Five Minutes On Santa's Laptop

Torie Clark is gushing. She has gushed about George Bush and Dan Quayle in her official capacity as campaign spokeswoman. This isn't public, though, this is personal. Clark is home, taking a break from her new high-pressure job at the public relations and lobbying firm Hill & Knowlton, and she's gushing for free. About shopping. Online, of all places.

"It has changed my life," Clark says. "It's like having a wife--which is a very nice thing, I've learned."

Legions of Washington power women don't like shopping. Their mall visits are akin to a commando raid--if they go at all. If Kate Sparks, legislative director for Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), can't find the cookbook she wants within two minutes of entering Barnes & Noble, she'll buy a book on Mount Everest as a substitute just because it's there, and it gets her out of the place. They haven't browsed in ages. There is no time. They have jobs that don't end at 5 p.m.--or, sometimes, even on the weekends--and kids that want them 24 hours a day and homes and husbands and way too much to do. They would trade almost anything for sleep.

Until they discovered e-shopping. Until they discovered that clicking that mouse somehow tugs on a long-dormant shopping gene they'd forgotten even existed. Until they realized that they want to be up at 2 a.m., clicking, browsing, buying, shopping.

Sure, it's partly about convenience. About not having to strap the kid in the car seat and find the bathroom without the line and tolerate 15-minute pleas for McDonald's french fries. About not having to have the nanny come 25 minutes early one morning so you can load the packages in the car--the packages you wrapped and labeled at 2:30 a.m.--and schlep to the post office to stand in line before heading to work.

But time isn't all of it. Oh no, this is Washington competitiveness in a new realm. After all, why do they spend an extra 20 minutes online trying to find the coupon site that will save them $10 on a "Toy Story 2" electronic train at KBkids.com? Why do they comparison-shop at 11 different sites for electronics? Why do they surf until they find a place that will deliver a CD for free? Why do they make it a personal challenge to find the site that sells miniature Japanese fountains so that they can give their good friend--who'd be perfectly happy with a book, thank you--the coolest present of the year?

"I enjoy being online," confesses Clark, who insists she "absolutely never liked" shopping before. "I love comparing the Web sites and I love seeing who's got the best customer service. I love the ones who are most creative about giving you other ideas. I think I'm a better shopper because of it."

So she sits at home between midnight and 5 a.m., staring at the computer screen, as obsessive about this new world as she is about juggling career and life. Clicking, clicking, clicking. She's on eToys buying presents for her children. She's at a remote Napoleon-related site buying a gift for her father, the Napoleon freak. She's at Reindeer.com getting a wooden sleigh, another site purchasing the Christmas decorations for her home. She cannot be stopped. And she is not alone.

"I tell you," says Melissa Moss, the CEO of the Washington-based Consumer Women's Network, "I don't think I've talked to a single working woman who isn't trying it out this year."

Clark may be extreme--she even gets her groceries online these days--but she is far from alone. Home recovering from an emergency appendectomy, Karin Walser is solving all her holiday hassles online. A spokeswoman for the House Rules Committee Democrats, Walser has, as she puts it, "a big Catholic family." She's got an 18-month-old daughter, a ton of shopping to do, and she can't drive thanks to the surgery.

"It's the market of the lazy," she says, laughing. "It's awesome. I'm going to be so on that computer--making the UPS boys go crazy."

Walser admits that, before the appendectomy, the people in her office--particularly the women--were actually bragging about their online shopping exploits. Ditto for the folks in Sen. Kohl's office in the Hart Building. And other spots all over town.

"It's a complete sea change," says Susan DeFife, who runs a Web site called Womenconnect.com that helps link women to different Internet sites. "I don't remember people talking about their shopping experiences this much."

Brenda Ellis, a frequent visitor to the of-by-and-for-women iVillage message boards--and a fierce online shopper--puts it more bluntly: "It's really like the sewing bee gone completely berserk."

This isn't just about shopping, after all. It's about bargains. Coupons. Free shipping. No tax. Great deals. It's about finding stuff that no else has, or finding stuff that everyone else has--only cheaper. These women are wired. Clark got her Napoleon items. Sparks found the miniature Japanese fountain. Ellis managed to pick up a printer-scanner-fax machine that retails for $400 for $150 with rebates.

Men still may purchase more items online than women--though the numbers are quickly evening out, according to Jack Staff, the chief economist for Zona Research--but it's mainly women who are turning it into a competitive sport.

"Many of the Web vendors were saying how surprised they were at how effective women were at finding bargains online," Staff says. "We found that women have a much greater sense of what prices are--in the stores, in catalogues--to compare, where men will more often than not shop for a convenience factor."

Clark's so in love with online shopping she's taken to proselytizing.

"It's a disciple kind of thing," she says. "I've probably converted just a handful this year. Next year, I hope to add more."

Lorraine Voles is one of those converts.

"Oh, Torie--she is my inspiration," Voles says. "I can only try to spend as much money as she does online."

Voles is on the phone from her Connecticut Avenue office at Porter Novelli, where she serves as a senior counsel. She has her hand on her mouse, and she's clicking on the computer icon that reveals what Internet sites she has visited recently. It's a bit of a worrisome task. Voles knows what she's going to see.

"Well, thank goodness I do have a lot of political sites here," says Voles, who moved to Porter Novelli after working as Vice President Gore's communications director. "But I do see eToys. And I do see Target. And Planet Outdoors. But they're a client! So that's okay. This is great: Planet Outdoors, they sent me a $20 gift certificate. Now that's a pretty big gift certificate. So I went to their site, I was looking for cold-weather exercise clothes. And I wound up paying $7 for this top that was originally $39 with a sale and gift certificate, and then they gave me free shipping . . ."

She is off, somewhere, blissed out by the mere memory. Voles has a husband and two kids and an important job, and she admits to shopping in the office. When else can she find the time?

"I have a conscience," she says, as she explains the unwritten rules of workplace e-commerce. "I don't want to sit here and pretend I'm working and be on eToys. You can be on hold, and that's okay. If it's something quick."

Meanwhile, in Kohl's office, Kate Sparks is stepping around white shipping popcorn while taking a midafternoon phone call. She's checking out her latest online score, ready to show it off to the rest of the office.

She has a busy, demanding job. Sometimes--like now, when the Senate is out of session--she can work less than a 60-hour week. She calls herself a "panic buyer." She hates shopping. Except online. She confesses to having ordered nearly 100 percent of her holiday gifts online. The only glitch in her system is the fact that she has to get everything shipped to the Hill--there's no one at her home during the day to sign for the UPS deliveries.

"It's a godsend," Sparks says, "except for the embarrassment of hauling out huge boxes from work every night. The mail room made fun of me."

The office mail room carts are routinely stacked with packages these days. Kohl and one of his aides recently stumbled upon Sparks surrounded by her loot, and she gave them a few quick pointers on the beauty of e-commerce. According to Sparks, Kohl--who has a retail background--thought it was incredible.

"Of course, you do have that sort of Disneyland effect of forgetting about the value of money. You don't actually pay for things, you're just clicking," she says, tempering her enthusiasm for a moment.

"And the poor mail room--they must despise us. They must all be in traction or something down there."