Online Shopping and Social Trust

For this assignment I questioned three friends of mine: Rose, a second year linguistics masters student; Zach, a first year chemistry master’s student; and Richard, a bachelor’s in sociology who works in Gainesville.  I asked each of them the following 6 questions in private:

1.) How did you feel the first time you made a purchase online?

2.) Do you prefer to make online purchases from companies (ie. Amazon) or individuals (ie. ebay)?

3.) What factors would cause you to make a purchase online as opposed to at a “brick and mortar” retailer?

4.) What apprehensions, if any, do you have about making online purchases?

5.) How would you feel if all products that were not important in a hurry were sold only online? Why? (food, medicine, first aid, etc. would be unaffected)

6.) If you have ever made a purchase through craigslist, how was the experience? If you have not, why?



1.) Excited, it was a new experience.  And it was so convenient.

2.) I only make online purchases from companies.

3.) Availability (i.e. store doesn’t have it in stock, or won’t for a while), price is cheaper online, free shipping online, more selection/better products available online, online-only promotions or discounts, convenience of not having to go to the store (especially with release day shipping).

4.) If I bought from individuals (i.e., on eBay) I’d be worried about sending payment and not receiving the product (most people send their merchandise only upon receiving payment).

5.) If these were products I didn’t need right away, I’d be fine with it.  If I needed a certain medicine and there was no other way to get it, that would scare me.

6.) I have never made a purchase on craigslist because I don’t trust anyone on there.  I know that there are probably some trustworthy people on there, but the entire site creeps me out so I don’t ever go on there and I wouldn’t ever buy or sell anything on there.


1.) I felt pretty normal.  I trust the large online companies, and they tend to have benefits associated (free shipping, no tax, etc).  I do most of my shopping online now for convenience and to save money.  I fully embrace technology, so this concept seems very natural for me.

2.) I prefer to make purchases from companies, specifically larger companies.  I feel like the transaction is much more secure and dependable.  I also feel that the merchant will live up to their end of the transaction and wont try and cheat you, whereas some ebay sellers may try and trick you.

3.) Convenience by not having to go into a store, taking the time, and using that gas.  Deals such as sales, no tax, no shipping, etc.  I shop mainly based on price, so whatever is net cheaper, I will go with that.

4.) Depends.  I have no apprehensions from buying from large companies.  I am apprehensive that people on ebay and craigslist may be out to try and get you, so I am very careful to read everything several times so I dont miss something.

5.) It would be worrisome if that change was made today, but if this was a change that was made over time I would be for it.  As long as the infrastructure is in place to get what is needed where, I would be in favor of it.  But, I can understand why people would have apprehensions.

6.) I have not.  I consider it to be a less regulated ebay.  I have used ebay, but do so with a lot of apprehension.  Craigslist seems much less secure and more risky, so I avoid it for those reasons.


1.) nervous about whether or not i would actually receive the product i purchased and have the correct amount withdrawn

2.) companies as i am more protected and it’s more trustworthy

3.) Sales, free shipping, tax free, order bonuses

4.) wait time for shipping, returns policies, bad product descriptions

5.) Well typically no problem as most of the things I purchase arrive within 2-5 business days so the wait is quite tolerable

6.) no purchase, I don’t like purchasing many used products


An analysis of the answers I received shows some pretty strong trends throughout the questionnaire.  Firstly, only one of my three respondents seemed to show any kind of apprehension during their first online purchase, the other two showed general satisfaction and trust that it would work.  Secondly, all three of my respondents have a strong affinity to conducting online purchases with large companies over individuals, and cite sales, free shipping, no tax, as well as other discounts and incentives for choosing online as opposed to brick and mortar.  One of my respondents had apprehensions about online purchases that reaches across large companies and individuals, such as bad shipping, return policies and product condition.  The other two respondents only displayed apprehension at the idea of engaging in e-commerce with other individuals, for fear of being cheated.  All respondents were very open to a future where nonessential items would be available online only, suggesting trust in the process.  None of my respondents have ever made purchases through craigslist due to risk, fear of being cheated, or just dislike of used products.

I asked my final craigslist question for the specific purpose of measuring levels of social trust in people who engage in online purchases.  The results show that while online shoppers trust the process, infrastructure and large companies, it does not at all guarantee that they will have high, or even moderate levels of social trust when dealing with individual strangers.  This seems to get at a deeper understanding of the kind of trust generated by online shopping than was seen in the Mutz article.  It does not refute, however, Mutz’s claim that the kind of social trust generated by e-commerce does indeed slick the wheels of the market in our society.  But if we are using social trust as a parameter that measures trust in individual strangers, then it seems that Mutz’s conclusions are off, and online purchasing does not help in raising it at all.  Small sample size, however, dooms both Mutz’s and my results into the realm of utter ungeneralizability.

10 Responses to “Online Shopping and Social Trust”
  1. Xuerui says:

    I like your questions especially the last one. It did give us a clue of level of generalized social trust people have on online purchase. I did not notice the no tax benefit of online purchase. It seems people do buy stuff online for the reasons like no tax, free shipping and promotions. As long as the purchase is secure, online purchase is a great deal. In my survey, one of my respondent also mentioned she did not worry at all if the purchase was made on official websites. I guess if online stores are well structured and have a good reputation where security could be better guaranteed, customers’ social trust will increase, too.

  2. clocke22 says:

    I like how you broke down different types of shopping: companies (amazon,, individuals through an intermediary (ebay, amazon auctions) and directly from individual (craigslist). I tended to focus on the purchase from companies aspect. But the three are really very different transactions: a company has a complaint department, an image to worry about and so on; an individual through a site like ebay or amazon has their approval rating at stake and there might also be insurance or a guarantee by the thrid party; with craigslist or similar sites, you are on your own! I guess we might really trust corporations more than people in some circumstance.

  3. I really liked your question about people’s feelings if all commerce were done only online. I’d like to know what other people think about that too. I don’t know that I’d spend so much as I do in a store, truthfully, because for so many purchases (even books, I must admit) there’s something to be said for the browsing effect. Target gets me everytime I go in to buy a $10 item and walk out with $40 of stuff. Online I usually head straight for the search field and can stay more focused.

    Also, I think there’s a little paradox going on in the world. I would say there’s a common grass-roots trend going on in America that is anti-chain, anti-superstore. Yet, these same people turn immediately to Amazon and shy away from the local economy folks on Craigslist. I wonder if that will change the business landscape.

  4. joneelauriel says:

    I think you asked really good questions that distinguished online shopping into different categories. I think we all grouped online shopping under one big group but there are man different avenues to achieve this. Especially since your respondents identified a clear difference between shopping at Amazon and Craiglist even though they both have individual sellers, Amazon is more established and may offer a much higher comfort level. Also, one respondent said “I am apprehensive that people on ebay and craigslist may be out to try and get you” but had no apprehension shopping from large companies and listed a number of advantages to shopping online. The fact that the respondent said PEOPLE are trying to get you shows that online purchasing doesn’t necessarily equal higher social trust or confidence in people as Mutz suggested.

  5. caseyawilson says:

    I agree with the previous commenters that your questions were well-constructed to get at various aspects of online shopping. I find the answers about Craigslist most interesting, because I agree with the comparison of the site to the newspaper classifieds that was mentioned in class. It would be interesting to see if people have the same fear of buying from strangers through, say, the newspaper that they do on Craigslist, or if there’s something specific to the internet/Craigslist’s reputation that makes them lose that trust.

  6. My major problem with Mutz’s article was that she doesn’t ever clearly link the internet purchasing experience to any sort of offline social trust or individual social trust, though that seems to be what she thinks will result. She doesn’t measure it (is there a way to really measure it) or discuss or define it explicitly. Both her results and yours show a developing trust in a mechanism, a process, rather than individual strangers. Like you, my results seemed to indicate a trust in corporations overall, brand loyalty potentially even developing a monopoly – all of my respondents seem to do most of their shopping on Amazon. The existence of the Amazon Marketplace may contribute more to social trust in individuals, but as you’ve found, there seems to be distrust of strangers; I think that’s equalled by some shoppers’ fear of financial security and the loss of control over the exhange of money, which may seem more controllable when contracted face to face – but with a trusted person or store, not a stranger met on Craigslist. I think the idea of a controlled situation emerges strongly, with the trust that a corporation can provide that.

  7. francescalyn says:

    I really like the questions you chose to ask!

    A lot of what was stated by the participants is consistent with some of the things we discussed in class – trusting large companies rather than individual strangers. And this makes sense – companies spend millions in marketing to get us to like and trust them. We have an illusion of being in a safe controlled environment that a place like Best Buy or Amazon creates, even if it is a virtual one.

    #5 was a really interesting question to ask. I was actually surprised at your participants’ responses. I would have guess their would have been at least one voice in strong opposition.

  8. “Dooms your results,” heh. Your path of questioning reminded me of a time I was apprehensive about a purchase — from an Amazon seller. I think the person had good reviews, but I was ordering a big glossy book of photography, and I worried that it might arrive all banged up from the USPS. However, when it arrived it took me a long while to free it from its packaging — it had been wrapped more carefully and securely than just about anything I have ever received via mail, FedEx, etc. Probably that increased my willingness to trust random sellers, if not my generalized social trust.

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