Pack up a load of patience for online holiday shopping

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"I couldn't get through the lines," Cathy laments. "I couldn't find a human to help me. When I was finally ready to make the purchase, my credit card wouldn't go through, and I had to start all over."

"Why don't you shop on the Internet this year?" her mother suggests.

"That was the Internet," Cathy replies.

--Cathydistributed by Universal Press Syndicate.

You know something's gone mainstream when it's in the comic strips. And this month, if you believe the analysts and the press releases, consumers are rushing online, trading the megamall mosh pit for home shopping heaven.

DIFFERENT PROBLEMS

I spent a week shopping at sites new to the Internet since last holiday season. What did I learn? While Cathy described my experience to a T, my problems weren't any greater than the ones I would have had at the mall.

Just different.

My first stop was Toys "R" Us. Finding the "Legend of Zelda" videogame for my husband was easy. Buying it was torture.

It took an incredible 51 minutes to complete my order. Most people would have gone screaming to eToys, but I had no choice. The game was out of stock there.

I spent the first 17 minutes sludging through the slowest-loading screens on Earth. Then I spent 10 more minutes waiting for the server to accept my order (it never did). Then 24 minutes on hold with customer service.

At last, someone took my order, and a few days later I got a shipping verfication e-mail. Toys "R" Us says it's adding more servers to handle traffic.

`404 FILE NOT FOUND'

Things weren't flawless at the other sites I visited, either. My experience buying a chambray shirt for Dad at the Dockers site went fairly smoothly until I tried to submit my registration form. The response: "404 File Not Found." Urgh.

I filled out the form again. "Could not create new member. A member already exists for that e-mail address." OK, let's just purchase. Thankfully, it went smoothly. I got an e-mail within seconds, confirming my order and asking, "Wasn't it easy?"

I visited three stores without buying: Macy's, Bluefly and Yahoo! Shopping.

In each case, it was so hard to find what I wanted that it wasn't worth the bother.

Macy's scored a point by offering Lancome cosmetics, but it only offered two shades of the makeup I was looking for. At Bluefly, a designer clothing merchant, I searched for 15 minutes for a robe for my husband, only to realize that the site didn't have any men's robes available.

YAHOO! SHOPPING SEARCH DISASTER

At Yahoo! Shopping, the interface that works so well for the search engine is a disaster for shopping. Searching for makeup again, I found an eye-glazing list of 238 foundations, 137 powders and 106 blushes. A search for Chris Isaak's new CD brought up eight products, none of them the CD I wanted.

Perhaps the best surprise was GiftPoint.com, which offers gift certificates from national chains like Eddie Bauer Inc. and Sharper Image. I chose a $25 certificate from Olive Garden for my parents and filled out an easy registration form. The only glitch? I didn't want the $2.95 gift card, but the system kept including it. By starting over, I eliminated the problem.

Let's face it. Internet retailing isn't perfect, and we all have our own horror stories. But I could have spent hours driving around in search of the hyperpopular "Zelda" game, and I probably never would have trekked to the burbs for an Olive Garden gift certificate. Instead, I have three Christmas presents under my tree.

Even Cathy would have to admit that's a success.

Debra Aho Williamson is a Seattle-based writer focusing on Internet business issues. Reach her at debrawilliamson@earthlink.net .

Copyright December 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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