Is Online Shopping Too Much of a Good Thing?

Is it possible for online shopping to be too much of a good thing?

I just want to purchase a new VCR to replace the 15-year-old model that has been eating tapes – it should be a $200 item.

I begin poking around on the Internet. Talk about a Pandora’s box.

First, I head to the newfangled outlets like myGeek.com, which promises to take your product preference and obtain prices from various sellers. Only trouble is, you need to know the exact item you are looking for. I don’t yet know what kind of VCR I want. And even if I did, I’d have to wait up to seven days for myGeek.com’s bids, and then wait additional days for delivery. I want to watch a video sooner than that.

So, over to another new-age outlet – yahoo.com’s electronic arena. Lots of choices here. Pretty much every type of electronic product and every brand. You can spend lots of time surfing, and I do. By the time I select a particular Sony model, I then face another dilemma: choosing among eight different e-tailers from which to order, most of which I’ve never heard of. Once again, lots of clicking. The prices range from $185 to $220, but, as we all know, the product price isn’t always the real price. You have to figure in the “hidden” items, like shipping and handling. Thus, the e-tailer charging $185 charges $15 and change for seven-day shipping. And if you return the item for anything other than a defect? Well, there’s a 15 percent “restocking” charge.

Another strange discovery: The sites featured on Yahoo may charge somewhat differently when they sell direct. For example, AbtElectronics.com tacks on a $5.06 charge for UPS Ground when the order is placed from Yahoo, but there’s no shipping charge when the product is ordered direct from AbtElectronics.com (though the VCR in question is the same price in both places).

Anyway, time to try another type of outlet – a brick-and-mortar outlet trying to establish a place on the Internet. That leads me to Circuit City. There’s the VCR I’m looking for at $199. But then there’s the shipping. Not only is it $8.18, but I’ll have to wait at least six long days for the item unless I want to pay lots more for one- or two-day shipping. I could also pick it up at a nearby Circuit City store, for which there’s no shipping charge. That’s kind of a neat use of the Internet – to order online and pick up at a nearby store. But alas, no store real close by.

Another brick and mortar is Tweeter, Etc., with stores in 14 states in the East and Southeast, and one just down the street from me. I look up its web site. Ugh! No online ordering at all. Under Sony, there’s a description of how Sony got started as a company but nothing about specific products.

But I want my VCR, and I want it now! So I hop into my car and head over to Tweeter. In 10 minutes, a salesman is explaining to me the pros and cons of several VCRs. I see the Sony I’ve been eyeing online. It’s $199, plus $10 sales tax. There’s one in stock, ready for me to take home. I grab it. After I get home, I have trouble setting it up. I call Aaron, my sales guy. He guides me through the setup process. In less than two hours from when I hopped in my car, I’m watching a video.

Yet I’m feeling a bit like a traitor. Shouldn’t I be patronizing the e-tailers with all their fancy shopping bells and whistles? But I’m also feeling nostalgic. Ah, the good old days of schmoozing with salespeople, getting some solid customer support, and occasionally even obtaining immediate gratification.

I think I’m beginning to understand all the talk about commodities on the Internet. How does a company go about differentiating itself with a product like a $200 VCR? With service? Convenience? Price? Or maybe the differentiation varies from situation to situation.

In any event, my eyes have recovered from the strain of all that earlier surfing. So what if Tweeter’s web site sucks?

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