You don't have to be an Internet mogul to cash in on dot-com fever, not with all the giveaways e-tailers are employing to grab holiday shoppers.
While many shoppers trekked to suburban malls the Friday after Thanksgiving, Carl Messineo headed for his law office in downtown Washington and went Internet shopping. Less than 24 hours later, the public interest lawyer scored big--winning a $25,000 shopping spree in a "thanks-getting" sweepstakes at electronics retailer Outpost.com.
"This is going to level the playing field for us," said Messineo, who took delivery Tuesday of 550 pounds of laptop computers and multimedia gear at his firm, Partnership for Civil Justice. "We hope this will help us more clearly communicate to juries the sense of injustice that people have experienced."
The contest was one of many cyber-marketing stunts--this one to promote free overnight shipping at Outpost.com as one of the Internet's hottest deals. And, boy, does the Internet have hot deals--so hot they must be singeing the accounts of dot-coms left and right.
Many appear to be hasty bids for attention inspired by severe Internet panic--that sinking feeling that investors might beat down their doors in January if they don't deliver sales in December. Others are strategic, meant to pull in first-time customers or extract personal information so merchants can e-mail marketing offers. The biggest me-too of the season is free shipping, often meant to lure shoppers early to beat the last-minute shipping crunch. Dozens of e-tailers offer it, and one mall--Microsoft's MSN.com--will even defray shipping costs on anything you buy from its more than 30 tenants.
Free shipping, however, cannot be sustainable for most merchants, because it amounts to such a high proportion of their costs on modestly priced items such as CDs.
Still, with an average order size of $300, Outpost.com feels it can absorb overnight delivery and draw more business from savvy Web shoppers than it might by spending those dollars on TV ads. "There is no question it is sustainable for us," said Outpost.com chief executive Bob Bowman, noting that his shipping and handling costs are less than 6 percent of total sales.
Earlier this week I went in search of the Web's giveaways. I entered contests, trying to win the daily Rio MP3 player at Buy.com and an Oldsmobile Alero at CDNow.com, even applied for rebates. BizRate.com promised 25 percent cash back for purchases at Tavalo's cooking center and lesser amounts from other stores. It also offered commissions for friends I referred, but I took a pass on spamming my pals.
I took CDNow up on its offer of free shipping to buy three music CDs. And I am still toying with giving Wine.com's $118, three-month, six-bottle subscription as a gift, because it will throw in a fourth month and two bottles for free. Lured by eToys' 10 percent discount for anything I bought off a "wish list" at its site, I bought more than $100 in Pokemon goodies from eToys a few days before Thanksgiving. EToys delivered promptly and e-mailed me a $10 coupon for Gapkids.com.
A sampling of other e-deals: Reel.com offers half price on popular DVDs; Ashford.com gives $175 Montblanc fountain pens to customers who buy $500 in jewelry; BrooksBrothers.com takes 15 percent off all orders, then throws in free shipping and gift boxes. And Theglobe.com keeps it even simpler: "25% OFF EVERYTHING" blinks from the corner of its home page. It took down the tiny "expires Nov. 30" sign yesterday.
A convenient spot to find e-centives is CoolSavings.com, an electronic coupon service. The number of merchants making offers through CoolSavings more than tripled this year to 120, according to a spokesman, and the number of people redeeming them in toys, books and music has more than tripled in the past two weeks alone.
Many of the best deals are reserved for first-time customers, such as CDNow's $10 coupon against a $14.95 purchase. Such a 75 percent discount is rare for veteran Internet merchants, but some feel they have little choice during today's all-out war on shipping and prices.
Still, a survey by Jupiter Communications found that only one in four Internet merchants tracks promotion results so they can see whether takers are newcomers or repeat customers. In fact, Jupiter concluded that nearly three out of four Web shoppers are so conditioned to expect discounts that they wait for them to buy.
This discounting pain is clear in one of the biggest clashes in cyberspace--over pet owners. After a slow start, Petsmart, the nation's top pet superstore chain, came out swinging in July by purchasing an Internet start-up, rebranding the site with its own name and aggressively displaying the Web address in its more than 500 stores. Pets.com, formerly the No. 1 pet e-tailer, has been trying to claw its way back on top ever since. In August it offered 50 percent off pet food; more recently it purchased three 30-second TV spots for the Super Bowl.
Competitors are offering holiday specials. Petstore.com's free shipping and $10 coupon prompted me to click "buy" for a few doggie gifts, even as Pets.com was discounting its toys 25 percent and Petopia.com offered treats for $1. Petsmart.com tosses in a free bag of food that grows heavier with the size of your order--a bid to make pet owners spend more.
But Petsmart.com chief executive Tom McGovern said he will continue resisting "the narcotic of free shipping" because he thinks it is too costly for most Internet merchants. "For de novo Internet brands, there is a mentality of a land grab," he said. "People are spending out of despair in a bid to build their brand or die."
Not that McGovern is above seizing the moment as a consumer. "I locked in the lifetime price of my razor blade at More.com," he said. "It was all of $1."
The lifetime offer from More.com is unusual even by Internet standards. When you buy any product at its uber-wellness store, you "freeze today's low prices for life" and get free shipping on that item for as long as you continue to order it.
Each week, More.com offers a $1 special--Gillette blades last week, Bayer aspirin the week before. Unfortunately, this week it is Robitussin, and there is no one on my holiday gift list I dislike that much. More.com Vice President Bruce Mowery refused to say how long this ploy will last but slyly urged me to "lock in" prices on my favorite products this year.
All I could think was "Too bad More.com doesn't sell stock in e-tailers"--because then it might extend the offer forever and laugh as stock prices tumble, driven down by the profit squeeze from soaring marketing costs.
CAPTION: Carl Messineo and his wife, fellow Partnership for Civil Justice lawyer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, recently won a big case--of free software.