When help in the shop is a flop

Why don't e-commerce sites offer real customer assistance, instead of clogging up bandwidth with cartoon helpers?

Published November 12, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

When e-commerce sites first launched, they were lauded for the streamlined shopping experience that they offered. Just click a few buttons and bingo! You were the proud owner of a new book/CD/pair of tennis shoes, with none of the hassle of digging through racks of clothes, dealing with pushy salespeople or standing in time-sucking lines.

But someone over at fashion central has since got it into their head that people want online shopping to be more like going to an actual store. Shoppers, they seem to think, miss those nosy salespeople hawking products. Say hello to the new generation of Digital Shopping Agents, appearing now at an e-commerce site near you.

Take, for example, Women.com's new fashion boutique, rather unimaginatively titled shegetsdressed.com. Besides buying clothing and accessories -- flannel bags, leopard print totes, "glam cardigans" and merino t-shirts -- visitors can spend some quality time with "The Style Shrink," the site's fashionista guide.

"The Style Shrink," a cartoon character who accompanies you in a second window while you shop, offers such daily tidbits of wisdom as "Honey, brace yourself ... you'll be going gray this fall. But don't you dare cover it up. Celebrate it, embrace it, flaunt it! Why? Because I say so. I read it in a magazine -- Okay. I've read it in every magazine." Such jabber is enough to make you dizzy -- but doesn't really succeed in making you want to purchase a pair of gray Audrey mules.

There's also "Phoebe" over at BlueAsphalt.com, an animated teen who lets you give her a "makeover" with digital wigs, while she giggles and coos. And Boo.com launched with Miss Boo, a "futurist fashion guru" who, when you go to look at wallets, offers this kind of commentary: "Like royalty, virtual people never carry cash, we just download our dollars and try to avoid our overdrafts going into overload." Oh.

Most of these new "animated characters" are women -- sassy, of course, and cute as a button -- although there are exceptions. MakeUsAnOffer, for example, boasts the corpulent character "Chester." Wise guy Chester allows you to "haggle" with him over the price of the clothes and gifts in this online store: You tell him that you want to pay, say, $20 for a sweater, and if that doesn't thrill him, he asks what's the most you would pay. Try $40. His reply: "$40? Fine ... but only because I really need this sale."

The premise behind digital shopping agents is apparently that consumers want a more interactive and personalized shopping experience; personally, I can't believe that consumers really want to "haggle" with an animated character that is only going to offer canned responses. After all, the advice these characters proffer is rarely useful: Instead of answering questions about whether that wool sweater is cut small, you'll get preprogrammed commentary like "this dress has a triple-X rating because it looks so hot on." Gosh, thanks.

Sure, these characters are cute as a gimmick or a game, and can jazz up an otherwise boring e-commerce site. But one obnoxious comment too many might drive you bats. Not to mention the fact that the animations take up bandwidth and are slow to load. I'll take speed over sass any day, thank you.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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