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A Certain Affinity for the Internet

What a Cleveland Browns Visa card says about the future of online shopping.

12:00 AM, May 2, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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I JUMPED AT the chance to replace my old Visa card with a Cleveland Browns Visa card. Who wouldn't want to telegraph appreciation for the Super Bowl-bound Browns with every purchase of gas? That was my first clue.

"Affinity" credit cards, like specialized California license plates promoting Yosemite or the arts, are just ways of connecting personal taste to the fabric of our lives. Much bigger connections are on the way.

I discovered this while flogging my new book. On my own program as well as during other interviews, I direct impatient customers to Amazon.com. More than $610 million in sales were made there last year, and I hope some this year will be for my book. It is also invigorating to watch a book move from #1,287,250 to #12 in a week, even though veteran Amazon.com watchers will tell you it is impossible to say what this jump actually means.

But then the e-mails began to arrive from would-be purchasers who won't touch products from Amazon. These correspondents told me that Amazon.com carried books they considered deeply offensive and the company had refused to discontinue the availability of the titles that offended them. (I have not been able to review the books in question, but I don't doubt that in the inventory of Amazon.com there are thousands of titles that would offend many and which prompt such resolutions of non-patronage.)

My correspondents urged me to arrange for the book to be available at FamilyChristian.com or ChristianBook.com, two online retailers that take the content of their inventory seriously. I listen to the marketplace, and am working on a promotion with the Family Christian chain of bookstores.

These exchanges prompted me to look into the size of the Internet market. As usual, the Wall Street Journal had just provided some updates. The Journal reported that 63 of the nation's largest 100 retailers are now selling their wares online. Staples, for example, sold $11.6 billion in office supplies last year, with online sales accounting for $1.6 billion--a more than tenfold increase in their online sales from 1999. That's not a trend--that's an explosion. Incredibly, the Journal added in a separate account, folks are now buying even big ticket items like furniture online: $252 million in armchairs and couches went out over the web this past year. And even the names most associated with quality and tradition--say L.L. Bean, the standard for the outdoorsman--have married their reputation to Internet marketing.

The next question is when will the affinity trend meet the Internet purchasing tsunami? The refusal of a few of my listeners to buy from Amazon.com is the negative side of a potentially positive marketing strategy. It will not be long before one or more of a consumer's primary attachments--church, charity, and politics are the big three--will enter into purchasing decisions. If your retail dollars can benefit not only yourself but, through profit-sharing, a favored organization or cause, why not do so? Price ultimately drives purchasing, but the value added of supporting a preferred secondary beneficiary will be a powerful magnet for online customers.

Even the very rational world of economists will not rebel against the idea of basing purchasing decisions on issues other than price and service. If by buying a book--or a stove, or a car, or a vacation rental--from a seller who is connected to my politics or my faith would help them, why wouldn't I do it?

The National Religious Broadcasters released a study Wednesday, noting that 132 million Americans attended church sometime in March. The study also revealed that 141 million Americans used some form of Christian media. This is a huge subset of the marketplace, and the decision to invest the time and effort necessary to attend church underscores the seriousness of the commitment. If this group, or any similarly situated group, begins to use the ease of the Internet to connect its underlying beliefs to its daily expenditures, the upheavals in marketing will be unprecedented.

I have an absolutely ludicrous-looking Visa card in my wallet. It is the leading edge of a revolution.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.