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.

  • What Amy’s folks should do is think about items that will bring in hunters/fishers. Like offering guides to local trails, hunting/fishing spots. They might also set up a website, yeah? and get the state to link to their website from the state list of licensing agents. I have been rather surprised at how mediocre (or absent) many sporting goods stores websites are. Even the big box sporting goods stores like Cabelas and Sportsmans Warehouse have pretty lousy websites. So, perhaps there is a possible tie in for smaller stores to either work together to create an online presence with local resources available specific to the region? I wrote about the remarkable amount of money being spent on outdoors sports these days here, and the big box stores cannot possibly have all of it….

  • One other consequence, related to the one that you just mentioned, is the “end” of impulse buy. E-commerce keeps trying to show you products as you are checking out from a site, but that doesn’t cut it. It just clutters the screen and you keep looking for the “Checkout” button anyway. The other aspect is that you have time, plenty of time, to regret your purchase, go back and cancel it. And it just takes a few minutes to do so. If you buy a product on a brick-and-mortar, you are much more likely to not return that product.

  • Evan

    We frequently fly Southwest Airlines, which does away with formal seat assignment in favor of first-come-first-served three-zone seating (first group of passengers to check in get a zone “A” boarding pass, and are allowed to board before anyone in zone “B” or “C”). Getting issued an “A” or “B” boarding pass generally means you get a better seat selection, less hassle storing carry-on items in overhead compartments, etc.

    For the past year or so, Southwest has allowed customers to check in online as early as midnight on the day of a flight.

    While this feature was little-known, it meant that “in-the-know” folks could pretty much be guaranteed zone “A” or “B” boarding so long as they checked in more than a few hours ahead of take-off.

    Now, however, most are wise, and getting a decent boarding pass means you better be at right at midnight or it’s back of the plane city for you and yours. A recent attempt to check-in at 12:09am (Pacific) for an 8pm flight that day yielded a paltry “C” pass for this check-in latecomer.

  • I have spent alot of time with local small merchants over the past year trying to understand what they are using the net for. It is amazing how alot of them are beginning to use it to leverage the one asset they inherently have against the big box, they are in fact local and small.

    Much as we are seeing with other parts of the web where community matters, things like,, and are all allowing very local merchants to in fact be that, very local and very successful.

  • Adam

    A few months back, Colorado signed a deal with a company called NIC Corp. NIC run’s Colorado’s state portal and is porting many applications–including obtaining drivers license renewals and hunting and fishing license–to the Web.

  • Virgilio

    Changing grounds… While more commerce and more chanels are by all means positive for the whole, there are some individual losses in the adaptation. It’s just like the jungle or the darwin’s law: only the more adapted will survive.

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