Lost in Cyberspace
© 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz

E-commerce really came of age this holiday season. Shoppers spent an estimated $9 billion at online stores, up 300 percent over the previous year. The lion's share of online traffic went to a few big retailers like Amazon.com, which still managed to lose money, and Toys "R" Us, which managed to get sued when it couldn't deliver toys promised by Christmas. But mom and pop shops with Internet savvy and personal service also snagged new customers. Like me.

This year I did most of my holiday shopping online. No crowds, no traffic, no pushy sales clerks, indoor air or liquor ordinances, and free parking in front of my home computer, day or night. Of course online shopping is not without its own hassles -- Internet traffic can also slow to a crawl, orders can still get screwed up, and you can't touch what you are buying, pay in cash or take home immediately. And you don't always know who you are dealing with. But if you think it is difficult to shop online, think again. You no longer need to know where to go to get there.

Take, for example, the shahtoosh, a chichi shawl being seized from socialites by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because it is made from the soft sheer fur of an endangered Tibetan antelope. According to an article in "Vanity Fair," there's a somewhat less luxurious but legal version of the shahtoosh called the pashmina, made from the cashmere-like fur of a domesticated goat that is combed out, not slaughtered, and which I decided to buy for Christmas presents.

I could have ventured out to the mall, but that would have required getting dressed. So instead I typed "pashmina" into the address bar of my Netscape Web browser and the software connected to a search engine which came up with a list of Web sites, several of which sold pashminas, including "Ahah It's Pashmina" <www.ahah-pashmina.com>. I was both reassured and concerned that the business address was not in India but Iowa. So I read some online articles about pashmina and found the Web site mentioned, giving me more confidence that it was legit. After viewing pictures of several shawls at what seemed to be a bargain I took a deep breath, typed in my credit card number and hoped for the best.

Armed with an intercepted e-mail my nephews had thought they'd sent to Santa, my next Web stop was Amazon.com, which allowed me to search for toys by keyword, product, model name, age and other criteria. As my nephews had been quite specific in their requests to Santa, Amazon.com's search engine made finding the toys significantly less arduous than, say, wandering the cavernous aisles of Toys "R" Us.

For a friend I wanted to get a CD version of a 1971 album by a pre-rap rap group called The Last Poets. To my surprise, Amazon.com had the CD. To see if I could beat the price, I looked the album up on several comparison shopping Web sites like "PriceSearch" <price-search.net>, "Yahoo! Shopping" <www.shopfind.com>, and "BottomDollar" <www.bottomdollar.com>, and found it at CDconnection.com for a few dollars less.

Another nifty service is "ClickTheButton" <www.clickthebutton.com>, which lets you shop for electronics, books, movies, music, toys, games and other items at some 300 major online stores, and when you see something you like you click the ClickTheButton button and it comparison shops at the other online stores and returns a list of prices including tax and shipping costs. For example, W.E.B. Griffin's "Secret Honor" was selling at Amazon.com for $19.52 with shipping, but ClickTheButton found I could get it for $16.63 at Borders.com. One drawback to ClickTheButton is that it doesn't work with American Online's browser and I couldn't get it to work with Netscape either on my Mac, although it did work with Internet Explorer on the Mac.

Used to be you had to get married to register for gifts, but now many online stores encourage you to make a list of stuff they sell that you wish you had and then tell your friends by e-mail. Many sites also suggest other items you might like based on what others bought who bought the same thing you just bought.

Amazon.com has kept me abreast of the progress of my order through e-mails. Some of the toys and books arrived by Christmas. Others, like the Throwbots, are on order, and one is unavailable. Which is about what I expected. What I didn't expect was to receive a call from a woman at Royal Cashmere in Fairfield, Iowa, telling me they were out of the color pashmina shawl I had selected, and asking which other color I would prefer. Over the phone she helped me choose an alternate color and then said, "We'll pick out a nice one for you." And they did.

copyright 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.

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