On the internet, a secret awaits. A wondrous website, virtually unknown in the buzzy halls of Facebook and Twitter, which hearkens back to a simplicity so profound it could nearly be called Zen. Behold the glory of McMaster-Carr, the universe's most convenient website!
At first glance, it doesn't look like much. Where are the splashy editorial product shots? Where are the how-to's, the special offers, the inspiration galleries? Wherefore art thou, social media buttons?
McMaster reduces its shopping experience to what you need, and nothing more. They don't have photos of their products - instead, they have black-and-white technical drawings, rendered from exactly the same perspective (you can even download the CAD files). If you're looking for screws and bolts at McMaster, a single click on the homepage brings you here:
It's clean, it's simple, and it's extremely easy to find what you're looking for, even if you can't remember what it's called. By comparison, this is what you get from Lowe's:
It took me four clicks to bring up 117 pages of 32 bolts. And while you can narrow down the categories on the left, the hardware itself can only be sorted by price, brand, best sellers, or ratings. I guess if it takes 25 minutes to find the right bolt for a project, you can at least be assured that it's popular and the buyers enjoyed it.
To be fair, most of the people who go to McMaster-Carr are buying products for industrial use. Their washer and dryer department contains exactly one washer and one dryer, which look identical to the 1970's appliances my family had in the basement. The all-gray color scheme on their paint pages isn't very conducive to finding a color to liven up the kitchen, although they have several acid-resistant options if your living situation requires it. But the organization of the site is flawless. If you know exactly what you want, it's added to your order in a few clicks. If you need to browse, simple descriptions and a smart sorting interface help you narrow down your choices. Even the unicorn of the hardware store, the lost Ikea part, can turn up with just a cursory search.
If you don't go to the hardware store very often, this might all seem academic. You've never thought about what kind of abrasive goes on your sandpaper, and you're not about to get excited over a dozen different wire-stripper options. But think about how frustrating and messy big-box sites can be. Visiting Amazon is like being blasted in the face by a shotgun loaded with banner ads. Best Buy's front page is almost entirely taken up by special offers and social-media content. Even Apple, usually a paragon of clean, functional design, has a jumble of unrelated accessories and "trending" items on the front page of its store. Meanwhile, an industrial hardware supplier has one of the best-designed and most user-friendly sites on the web. On the other hand, Lowe's has almost 3 million likes on Facebook.