Holiday Shopping From The Trenches

Last year — 1998 — was the year that shopping on the ‘net really arrived!

For the masses, sure any research house can attest to that. But last year was also the year I personally embraced e-commerce.

This past early November, I made a personal vow to avoid any and all shopping malls during the holiday season. I love to buy, but hate to shop. So online shopping seemed the way to handle the Christmas buying spree this year.

So how’d I fare? Well, the holidays are over, the garbage man was stunned with the stack of shipping boxes he picked up at the curb, and I’m a changed person. I feel like I’ve gone through a life-altering event never again will I even consider doing my Christmas shopping any other way but online.

So listen up for some reflections on the buying season from the voice of seasoned ‘net shopper. Namely, my own.

  • Selection. With the exception of Furbys, I had little difficulty finding what I was looking for this year. One of my goals, for example, was to buy a high-end food processor for my gourmet-cook husband. I browsed a few sites like Service Merchandise and NetMarket to see what I could learn about options and pricing.

    But guess what? After I knew everything I ever possibly wanted to know about food processors, I clicked over to MySimon and BottomDollar, and scouted out availability and the lowest price available for the specific model I had in mind. After all that, I ended up purchasing the appliance at Wal-Mart Online. (Egads! The online retailer’s worst nightmare lives!)

    Truth be told, Wal-Mart Online didn’t have the cheapest price. But it did have the model I wanted in the color I wanted. And the price differential was minor.

  • Price. MySimon and BottomDollar are superb tools for locating the best price on the ‘net with one click. But they’re not infallible. For example, even MySimon, the more robust of the two price search engines, doesn’t list products from my favorite ’98 shopping site — NetMarket. I coughed up a buck for a trial membership at NetMarket, and it was the best dollar I ever invested.

    I was so impressed with their prices and their huge inventory of everything imaginable, that I found myself visiting the site on an almost daily basis during the height of my holiday shopping. The incredible prices made me put up with the fact that the shipping time for each item varies widely — so I wasn’t always able to purchase there as I got down to the wire. But I loved the fact that I earned credits with each purchase that I could apply to the next purchase.

    I was hanging out at NetMarket so much that I even got sucked into its Haggle Zone, where shoppers haggle with ‘characters’ in real-time for merchandise. A word to the wary: Shoppers do need to be careful not to get caught up in the haggling — it’s possible to pay more for an item in the Haggle Zone than NetMarket has priced it at.

  • Comfort. Shopping on the ‘net has come a long way, baby. But there were still a few things that made me nervous. For example: Why can’t everyone send me that warm, fuzzy, instantaneous email affirming an order? I know it really doesn’t mean my order is safe and sound, but somehow it just makes me feel so much better.

    It’s also incredibly unnerving when a merchant emails me my UPS or FedEx tracking number, and when I check tracking on the UPS site, it can’t find my tracking number. I mean what’s that all about? Is that package really going to arrive? Can I cross Gram off my shopping list, or not?

    Another nail-biter is that sinking feeling of wondering whether the item that I just ordered really is in stock. Is the web site really up to date? What’s with the two-day delay I often experienced before a ‘real’ email confirms shipment? At least when I’m talking to that J.C. Penney sales rep on the phone, I’ll know right then if the item is available or not. Must the web be so radically different?

  • Technology. I didn’t run into many technology problems during my online shopping extravaganza — at least with the major retailers. In fact, I got used to seeing my Netscape browser in secure mode. (And I even memorized my VISA card number and expiration date after a few weeks of shopping!)

    I did get a little irked when I hit my back button at BigE.com because I had forgotten to print my receipt, and realized the order that I had just placed was duplicated. In the spirit of the holiday season, I didn’t even fly off the handle when I finally reached a customer service rep and she said, “Oh yeah, we have a little bug.”

    NetMarket and ToysRUs were incredibly slow sites. But I put up with NetMarket because I was obsessed with bargain shopping there. ToysRUs didn’t fare as well with me, since I realized I could place my huge toy orders through our eToys affiliate link and earn 25 percent back!

  • Customer Service. My general experience with customer service interactions was a mixed bag. I found that large, well-know retailers handle things well. Amazon and eToys both handled the situation faultlessly when my package never showed up via UPS. BarnesandNoble.com answered an email question within a day.

    My biggest customer service surprise was with Buy.com. I received the wrong item, was subjected to a total runaround, and still haven’t heard a word back. (Sigh.) Let’s not forget — these things happen in the real world too, folks.

  • Overall. I clicked, I browsed, I bought and, I loved it. By the time December 24th rolled around, I felt so guilty that I actually bought a gift of appreciation for my burdened UPS man. (We were very good friends by then!) The gift was from Hickory Farms online, of course!

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