During our upbringing, we all heard the phrase, “Don’t talk to strangers.” While this notion may fall under the umbrella of common sense, the internet has challenged its rigidity. Today people interact with strangers online every day. Sites like Craigslist, eBay, and Amazon have enabled me to buy and sell products all around the globe to anyone with an internet connection and a shipping address. But is it any safer to buy things from strangers than to talk to them?
The Ecommerce Issue
While Ecommerce is moving at the speed of light, the question of “how do I know what I’m getting when I buy online?” frequently goes unanswered. You run the risk that when your purchase shows up at your door, it is completely different from your perceived purchase. Beyond products that are simply cheaper than expected, counterfeit products can pose serious risks to consumers’ health and safety. The New York Times reported last year that on Amazon.com, thousands of counterfeit or downright harmful goods from third party sellers flood the digital marketplace without detection. For example, a child safety harness claiming to be FAA approved was actually a knockoff with no verified safety credentials. Amazon has trouble identifying disingenuous vendors before they have already sold knockoff products to dissatisfied consumers. Brick and mortar stores present greater barriers to counterfeit or dangerous products ending up on shelves, but many of those barriers do not exist in an ecommerce environment open to 3rd party sellers. I’m concerned that I might purchase harmful products online without being able to verify where the product was made, its contents, and the validity of the certifications it touts, and this issue is scaling quickly.
The Scale of the Problem
As COVID-19 began forcing lockdowns worldwide throughout 2020, Ecommerce sales grew by 44% from 2019, and online purchasing jumped from 15% to 21% of total retail sales in the United States. This trend is not likely to reverse, but rather accelerate as consumers become more comfortable with online purchasing experiences. However, a reported 86% of Americans believe that transparency from companies is more important than ever, and that a lack of transparency will drive their business to a competitor. Additionally, 2 out of 3 Americans hold brands responsible from protecting them from fake versions of their products online, and 71% believe brands currently should be doing more. Brands must meet consumers’ transparency requirements and distinguish themselves from bad actors; the question is how?
Transparency networks offer a practical solution to the issues of trust and verification. Companies and brands will participate in a network where they can make claims about their products, practices, and credentials supported by evidence. These networks will be governed by an industry association or consortia that democratizes the standards of transparency all participants must follow to promote greater accountability. The transparency provided by these networks will allow consumers to shop with confidence, and to form trusting relationships with brands that are forthcoming with information that aligns with their values. The importance of being wary of strangers has not dwindled at all in the age of ecommerce, but the solution for companies is: “Don’t go being a stranger.”