Practical Ecommerce Advice: Seat Belts and Airbags

Practical Ecommerce Advice: Seat Belts and Airbags


When you're setting up your Shopify store, ask yourself if what you're working on is a seat belt or an airbag solution. 

One of the things we love at Shopify, particularly in the Customer Success department, is data. We’re constantly experimenting with new ways to help our merchants sell more product faster. If we find that a certain approach to handling email means we can respond quicker, and then we find that responding quicker gives our shops the confidence and information they need to have more successful stores... we’ve got a new policy.

So what does this have to do with car crashes?

I was recently reading the book Superfreakonomics, and one anecdote from the book that leapt out at me was the relative impact of seat belts and airbags on road fatalities. Prior to the introduction of seat belts in the mid-1950s, road fatalities were considerably more frequent than they are today, but with the introduction of the seat belt, a relatively inexpensive piece of equipment, fatalities started dropping. The seat belt was wildly successful because it was cheap and effective; when you divide the reduction in fatalities by the total amount of money spent on seat belts, the cost per life saved is roughly $30,000.

Contrast that with airbags. There’s no disagreement that they save lives, and I’m not suggesting you get them removed from your car, but as a piece of equipment they’re considerably more complex. There’s accelerometers and pressure sensors and explosives and they all have to work together perfectly. This means that they’re considerably more expensive than seat belts, and beyond that, their impact on road fatalities was considerably less than that of seat belts. By running the same numbers we ran on seat belts, we find that the amount spent to save a life with airbags is $1.8 million. The original paper on the subject goes into much more detail.

I bring all this up because, especially in the early stages of setting up an online store, there’s a LOT of work to do. The list of things you can do to improve your site would easily run 3 times longer than this blog post. And in that list, there’s a whole lot of airbag solutions (moderate impact, significant time/energy expense) and a whole lot of seatbelt solutions (big impact, minimal time/energy expense). Particularly for stores that are being launched as a side project to other work you’re currently doing, finding ways to optimize the time you spend on the shop is critical to your success. 

Anytime you sit down to put a couple hours of work into your shop, ask yourself if what you’re doing is a seat belt or an airbag solution. The sooner your shop is up, running, and selling products, the sooner you’ll have the time and energy to start working on the incremental improvements that turn a successful store into a wildly successful store.


  • William Johnson
    William Johnson
    July 08 2011, 02:46PM

    Brilliant analogy, Brian. Reminds me of something I would read in ReWork.

  • Mike
    July 08 2011, 07:49PM

    It seems to me that it depends on what comes first. While the airbag is more expensive for sure, your per-life-saved number would be a lot better if it came out before the seatbelt. If you’re working on software, maybe you don’t need a seatbelt and an airbag, but maybe you need an airbag without a seatbelt. It’s, of course, all about the application.

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