'Tis the season to be e-tailing. This year a lot of people kicked off the holiday shopping season not with a trip to Macy's but with a jaunt online. E-commerce sites boasted 28 percent more traffic during Thanksgiving week than they did last year, according to Media Metrix, while the Wall Street Journal noted that analysts expect holiday sales online to reach anywhere from $4 billion to $15 billion.
Amazon.com reported 2.5 times as many orders as last year, and America Online said that 4 million members bought items online in one week. "Things are buzzing around here, that's for sure," says Ken Ross, spokesman for eToys, though he wouldn't give specific numbers on sales.
But you don't need stats to see that there's a big buzz about online shopping this year: Just turn on your TV or radio. This year, the cheery Christmas jingles are not just for Sears or Target or red and green M&Ms, but for a hundred seemingly indistinguishable e-commerce start-ups. "Shopping online is easy!" the advertisements crow, as elves cavort and Santas ho-ho-ho. No lines! Shop naked!
Not only can you buy just about anything online, but there are comparison engines to help you get the best deal, and product review databases that offer the ultimate advice on what to get. Just try to find a Web site that doesn't offer a holiday shopping guide.
With my own shopping hell looming, I figured that anything that promised to help me escape the Christmas mall madness was worth testing for myself. I'd decided that a digital camera would be the perfect stocking stuffer for my picky parents. Some quick reading and a few clicks, I thought, and I could cross one present off my extensive list.
Hours later, as I blearily gazed up from my computer, I realized that this wasn't quite the case. Online shopping may shelter you from piped-in Christmas carols and grumpy pedestrians, but it can be just as much of a hassle.
I knew nothing about what kind of camera I should buy, so I started my search at CNET, which any diligent TV-watcher knows is the ultimate one-stop shop for information about tech gadgets. This site reviews a boggling number of digital cameras, ranging in price from under $200 to well over $1,000, with special "editors' picks" and lists of "five best bargain cameras." Scrutinizing the reviews closely, however, I realize that many are for outdated models -- one camera that CNET glowingly reviewed as its top pick turned out to be last year's model.
After reading through at least 20 reviews, I'm still utterly confused about which camera best serves my needs and wallet. There are charts listing qualities such as the type of lens and viewfinder, the software that's included and the quality of zoom; but there's little help judging the importance of each of these features. Is "mega-pixel" picture quality a must? What about battery life? Do I need to store 100 images or would 40 be OK? It all begins to blur in my mind. Plus, I'm not so sure I trust the CNET editors any more. So I head to the glossy product info site Productopia, which appears to have a more selective review process and features a mere nine cameras -- but most are out of my budget.
So, I surf on to MySimon.com, a comparison shopping engine that promises to help me find the best prices online. I'm greeted by a pop-eyed mascot named Simon, who stares dazedly out from the Web page like a drug-addled elf (I'm starting to sympathize). Here I discover a little application called the "Buyers Guide." It provides a menu of features (price, picture resolution, optical zoom, ease of download, etc.), which I rank to determine which camera best matches my needs: Is it more important that I be able to fit the camera in my pocket, or have professional-quality prints? A few screens later, I'm instructed that I should probably buy a Canon Powershot A50 Zoom or an Olympus D-450 Zoom. With this in hand, I go back and cross reference these suggestions with the reviews at Productopia, CNET and, just for good measure, ZDNet and a few camera sites.
I look up from my computer when my eyes begin to ache: So far, I've clocked four hours just researching this stuff. There's a lot of information out there on the Web -- too much, in fact, for one amateur photographer to process. My hunting reaches the realm of the ridiculous when I realize that I am surfing simultaneously on two computers, with a total of 11 browser windows open to pages on four different Web sites. I've drawn up not one but two charts matching up the features of different cameras -- memory vs. battery life, picture quality vs. software, camera size vs. zoom -- and have two different comparison shopping engines simultaneously searching for the best prices. My quest for the definitive online information has shot an entire day.
My eyes are burning, my hands are cramping, my fingers are compulsively twitching away at the mouse. At this point, I give up and decide to trust MySimon -- I'll go with the Canon Powershot A50 Zoom or the Olympus D-450 Zoom. Both are small, simple, sturdy; they have optical zooms and sufficient memory, come highly recommended by several online sites and fall nicely within my price range. But I don't want to settle on one without being really sure about my decision.
I want to see them. Time to get away from my desk. Throwing my original goal to the wind, I head out to the garland-bedecked streets. This, they say, is why e-commerce will never replace bricks-and-mortar stores; consumers have a compulsive need to handle the merchandise before they buy. I'm no exception.
A quick lunchtime trot takes me to the local discount camera shop, and a gaggle of slick salesmen with exotic accents. I ask the man behind the counter to see the best cameras in my price range -- and, without hesitation, he hands me the exact two cameras I've been mulling online.
Hoping that the salesman might give me some expert advice, I ask for his recommendation. He holds up the Olympus; another salesman, a minute later, recommends the Canon. I throw up my hands in frustration. Besides, the prices are $100 higher than what I have been quoted online. I'm chased out of the store by a salesman, barking that he'll give me a "very big discount" if I'm willing to buy a camera on the spot.
Safely back in front of my computer, I give yet one more site a spin: Accompany.com. This site offers steep discounts on all kinds of products if you buy in bulk. If, for example, I can convince 12 people to buy the same camera, we'll all get fat discounts. One fancy Kodak camera, with two buyers signed up, has already been knocked down in price from $899 to $641. Unfortunately, Accompany's database of goods doesn't include any of the cameras I covet.
I briefly flirt with eBay, and decide that buying a digital camera from a stranger is just too risky. Back to the comparison engines.
At some point, I realize I've settled on the smaller, more stylish Canon. Several vendors are offering the camera for bargain-basement prices, according to the MySimon and CNET comparison-shopping engines, but the lowest quoted price, found via the CNET comparison shopper, comes from an online computer store I've never heard of. Despite assurances that the New Jersey mail-order company is a "CNET certified merchant," I can't convince myself to make the purchase.
The problem with shopping online is that any fly-by-night company can put up a decent-looking store, and you wouldn't know the difference. I look for reassurance: A quick search uncovers a site called 20-20 Consumer -- a kind of Better Business Bureau for the Web -- where customers can report on their experiences with various e-commerce sites. Sure enough, this little-known New Jersey store is listed, but its ratings reveal an unsettling number of dissatisfied customers. Instead, I decide to buy the camera at a slightly higher price from a more favorably reviewed company called PCWonders.
The finish line is within sight -- a cup of hot cocoa beckons. Within five minutes, I've bought the Canon camera online. It should arrive within two days. I can relax and enjoy the Christmas season.
Or can I?
Two days later, not only have I failed to receive the camera, I haven't even received an e-mail confirming the order. I call the store's customer support line and am told by an effusively apologetic service rep that my order never went through, thanks to a server glitch. "I need to do it again?" I ask, incredulously. He whispers: "Sorry."
This time, however, it works and the camera arrives, to my relief, as promised and in perfect condition.
The final tally: More than seven hours of online research, plus the half-hour trip to the camera store. Total cost: $324, plus $23 in shipping -- a deal compared with the roughly $500 I would have paid at the camera store. I now possess a voluminous library of knowledge about digital cameras and their features, more than I ever needed; had I merely walked into a Circuit City, I probably would have made the same choice with just a little bit of help from a salesman.
Still, it probably beats my typical Christmas shopping experience. I didn't run ragged from shop to shop, in hopes of finding a better deal. I didn't have to wait in a single line. And I haven't heard Jingle Bells once. More promisingly for the e-tailers, I saved a hell of a lot of money; savings, after all, are what consumers seem to want most of all.
Shopping online may be its own kind of hassle, and it probably won't halt the mass exodus to department stores any time soon. But if we can preserve the spirit of giving by making it less painful on the pocketbook, then I'm all for happy digital holidays.