Get granny shopping online!

Who really benefits when an e-commerce site and an ISP team up to teach seniors how to surf?

Published December 20, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

"Is Your Grandma Shopping Online?" queried the press release that landed in my inbox on Friday. I pondered the question for a moment, before deciding that not only was my WebTV-owning grandmother probably not shopping online but, I suspect, she has very little interest in doing so.

Still, an e-commerce start-up called (you know, "the smartest way to shop on the Web") has teamed up with a national ISP called to teach granny how to buy Palm Pilots and Beanie Babies online. Why should parents and teens be the only ones blowing their paychecks and allowances online, when Social Security checks will also do the job?

On Monday, experts from these two start-ups will be converging on the San Bruno (Calif.) Senior Center Community Club to teach a class called "introduction to online shopping." According to Tim Musgrove, CTO for Smartshop, the seniors will learn how to research products, choose online shops, and fill out e-commerce forms -- as well as a few more general tasks, like using search engines or setting up a free e-mail account.

"We want to help seniors start shopping online and get over some of the hurdles that are characteristic of seniors in general -- a sense of being an older generation that doesn't understand this newfangled stuff," says Musgrove. "They need help coming over fears about security, and the daunting screens with stuff you have to click and forms you have to fill in."

It is, it has to be said, more than slightly self-serving to teach senior citizens how to shop at your own Web site -- couldn't those resources be dedicated to a more honestly benevolent cause? And assuming that "grandma" is not computer-literate is pretty insulting to the many grandparents who have been clicking away, trading stock and buying books online for years. The online senior community is in fact the third-fastest-growing online demographic -- 13.7 million people over the age of 50 are already online, compared to 11 million teenagers, according to Jupiter Communications.

Still, the occasion is not without its merits: At the end of the tutorial, Smartshop and Surfree will bequeath 10 new computers and a year of free Internet access to the senior center. And more mobility-impaired seniors probably will find it easier to shop online than to haul off to the local mall; it's never a bad idea to teach someone about technology. As a final gesture, seniors will also get gift certificates of between $25 and $50 for -- enough to get them started shopping for some serious Christmas presents, though it's probably too late for pre-holiday deliveries .

I called my own grandma to find out if she'd be interested, but she wasn't around. I'll bet she was out doing her Christmas shopping.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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