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INTERNET SHOPPING: AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME


January 1, 2000
By Pulp & Paper Canada

The idea of shopping electronically has some advantages, particularly for people located far from major shopping centers. For many items, particularly computers, it is more pleasant to shop on line be…

The idea of shopping electronically has some advantages, particularly for people located far from major shopping centers. For many items, particularly computers, it is more pleasant to shop on line because few stores are staffed by sufficient, friendly and knowledgeable personnel. Well defined and nationally standard items such as, toys, tools, CDs and electronic devices can often be bought online more easily and cheaply than by a trip to the store. However, when you want to feel the item, or try it on for size, or when it is perishable, then the local store will probably beat the Internet for service.

If you actually like to shop, then the Internet is of little use, but for someone who sees shopping as a necessary nuisance in life, E-shopping is great for many items. Your own location is a major factor. Those who work downtown usually have easy access to good stores. At the other end of the scale, a friend posted in Venezuela tells me he bought most of his Christmas presents on the Internet, to have them shipped to the locale of the family Christmas party in Canada.

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So far, the large E-shopping sites, which are NOT run by traditional retailers or the established catalogue sales companies, seem to be the best.

FINDING VENDORS

If you read a magazine on your favorite sport or recreation, then you will find the web addresses of specialized stores in it. So many major companies have an address that reads www.companyname.com that simply trying this often works. Canadian sites often have “.ca” instead of “.com”.

For computer gear, go to www.pcmag.com and search for reviews of the device you are interested in by choosing the “reviews” option and entering the keywords. This will usually lead to a review, and some hot links to “check prices.” Apart from finding the best price easily, this can be a great help if searching from something that is hard to find in stock.

There are also generic “price searching” web sites, almost entirely in the US, such as www.pricescan.com and www.mysimon.com. While they are certainly useful tools for finding the best prices for nationally known items, they are far from being fully comprehensive

For travel, www.expedia.ca and www.travelocity.com both have search engines for low fares. Both allow you to reserve tickets, but delivery is clumsy if you choose a route that does not allow electronic ticketing. Sometimes my local travel agent can beat the ‘lowest” fares shown in these sites. Both these sites lead you into information ranging from current weather forecasts, through the best seasons to visit each location, to bookings for cars and hotels. For best prices on hotels, search for the site of the city’s tourist bureau, where many local hotels are advertised, and many, particularly in Europe, have direct links to sites.

I find Amadaeus at http://www.amadeus.net/menu/en/1a-avail.htm has the most convenient presentation of schedules and availability on flights.

It is becoming more popular for Internet sites offering one service to sell someone else’s E-shopping service. (For example, Sympatico offers travel agency service, but is just a storefront for Travelocity, and lacks many of the services available for those who sign on to Travelocity directly.) As in many areas of business, it is best to deal directly with the service provider, than through an intermediary.

Few E-shops offer a good interface for the user, and some are downright clumsy, horribly slow, or both. Sears’ Canadian catalogue online makes the user page through a series of screens to look for an item of interest. I wanted to buy a hydraulic jack, but after paging through about six slowly delivered screens of automotive tools, I waited until I was in a town with a Canadian Tire store and bought it the old way.

It is amazing how frustrating it can be to wait 10 or 50 seconds for a web page to appear. When compared to the time most people need to drive to the store, the frustrating pauses on the Internet are trivial.

On the other hand, computer and electronics vendors, such as Dell (who sell primarily Dell products) and Insight Canada (who claim to have 100,001 different computer-related items in inventory) are excellent. On the Insight web-site, it is easy to search for what you wish by keyword, and the presentation screen even says how many items are in stock. Ordering is a matter of a few clicks, and the system even remembers your name, address etc if you have previously registered.

In the well-designed E-shops, it is possible to click on the catalogue listing of an item and be presented with detailed manufacturer’s specifications, and sometimes comparative reviews.

On Amazon.com, one can buy almost any book, record, CD or DVD imaginable, and Amazon will even find used copies of out-of-print books in small stores around the country. Book prices are low, but shipping costs will often drive costs up. I use Amazon.com because it costs me half a day to travel to a large bookstore, and because it has the best user interface and customer support that I have found on the Internet.

User interfaces in E-shops today are in a similar situation to the early stages of computers — rather clumsy to use. This will no doubt improve, because of the obvious advantages. This will change lifestyles quite a lot, particularly in mill towns. The ability to provide personal service will remain a key advantage of the local store. But, how much extra will the users be willing to pay in a store with only 25 television sets in stock when they can look at several hundred cheaper ones and have them delivered to their home. The current situation with E-shopping makes me think of my mother telling me how these “new, American-style supermarkets” would never replace the personal service of our local stores in Scotland. In the beginning, their personal service protected the small stores, but they could not compete on price.

PAYING THE FREIGHT

Freight charges range from zero to a significant part of the purchase price. Some companies offer free freight, but since many are American, not all provide free freight to Canada. Most items arriving from the US are free of duty nowadays, but GST and PST will normally be collected. If you buy out-of-province, but in Canada, provincial sales tax may or may not be charged.

The better E-shopping companies ship by the major carriers, and provide you with the necessary numbers to track the shipment on-line.


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