating habits. Companies like Ro, hims, and Nurx utilize telemedicine to grant users access to medication for erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, premature ejaculation, hair loss, birth control, and even genital herpes — without the need to visit a doctor in person and explain their condition.
Cannabis is another delivery category benefitting from the shame of some users. While Americans’ attitudes have progressed relatively quickly on the issue, perhaps some users still want to avoid walking into a dispensary in their neighborhood, opting instead to have their favorite cannabis products delivered by Eaze or dutchie for a nominal fee.
Even self-checkout kiosks at grocery and convenience stores like CVS and Target eliminated discomfort from everyday purchases, allowing customers to discreetly purchase personal items in a pinch without the potentially judgemental eyes of a cashier. Of course, the internet and e-commerce were the ultimate shame-removing mechanisms. Not only could one purchase anything without having to come face-to-face with another individual, they could also setup automatic recurring payments for services (for example, a subscription to an adult website…). Out of sight, out of mind.
Even though consumers today are more empowered than ever before to spend how they want without feeling judged (except for the case of Square…), there remain opportunities for companies to further address the friction of shame. Perhaps the most important and biggest opportunity is removing the shame and stigma from mental healthcare, and empowering people to discreetly access mental health professionals and medication when appropriate. While companies like Talkspace and Modern Health are embarking on this mission, it seems they have a long way to go until they’re as popular as Square or DoorDash. Here’s to hoping one day there’s no reason for consumers to feel any shame at all for how they spend their money.