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  •   Cyber-Santas Find a Mixed Bag on the Net

    By Leslie Walker and Stephanie Stoughton
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, November 22, 1998; Page H1

    online shopping chart
    Imagine going to Sears and picking out a new toaster oven, only to discover that it isn't really for sale, or wandering into Bloomingdale's to be confronted by blinding, flashing lights and perfume bottles jitterbugging across the counter.

    On the other hand, imagine smoothly purchasing all your holiday gifts toys, clothes, books, salami, you name it from the comfort of your own home without fighting big crowds or surly employees.

    A little of each the good and the garish, the useful and the useless, is to be found if you do your gift shopping on the Internet between now and Christmas. In what is being hailed as the year of the Online Christmas, retailers are expecting cyber-sales to soar.

    If you shop online, you lose the sweaty mobs, the screaming kids and the congested parking lots. But you need to prepare yourself for an uneven experience. While analysts say the nation's shoppers are expected to spend $3 billion online in the last three months of this year, many online retailers are quite evidently unprepared for the extravaganza. They should have erected signs that say "Excuse our mess we're under construction" rather than ones that say "We're open."

    In many cases, the problem is bad design. Since you can't touch the merchandise, it's sometimes hard to tell what you're getting or how to get it. The familiar signposts that help shoppers find their way through regular stores are often missing, as are salespeople to point you toward the sweater section.

    In other instances, you realize you're only seeing a catalogue you can't order goods by clicking at all; you must dial an 800 number. At Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s World Wide Web site, tools and toys are for sale, but to buy most of the merchandise, you have to use the phone or click on a U.S. map to find a store near you.

    Some retailers have just plain overdone it. It's hard to focus on an article of clothing at the Bloomingdale's Web page, where the blinking snowflakes and animated merchandise credit cards, cosmetics and candles can be distracting and distressing.

    J.C. Penney Co. has pasted pictures of a child, a plush toy and a purple television on its Web page in a haphazard collage. You'll have to squint to see the print that shows you where the men's, women's and children's departments are located.

    Nevertheless, millions of consumers perceive the global computer network to be more convenient than suburban malls. From their dens, computer-savvy shoppers already are sipping coffee and wine while checking friends and relatives off their Christmas lists. Christine S. Nunemaker, a law student in San Jose who bought clothes and perfume on the Web, loves the hours best of all: "I have, in essence, a shopping mall open 24 hours per day. If I can't organize my shopping thoughts until 10 or 11 p.m., I can still shop by ordering online."

    Convenience is the biggest draw. Variety is second. Consumers cite the vast array of specialty products available from around the world as the second-biggest lure of electronic commerce. From Italian food at Salami.com to retro furniture at 1950.com, there's something on the Net for every taste.

    If you're taste-challenged, Web sites can help you. Don't have a wish list from your brother-in-law? Enter his age, price range and product category into the gift-idea generator at FindGift.com and it might link you to London Cufflink Co., or to an Aramis bottle at the Fragrance Counter site.

    Typical of Internet shoppers is Washington investment banker John Shulman, who will buy most of his gifts online this year because he is busy and "despises" shopping. "You take this little guy to the store," he said, pointing to his 3-year-old son, Harrison, "and you end up with 4,000 more things than you wanted to buy."

    With more than 300 million pages on the Web, where is the best place to start exploring? This is a problem. New Internet shoppers often crave the Web equivalent of Pentagon City's Fashion Centre, but there is no Pentagon City in cyberspace, only pretenders. America Online Inc. comes close. With J.C. Penney and Macy's as anchor tenants, AOL's collection of 110 merchants is more like a mid-scale mall such as Landmark Shopping Center.

    AOL is one of the safer commerce sites because it guarantees purchases from its merchant partners and intervenes to help resolve customer complaints. AOL also offers services that are becoming standard on Web commerce sites, such as gift reminders and wrapping, wish books and gift registries, electronic greeting cards and e-mails to Santa.

    "We have teams of people who put together the gift suggestion lists what to get your finicky mother-in-law," said Wendy Brown, AOL's vice president of commerce strategy. "We pull together gifts by price points, gifts for her, gifts for the office, gifts for kids."

    AOL's mall organizes merchants by name; it also integrates links to merchants and merchandise throughout the regular programming channels.

    That's a different mall layout from Yahoo, the most heavily trafficked site on the Internet. Yahoo Inc. launched a shopping guide last week that organizes merchandise by product type and brand, rather than outlet.

    Click on "books," for instance, and instead of the two leading Web booksellers, Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, you see a list of literary genres. Click on a genre and you get a title index organized alphabetically by author. When you finally reach a title, the bookseller's name is still conspicuously absent. It shows up only after you click "Buy it!" to put the book in your virtual shopping cart.

    Yahoo's guide effectively replaces retailers' own merchandising with Yahoo's indexing system. Jeff Mallett, chief operating officer, said the design was a direct response to Yahoo's customer surveys. "We are creating an environment that is very consumer-centric," he said.

    But analysts are skeptical that the product focus will please either consumers or merchants. "Yahoo is underestimating the potency of online retailers' brands," said Nicole Vanderbilt, director of digital commerce for Jupiter Communications, a technology research firm.

    One benefit of Yahoo's new guide is that after shoppers enter their billing and shipping information once, it becomes available automatically when they order from any of 2,700 participating merchants. The ability to simplify purchases and make the process more consistent across stores was a service consumers asked for, Mallett said. It's also one that Excite Inc. offers and that AOL is implementing.

    There are more than a dozen big virtual malls iMall and ShopNow Market (internet-mall.com) are two popular ones along with many collections of specialty merchants, such as Fashionmall.com and the Fishing CyberMall (www.fishingmall.com).

    One useful new site is Catalog City, which offers a searchable collection of 17,000 mail-order catalogues. Hammacher Schlemmer, Harry and David, and Patagonia are among the familiar firms that sell directly from this site. For the others, you can order a catalogue or link directly to the cataloger's own site.

    "Part of our safe-shopping guarantee is that all our merchants are subject to mail-fraud prosecution if they don't deliver the merchandise, because they send a print catalogue," said Catalog City Inc. founder Lee Lorenzen. "Postal inspectors have in place the infrastructure to go after these merchants if they don't perform."

    There must be rewards for Internet shopping, or pundits wouldn't be comparing the birth of electronic commerce to the debut of suburban shopping malls a quarter-century ago, or to the rise of department stores in the 19th century.

    For Aubrey Dawkins, owner of an auto repair shop in Fairfax County, the payoff is convenience. He doesn't have time to shop in malls, and even if he did, he doesn't like to. So he is doing the bulk of his holiday shopping on the Net. Dawkins, 55, said he works too long to bother traveling from store to store: "There are a lot of lines and congestion. When you go to Potomac Mills, you come out of the place and you can't find your car."

    So far, Dawkins's electronic buys include uniforms for his employees, and clothes and Ninja action figure toys for his children. He orders from his desk at work or from his computer at home, with his three children standing behind him and pointing at the Toys R Us pictures. "I just pay the bills," he said.

    Christine S. Nunemaker, of San Jose, shopped for her sister, who lives in Greece. Nunemaker went to Amazon.com, the online bookseller, and ordered parenting books for her sister and novels for her niece. Amazon wrapped and shipped the gifts.

    "It saved me a lot of time," Nunemaker said. "Amazon sent me a confirmation note acknowledging receipt of my order and another confirmation note when the order went out."

    Prices are rarely lower online. Traditional retailers who've opened cyberstores may offer special discounts to online shoppers, but consumers should not expect to find deals on the freshest merchandise, particularly clothing. Companies such as Eddie Bauer, Gap and J. Crew don't want to compete too much with their stores or catalogues. As a result, customers will often find that the $24.50 black leggings from Gap cost the same online and in stores.

    And shoppers shouldn't expect that to change. Retailers "have to be very careful not to compete with themselves," said Sonny Seals, a retail consultant with A.T. Kearney in Atlanta.

    What of the Internet's pitfalls? In surveys, consumers say the scariest part of making purchases online is the prospect of crooks intercepting credit card numbers. The best Web merchants use a code to scramble the numbers in transmission. A lock-and-key icon in the lower left corner of most Web browsers lets consumers know when encryption is being used. If the lock looks broken, the transmission is not secured. It should appear broken most of the time, except when credit card and other sensitive information is being requested. But many sites don't use this system, and even the best codes can be cracked.

    Dave Powell, a customer service representative in Rohnert Park, Calif., said he loves the Internet's "incredible" selection of goods but is reluctant to reveal his credit card number because it was stolen once over the telephone. The only exception he has made is Amazon.com: "I have been buying from them for quite some time and haven't had any problems."

    Many veteran Net shoppers shrug off the risk of credit card fraud as no worse than having the slips lie around restaurants and department stores.

    Returns are harder than in regular stores, and consumers generally bear the shipping cost. There are privacy issues, too. Consumers worry that revealing their shipping address and buying preferences to Web merchants will bring them more junk mail. Or worse, trigger a new wave of calls from telemarketers.

    Under pressure from privacy advocates and the federal government, most Web sites posted statements this year clarifying to whom they sell or provide customer data. Many also tell consumers how to remove themselves from mailing lists.

    "I don't think privacy should be as much concern as it used to be," said Jupiter's Vanderbilt. "Most sites recognize they are under heavy scrutiny and if they handle customer data too loosely, they will be penalized."

    Jupiter's research shows most Internet users are still window-shopping. Fewer than one-third of U.S. households are online, and only about a third of people online about 20 million are making purchases. Not surprisingly, Internet users who browse without buying cite security and a desire for lower prices as the issues they care about the most.

    At this early stage of Internet history, the most popular commerce sites are run by start-ups with no investment in traditional businesses. Unlike department stores or book shops, their total focus is the Net. Consumers often do better going directly to these stores if they want to avoid the many blind alleys in the virtual malls.

    Amazon.com, eToys, Music Boulevard and Virtual Vineyards are cyber-retailers that have built solid relationships with shoppers by helping them find information and select products. While Nordstrom, Macy's and other traditional retailers launched clunky Web sites this year, the more nimble merchants create pages that zip across the Web, are easy to navigate and offer innovative services.

    Customer service tends to be a blind alley of the Net: Jupiter recently sent e-mails to 125 of the busiest sites of all types and found that 42 percent either didn't reply or took longer than five days to reply. Retail sites performed better, with about half responding in less than 24 hours.

    If all you want is to do the right thing, there are sites for you too. Shop2give.com allows you to pick a charity and ask stores where you shop to give a portion of their profits to it. More than 20 retailers, including Brookstone and J. Crew, have signed up as contributors. Try Festivals.com to find celebrations for Kwanzaa and Hanukah.

    For a tree, visit Garden.com, a gardening supersite that sells freshly cut Frasier firs from North Carolina. For $95, Garden.com will ship a six-footer with a pre-attached stand to your house and pay the Federal Express shipping fee.

    "When we deliver, they are cut that week and shipped," said Cliff Sharples, founder of Garden.com. If you need help with one of the worst holiday chores deciding what to give relatives you rarely see try 911gifts.com, a year-old San Francisco-based retailer. Its "gift expert" will e-mail you personalized gift suggestions if you fill out a form about the recipient.

    It's true that holiday shopping via computer is hardly sociable. Yes, you can drop in on chat rooms or post holiday greetings in the noisy bulletin boards of auctioneer eBay. But don't expect to hear joyous caroling or see excited toddlers waiting to sit on Santa's lap.

    So, don't get stuck behind your computer for too long, or you may find yourself defaulting to this site: www.bahhumbug.com.

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    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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