Shopping: Fa-La-Freakin'-La

‘Tis the season, right?

Sure it is! Yuletide carols being sung by a fire, chestnuts roasting, jolly old elves, Christmas trees, stockings hung by the chimney… all that rot. Fa-la-freakin’-la. Why am I so grumpy? Shopping, that’s why.

No, I’m no big Grinch – I get just as sentimental and excited about the holidays as the next consumer down the street. What gets me down is shopping. Malls. Crowds. Screamin’ kids. Hassled parents. Surly sales clerks… sure does put you in the Christmas spirit, doesn’t it?

Oh! I forgot… if I shop online, I don’t have to deal with all that stuff, right? Just point, click, type in a credit card number, and sit back and wait for the goods to arrive at your door, right? Quick, efficient, and convenient.

But not a heck of a lot of fun! Even though I spend most of my time in the digital realm, I still like to touch and feel the goods before I buy them, especially if I’m making a large purchase or if I’m buying something that’s not a commodity – something like a jacket or a piece of art. Books and CDs… heck, I know that one is as good as another. But I’m not going to buy a leather jacket on line, that’s for sure.

Heresy? Maybe around here, but not as far as the general population is concerned. Even though holiday shopping has soared this year online (Amazon.com reports that Black Friday sales were 150 percent over last year), most reports show that less than 5 percent of all consumers will be purchasing their Christmas gifts online.

Why aren’t more people shopping online? With tens of millions of wired folks out there (and probably a lot more with Net access at work), the numbers should be a lot higher. Prices are lower, sales tax is mostly nonexistent, it’s easy to find what you’re looking for, and shipping for the holidays is mainly free at the big sites. Should be a no-brainer. But it’s not.

According to E-buyer’s Guide, most consumers cite convenience and price as the biggest factors influencing their decision to buy online. InfoBead’s 1998 Holiday E-commerce Survey revealed that convenience, price, and being able to shop from home lead the list of reasons why consumers shopped online. And if you’ve shopped online before, you’d probably agree. But there’s one thing that neither of these surveys pointed to as reasons – fun.

Let’s face it – shopping online is about as fun as browsing through a card catalog at the local library. The mall, for all its drawbacks, is still a heck of a lot higher up on the experience scale when it comes to shopping. Sure, there are problems (I pointed them out at the beginning), but there’s one thing that clinches it for me – you can’t get a Cinnabon while you’re shopping online.

Fat-filled caloric treats aside, I’ve still gotta say that today’s choices make me feel like I’m trapped between the rock and a proverbial hard place. On the one hand, online shopping is convenient. On the other, it doesn’t give you that special warm glow that fondling merchandise brings.

Online shopping’s a lot more efficient, but there’s something to be said about killing time at the mall during the Christmas season. I love to buy commodities online – books and CD’s are my downfall – but when I needed to purchase a new DV iMac and digital camcorder, I did some research online then went into the store to plunk down my $2,600 smackers.

Why can’t the two choices somehow come together? Why can’t we combine the tactile and social experience of shopping in the analog world with the price savings and convenience of the digital realm? Right now we’ve got to choose – online or bricks n’ mortar, paper or plastic. But things are changing and this just hints at what our totally connected digital future will bring.

One of the most prescient and interesting line-blurring amalgams of online convenience and offline ambience is FastFrog.com. Currently only available at the Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth, Georgia, and The Mall of Georgia in Buford, FastFrog may be the first indicator of how analog and digital retailers can capitalize on each other’s strengths to build sales.

With FastFrog, consumers can use their FastFrog ZapStick in the mall to swipe the items they want as they browse. When they leave the mall, they drop off their ZapStick and their choices are uploaded into a web-based “Wish List” on the FastFrog site. Friends and family can then be invited to see the wish list and check off items they’re going to buy for the lucky ZapStick user.

It’s a pretty cool system (and a very slick site), but currently only available at the two participating malls and only at selected retailers in the Mall.

Soon, though, another system that combines physical shopping with digital convenience is about to come online to take shopping convenience to a new level. YourSherpa.com will let shoppers take a PalmPilot equipped with a bar scanner through the stores, swiping the purchases they want. When they leave the mall, their credit card is charged and the products are delivered. It’s a mall-hater’s dream come true!

These two experiments (and more, I’m sure to come) are yet two more indicators of what lies ahead in our connected, post-PC future.

With hardware like this in hand, what’s to stop someone from taking the next step and allowing consumers to pick the items they want in the mall and then have them comparison-shopped automatically on the Net before being delivered to their homes? Software such as ClickTheButton.com or R-U-Sure already can do this.

It seems to me that with the right engineering, a device that included a bar scanner, 256K RAM, and a simple USB interface could be built cheap enough for a savvy shopping site to hand out for free.

Whether or not this bit of sci-fi actually comes true or not remains to be seen, but the lesson of FastFrog and YourSherpa is clear – the lines between online and offline are beginning to blur. As e-marketers, we’d better be ready. Christmas 2001 might be a whole lot stranger than we can imagine.

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