Last Christmas, in a giddy fit of e-commerce cheer, I ordered $35 worth of cheese online. With a click of the mouse, I sent 1.75 pounds of gourmet mold from Dean & DeLuca more than 3,000 miles.
Never mind that I live four blocks from a cheese shop with literally hundreds of pretentious, smelly fromages for sale. And never mind that the recipient of this tasty 57,000-calorie snack lives less than 10 blocks from me. I found it cheeky, campy even, to order a huge blob of cheese online, paying more than $50 for this little in joke, funny only to me. This was at the height of the dot-com mania, and my click-to-shop habits followed the loony logic of mountaineering:
Why climb Mount Everest? Because it's there.
Why buy highly perishable food products through your computer? Because you can.
Because I could, I bought half a dozen books, four boxes of candy, three opera videos, a barbecue grill and a froufrou decorative bamboo box filled with smelly perfumed bath products -- the kind of luxury doodad that no one ever buys except to give away -- without leaving my ergonomic chair.
Deep in the throes of my online-shopping orgy, I chose to have most of my purchases sent to my apartment, like some kind of early, bonus Christmas. When they arrived a few days later, I opened the boxes to find -- surprise! -- the same items I'd chosen on the screen, and I then wrapped them up to bestow upon my lucky family members. Online shopping had freed me from crowded malls and their saccharine carols jingling all the way; it had released me to spend even more time in front of my computer.
As if that weren't enough, I was participating in -- contributing to even -- the Future of Shopping. I was a maverick, a pioneer, paving the way for the sheeplike mall dwellers who would soon follow my lead and flock to the online shops.
But that was last year. This season, I haven't bought a single gift online. I have no intention of clicking my way to the consumeristic climax of Dec. 25, propping up the sagging economy and flagging e-commerce stock prices with my mouse. Why? Because despite the attempt of online retailers to put on a merry face, this holiday's e-commerce offerings constitute nothing better than a grim, picked-over flea market.
Last year the flood of venture capital dollars pouring into shopping sites helped create a Reagan-esque trickle-down bonanza for the cheerful online shopper. Everyone was part of the great dot-com boondoggle. Sites fat with money but starving for customers did everything they could, including giving stuff away, to entice people into making a purchase.
It was a freebie free-for-all. Free shipping! Free upgrade to overnight delivery! Twenty dollars off with no minimum purchase! And my favorite, from now-defunct drugstore site More.com: "Buy now and get the same price for life!" Or until the site goes out of business.
Sure, it's novel and convenient and fun to shop online when the sites are paying you to buy from them. In the good old days, dot-coms were like robotic Stepford wives, pleased to do your bidding. Now they just want you to buy stuff. Where's the fun in that?
Last Christmas, online boutique Violet.com -- which sold me the bamboo soap box -- sent me a thank-you gift just for shopping there. The desperate e-purveyor rewarded me with a complimentary set of hipster mood cards (otherwise available for $10), as if I had done it some kind of favor just by shopping there. Violet.com is now out of business, but those cards still look great on my desk.
"You can't give stuff away for free anymore," sighs Eugene Liang, founder of eDealFinder.com, which tracks online bargains. "There are no more investors coming in to give you money to give your product away for free."
With investors increasingly focused on each dot-com's path to profitability, online retailers are acting like, well, retailers, and consequently the magic of Christmas shopping online is over.
"I do think the deals they issue are not as good as [those of] previous Christmases," says Liang. "Instead of offering great deals for customers, as much as 25 to 50 percent off, they're giving more like 5 to 15 percent." And once the deep discounts are gone, the shipping costs start to hurt.
Laurie Windham, CEO of Cognitiative, a marketing consulting company, and author of "The Soul of the New Consumer," predicts a more austere online shopping season for consumers. "There won't be as many free-shipping freebies this year as there were last year. It was completely ridiculous how much there was last year," she says.
Take 800.com, another generic e-tailer. Last year, 800.com offered customers three CDs or three DVDs for $1, and even provided free shipping. "Now, the best you could probably do there is 10 percent off one purchase from their site," says Liang. And the cost of sending it to you is extra.
Last year, Drugstore.com offered $10 off with no minimum purchase. Let me repeat that. The company would essentially give you $10 worth of merchandise just for looking at the site. By comparison, this year the site looks positively stingy with deals like $10 off a purchase of $40 or a free beauty kit with a $25 purchase. Last year, in its desperation to sling dog food and kitty toys, Pets.com gave customers $15 off with no minimum purchase. But now the site can't even give stuff away for free. It's out of business.
Boosters of online shopping crow about how easy it is to buy through your screen compared with braving the crowds at the mall. But Windham's survey of 500 shoppers who shopped online last season found that "not many of them value their time more than their money. Just the convenience of being able to buy online won't be enough for many shoppers. In the absence of special promotions and freebies, they would question whether shopping online offered any significant benefits over the way that they had traditionally been shopping."
It's undeniably fun to ridicule all the defunct online-shopping sites with stupid business plans that, in retrospect, never had a chance of making money. Sites like Garden.com, Miadora.com, Toysmart, Eve.com and Violet.com, which spent tens of millions without making a dime, are only a handful of the 130-odd dot-coms that closed their doors this year, according to Webmergers.
Sure, you can "neener-neener" and "I told you so" on the graves of the beleaguered pet portals all you want. I, too, have had a few uncharitable laughs at the expense of the now homeless Pets.com sock puppet. But the joke is really on online shoppers -- those of us who actually try to buy things over the Internet.
All the dot-com bankruptcies mean not only that the giddy, unsustainable giveaway frenzy has come to a close but that, increasingly, the places to shop online look pretty much the same as the places to shop offline.
This year, the purveyors of homogeneity -- big-box retailers like Gap.com, Walmart.com, Restorationhardware.com, PotteryBarn.com and Nordstrom.com -- are supposed to be the big e-commerce winners. Their big selling point: Shoppers can return their gifts to any store. For this we're supposed to be grateful? Wait, wasn't the Internet supposed to let a million flowers bloom, not just give us more of the same schlock with a different delivery mechanism?
What's more, retailers still hanging in there are so worried about missing the big Christmas deadline that they've become schoolmarmish Scrooges in their marketing. Books I might consider buying as gifts on Amazon.com come with this stern warning: "Holiday note: This item may not arrive in time for the holidays. See other great gift recommendation." Who wants to shop online when you're being constantly confronted with the fact that it's probably already too late?
A few weeks ago, Amazon sent me an e-mail touting "7 reasons to shop early," including an offer of free shipping for all orders over $100 before Nov. 22. Sorry, procrastinator! Not to be outdone, Barnes & Noble e-mailed me this nudge: "We are excited to present you with a great reason to get your holiday shopping done early. You can now save $10 off any purchase of $40 or more."
The reason I did my holiday shopping online in the first place is that I was too lazy and disorganized to get to an actual store, much less get there early enough. Who needs some e-commerce site telling you that it's not even December and you're already behind on your Christmas shopping?
I'm already feeling nostalgic for the good old days of online shopping, when companies flush with capital did whatever it took to win my affection.
Take last year, when my $35 worth of cheese sailed across the country. The lucky recipient of this fat bomb, a shiftless freelance writer, was never home at the odd hours when the man in the brown uniform came by to bring him his mail-order feast. For days, little yellow slips announcing my improbable offering clung to the mail slot at his apartment building.
First delivery attempt. Second delivery attempt. When it finally reached him, the cheese was no longer "firm and sharply aromatic with a hint of walnut flavor." It had evolved into a stinky, inedible mass of rot.
The e-tailer overnighted another slab of cheese for free. The replacement gift arrived without incident, and my starving writer friend fattened up for winter. Dean & DeLuca surely lost more than $20 on the transaction. But I was satisfied.