Dec 28 2005

The Web’s Unintended Consequences

When I saw my first demo of the World Wide Web at an MIT Athena Cluster in 1994 (it was Freshman Fishwrap – among other things – running on a very clunky version of Mosaic) I remember thinking something along the lines of “wow – this could be used for a lot of things.”  Duh. 

Every now and then I run into an unintended consequence of the Web.  I’ve been involved in many companies that were trying to create “intended consequences” (some succeeded, some failed), but I’m intrigued when I stumble upon an unintended consequence, especially if it’s buried deep in the fabric of the mainstream.

I found one the other day.  Amy and I were visiting her relatives in Hotchkiss, Colorado.  Hotchkiss is in the middle of the western foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is a beautiful place, has some great running, and – while I’m probably the only jew for 50 miles – I’m always welcomed by Amy’s wonderful family at Christmas time.  Amy’s uncle Mike and aunt Kathy own Weekender Sports – the local sporting goods store (need a snowmobile, ATV, fishing rod, gun, or ammo anyone?)  It’s a great local store and is everything you’d expect.

I was sitting around talking with Amy’s cousin Mario who helps run the store and I asked him how business was.  While the answer was “generally good”, we talked about the ups and downs of a local retail store (big city discounters, Wal*Mart, up and down days, challenging suppliers.) 

One comment that Mario made that stood out was that “business is slow at the beginning of hunting season.”  I pressed on this and asked him why he thought this was the case.  The answer was stunningly simple – the Colorado Division of Wildlife now sells hunting and fishing licenses on the Web.  Historically, if you wanted to hunt or fish in Colorado, you had to go to one of the Colorado license agents (e.g. Weekender Sports) and buy your license. This resulted in lots of traffic to the store, especially visitors from out of state who were coming to Colorado for a hunting / fishing vacation who wouldn’t otherwise go to the store.  While you can still buy the license in the store, many people are opting to purchase them online since it’s better to have everything done in advance rather than have to scramble around on your first day of your trip.  Of course, the unintended consequence is that visitors from out of state don’t bother stopping in at the local sporting goods store to pick up their license, and – correspondingly – don’t buy the random extra hunting and fishing gear they forgot to bring with them.

Now – there’s plenty of ongoing discussion about e-commerce and the endless shift of purchasing from stores to the Web (Amy bought almost all of her Christmas presents on the Web this year.)  But – this example has an interesting effect.  Think of the aggregate amount of secondary in-store purchases that won’t get made because one could get their fishing / hunting license on the Web.  While you might think this is not a big deal, it clearly has impact on local merchants like Weekender Sports and is yet another e-commerce side effect that mainstream American businesses have to contend with.