in Hmm Weekly
on June 15, 2021

I NEEDED TO buy a toilet—two toilets, really—and it was not going well. There are well-reported supply-chain problems in the home-improvement sector because so many people wore out either the physical equipment of their living spaces or their emotional ability to live in those spaces, and they all decided to change things at once. And so things that you assume are inherently available turn out not to be available, or places you assume would always have everything in stock do not have everything in stock. 

We pretty quickly gave up on having a strong aesthetic plan about what the toilets should look like. If you want to be fussy about the visual design of your bathroom fixtures in the spring/summer of 2021, you have to be entirely unfussy about when you might actually get those fixtures, which is not easy to do, given the purpose of the fixtures. 

But that didn’t make the shopping that much simpler! There were still specifications that had to be met: We’d picked a particular brand, because we knew their toilets worked. The rough-in distance from the wall had to fit the bathrooms. We didn’t want a looming tall toilet or a space-crowding elongated bowl—just normal height, normal shape. Normal white, not some “biscuit” or “ivory.” And we wanted to make sure to get a 1.6 gallon tank, because one issue on which I do basically agree with the previous president of the United States is the inadequacy of weak-flushing water-saving toilets. An ordinary, functional toilet that would fit where it was supposed to go and could be trusted to do its job. 

Home Depot did not have any available toilets that fit the specs. The manufacturer’s website did not have anything available that fit the specs either. The Lowe’s website allowed me to put two toilets that seemed right in the shopping cart, but it went into a failure loop when I tried to check out. So I decided to look for toilets on Amazon.

I try to use Amazon only as a last resort, but it’s a little precious to try to hold on to any ethical limits when you’re already shopping at Home Depot. I needed a particular thing by a certain time, and I couldn’t figure out where else to get it. Why not the Everything Store?

Here’s why not: I couldn’t get Amazon to show me, out of its inventory of Everything, the toilet I wanted. I had run into this problem before on Amazon without quite consciously recognizing it. Amazon’s vision of dominating retail is based on not simply meeting the customer’s desires, but on anticipating the desires before the customer has even had them. 

What this meant, in this case, was that Amazon would not listen to what I was trying to tell it. When I typed my exact toilet needs into the Amazon search bar—12-inch rough-in, 1.6 gallons, white, round, regular height—Amazon made its own proprietary algorithmic choices about which features it would emphasize, which features it would ignore, and which ones it would bring in based on other people’s toilet searches. Browsing the listings was like doing a spot-the-differences puzzle: this one had all the specs but was “right height” rather than normal; this one was regular height but had an elongated bowl; this one was 1.28 gallons; this one was “bone“-colored instead of white. None them was precisely what I was asking for. 

I could not tell a machine what I wanted, even though I knew what it was. Finally I gave up and called Lowe’s and talked to a human being, who located the right toilets and worked around the computer failure loop by telling the system to ship two toilets to New Jersey, then separately telling it to ship those toilets to New York. In the end, they sent four toilets.