Web shopping is wonderful in many ways, but it can also be a pain.
For example, my granddaughter wanted a special toy that I knew was in a particular company's catalogue. After 15 boring minutes on the company's Web site (with a search function that couldn't find its own face in a fog), I gave up.
Then I hopped to eToys.com (whose search function speaks English) and found what I wanted right away. So the Web is quick if you know where to look and know exactly what you want.
But there's another sticking point for anyone with a long gift list. You have to fill in all those tedious order forms. All those addresses, all those passwords, over and over.
A study by Jupiter Communications Co., a New York research and advisory company, found that 27 percent of online buyers abandon at least one order because the order form drives them nuts.
By contrast, just 19 percent of buyers dropped out because they worried about security online. The hassle with forms is now perceived as a worse problem than online theft.
Net people are jumpy. Lengthy online order forms squelch impulse buying.
This leads me to the digital wallet--an experiment this holiday season, but probably a fixture next time around.
A wallet gives you one-click shopping. You feed it all your data--name, address, credit-card numbers, passwords, shipping information. When you're ready to buy, you click on the wallet and--presto!--you've filled in the order form. Alternatively, you might drag information out of your wallet and drop it onto the online form.
Some wallets sit in your own computer (for people who worry about privacy). Others sit in the computer of a host (for people who want to reach their wallets from several locations).
A good wallet will contain a variety of credit cards, and different passwords for different sites.
The big online shopping sites have their own internal wallets. A customer at Amazon.com can buy and pay with a single click. Other sites store your address and credit-card number so you don't have to enter them again.
But what if you're shopping at 10 different sites? There's no universal wallet that lets you speed your payment data to them all.
Some big merchants, such as Amazon, don't want to make it easy to shop around. They hope to get you to their site and keep you there. But the more customers get comfortable shopping online, the more they'll demand an easier way to pay.
Banks are behind the digital wallet in a big way, Pete Hisey, editor of Credit Card News in Chicago, told my associate, Dori Perrucci. That's because e-commerce is so profitable for them. Banks charge merchants more for every online or cat- alogue transaction and less for those when you physically plunk down your card. The more you leave the mall for the Web, the happier they will be.
A few banks already offer their customers digital wallets--among them MBNA, First USA and NextCard. Other wallets include Gator, Microsoft Passport and IBM Consumer Wallet.
American Express Co. just created a wallet for customers of its new Blue card. Next year, it will be offered to other AmEx cardholders, too.
Digital wallets or similar technologies have been tried before and failed. One reason is that billing sites differ from merchant to merchant. You can't be sure your wallet will work at all sites.
But in June, the industry's heavies agreed on a new digital standard. If it catches on, any wallet will connect with any merchant using that digital handshake. Assuming shoppers use the wallets, even holdouts such as Amazon may give in.
Elaine Rubin, chair of Shop.org, an e-tailers association, doesn't expect a digital-wallet boom this year. "We're experiencing a lot of newbie shoppers," she says. They'll be busy enough finding their way through the online malls.
But on the Net things happen quickly, says Karen Hoffman, senior research analyst for the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn. By next year, she believes, online shoppers will be packing wallets and e-tailers will be ready for them.