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<Online buyer beware>

By Daniel Will-Harris 

And why e-commerce companies better shape up

I love shopping online. It’s easy to find things and they’re delivered right to my door. Recently I bought a new computer that way, a new LCD monitor, a new color printer, a new scanner, and also several watches, even drug store kind of stuff.

But I have to say, the track record of all the companies I’ve bought from is kind of spotty, and if they continue like this, one by one they’re going to start to fold. Online companies can really only offer a few advantages: convenience (which includes selection, service and delivery), and price.

I’m not asking much of online shopping, just that

  • It’s easy to find items
  • The items have as much description as you need to make an informed decision
  • You receive confirmation of your order
  • You receive confirmation of shipment (and a tracking number when possible)
  • You receive the correct item
  • You can get a hold of a real, live human being if there’s a problem with your order.

Since I’ve done what some people might consider an inordinate amount of shopping on the web, I thought I’d share my experiences before you shop online for the holiday season.

>Gateway is hell (F-)

Gateway Computers was not only the worst online shopping experience I’ve ever had, but the worst shopping experience in any medium, at any time, period. Even the product didn’t work right when it finally did arrive. The company did everything wrong from start to finish—and then beyond—eventually charging me twice for a computer I’d already returned months earlier! They finally did credit my account, but it took me hours and hours of straightening it out, it was almost impossible to get a real person who could answer a question, and the end result was endless aggravation, wasted time and money. I wouldn’t wish Gateway on an enemy.

>Dell is swell (A)

The flip side of that experience was with Dell. They did everything right. Ordering was fast and easy. I got a tracking number. The items arrived fast. The item was right, worked perfectly and phone tech support was excellent. Their prices were also the same as the other computers I looked at (including the Gateway from Hell). Would I buy from them again? In a minute.

Herman Miller’s got it (A)

I’ve had an Aeron chair for a long time—it’s an amazing chair—comfortable as can be, and fun to look at. My wife wanted one for her computer work, too. I called around to local stores that had them—then I looked at the imaginative and useful Herman Mill web site. They had it for less, with free shipping and they told me that I’d have it in 7 days.

I ordered one. I was sent e-mail when it shipped. I got a call from the shipping company before delivery. The only thing they did wrong was due to a bug in their email system—it said they were delivering to the billing address, which was a PO box. I sent them e-mail over the weekend. They called and e-mailed first thing Monday to apologize and say it was a mistake. Because of that personal service, I don’t mind the error, and it also didn’t cause the chair to arrive late.

They also have one of the most well-designed and interesting sites on the web. Would I order from them again? Yes.

>QVC’s AOK (A)

Most people don’t know that QVC (the TV shopping channel) also has one of the most successful e-commerce sites on the web. They sell everything from Diamonique (simulated diamonds), to clothes, to electronics. I have to say everything I’ve ordered from them arrived quickly, and they handle returns effortlessly. They really have their act together. Other sites could learn a lot from them, even if they do sometimes offer specials I can only refer to as “Crapfest 2000.”

>eBay’s effective (A)

If you think that eBay is just for people with beenie babies, then you haven’t been there. I have yet to search for something I couldn’t find there, and I’ve actually purchased a number of things through eBay. Since you’re dealing with other people, not eBay, when you make a transaction, you might think this could be a problem. But eBay’s “feedback” system ensures that your record is public, which encourages people to do right—and so far, every transaction I’ve made on eBay has been great. I’ve been happy with the items, which arrived as described, and shipping and payments have always worked. Except for the occasional outages, eBay’s record (at least in my house) is sterling. It’s like a giant, world-wide museum of stuff that you can buy!

>Perfumania (A)

It used to be hard to find some interesting, but less than common fragrances. Now there are lots of sites on the web where you can find almost anything. If you want something really unusual, and want the most personal service, I recommend Perfumerie Nasreen. It’s a small boutique in Seattle, and their site just gives you an idea of what they have. You call. They suggest. They send samples. You order.

If you know what you want and it’s more common, I can recomment Perfumania . They have a large selection and very deep discount prices. Their service was flawless (if all automated). They sent out email when an item shipped with the tracking number. The item arrived, perfectly. So you can get what you already know you want, inexpensively.

>Amazon some, lose some (B)

I order many books and CDs and things from Amazon. They always tell me what’s going on with the order. The things usually arrive fast, and are always correct. I feel safe ordering from them. Will I order from them again—of course—for some things. But lately I order things, and they just kind of trickle in, one book at a time. I know it has to do with availability, but I’d like a better estimate of when I’m going to receive things.

I’d also like the prices to stop fluctuating. I added a telephone to my booklist, and it was $79. When I went back to buy it, it was $99. Was I happy about this? Of course not. Will I buy electronics there? Maybe, maybe not.

I tried their Zshop service and was not impressed. It sounds great—get your own products on Amazon. Link your products to their books and records. But I did not sell a single item (when, during the same time period I sold many of the same items from my own site), and worse than that, they charged me $10 instead of the posted 10 cents. When I went to get a refund, they told me that they didn’t give refunds, just credits. When I yelled (via e-mail), I got a credit. Would I open another Zstore? Probably not.

I’ve also ordered from CD-NOW, and I had excellent experiences with them. But I ordered from them because they kept offering specials. Like 15% off, and $15 off. And both at the same time. So on one order I ended up saving almost 50%. If I could do that all the time I would never go back to Amazon, but they also probably couldn’t stay in business.

>More’s good news (B)

More.com sells drug store items—shampoo, batteries, vitamins, all that stuff. Now, normally it’s easy enough to go to the drug store, but they were offering big discounts, free shipping, and a guarantee that prices wouldn’t change and shipping would be free on any items you ordered during their charter period. Nothing to lose. So I ordered one thing. It arrived in two days. Perfect, and $2 less than in the store. Great.

I ordered another batch of things. Arrived in 3 days. Perfect. Less expensive. Great! I ordered a third batch and it arrived about two weeks later (because they sent it through the mail instead of UPS, which they used for the first 2 items). Still good, still less expensive, but why the wait? Would I order from them again? Yes. Why? Because I save money, I can order stuff that’s hard to find, and delivery is free (and for as long as I order those items). So it’s a good deal, and if delivery was late once, OK, I can live with that.

>American Express (B)

American Express created a new credit card, just for the web (though you can use it like a normal credit card, too). It’s called Blue, and it has one of those “Smart chips” that are new in the US, but have been in Europe for years. If you sign up now, you get a free smart card reader that fits in your floppy drive and lets you order even more securely from your computer. I figured I’ve always had good service from American Express and I should try it.

I signed up. I got no e-mail confirmation. I never knew if I was approved or not. I called. They said I was. OK. The card didn’t arrive. I called. They said they were running late (they had to redesign the cards because initially they were translucent, which was fun, but apparently didn’t work with all card readers) . I called again, they said it should be arriving. It finally did come, but by this time, I was starting to wonder why they couldn’t even have managed to send me an e-mail.

I will say the card works fine. The smart card reader hasn’t arrived yet (and they even say on the site they won’t for a while), and even once it does I’m not sure who will accept the American Express online wallet, but Americanexpress.com’s site does do a great job letting you see charges and balances on your card, and even pay online (I haven’t tried this, and can’t quite figure out how they do it—I mean, you can’t pay your credit card bill with a credit card, and I don’t want to give them the power to suck money directly out of bank account). So I still pay the old fashioned way, but I like being able to see when charges and credits are posted.

So would I recommend this new web card? It will depend on how it really works on the web. It is free, it has a low interest rate, and all the perks of other Amex cards, including a yearly statement, so I might just get rid of my other American Express cards and keep this one.

>Onvia again, off again (C)

But even companies with this I had good experiences at first quickly got spotty. Onvia.com sells computers and home office supplies. My first order was for an LCD monitor and printer. I ordered it, and it arrived two days later, for $5 shipping. That seemed like great service to me.

But then I ordered a scanner from them. Nothing arrived. I got billed. Nothing arrived. I e-mailed. I got no response. I e-mailed again. I was given a tracking number that said my scanner had winged its way to Ohio. I e-mailed again. I got no response. I e-mailed again, I was told, “Oh, yeah, that was a mistake, we were really out of stock and we’ll send you the real tracking number in a few hours.” It never arrived, and the scanner has yet to arrive, too—even though I was charged for it. I know it will arrive, but still, why wasn’t I told it was out of stock? Why, when an order is shipped, isn’t a tracking number e-mailed to you at the same time? And why can I not get them on the phone and have to send repeated e-mails to get wrong answers. I finally did get a tracking number that says it’s on its way. But now I am wary about ordering from them again.

Update: Another order, another problem. I ordered some printer supplies. I was never alerted when they shipped. They dribbled in, one package after another. The stuff did arrive, but it’s annoying not to know the status of your order and not to be able to find out easily.

>The bottom line

I like web shopping. But I also like shopping in the real world. Online merchants need to do a much better job showing and explaining their products. And, overall, they need much better customer service. So, this holiday season when you buy online, just remember, Caveat Emptor—“Buyer Beware.”

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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