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Click Until You Drop

Goodbye waiting-in-line and hello websites

By Jeannie Wong

Edited by Allison Yang

Top three reasons why even shopaholics may dread post-holiday shopping:

  1. Those women at cosmetic counters. They may help you; they may not. It all depends on their mood. They wear those white coats and think they can act like doctors: "Those bags under your eyes, I believe, are the results of chronic sleep deprivation. Take the Intensive MoisCare Number 5."

  2. Coming out of the fitting room (after a 36-minute wait) to check out the backless evening dress in the three-fold mirror. You realize two other women are trying on the same dresses: the one to the left is a blond version of Penelope Cruz and the one on the right reminds you of Uncle Ed with the bowling-ball butts. Neither one makes you feel any better about yourself.

  3. The "Since Five Other Women Are Reaching For The Same Shirt Then I Must Buy It" Syndrome. Mob mentality exists even in shopping. Somehow the fact that someone else wants it makes that BCBG blazer, the one with only one sleeve and skull-shaped buttons, seem worth the $200.

Online shopping has put a long-awaited end to the hassle and stress of post-holiday shopping. Forrester Research, an information technology company, reported that online retail sales reached $7.8 billion in 1998. In 2000, over 33 percent of all U.S. households made purchases online. E-commerce in the U.S. alone has generated over $40 billion, a figure that is expected to exceed $100 billion by 2003.

The Technology Age has produced a new generation of Internet-savvy consumers who go online to compare prices, hunt for novelty items, or simply browse through the myriad of options. Avid online shopper Erika Teraoka, BR '04 sees the wider selections as one major advantage of e-commerce.

"With online shopping, more choices are available at the click of the mouse, so effortless as compared to walking around entire floors of department stores," Teraoka said. She also added that she doesn't find security an issue since "billing pages of online stores are secure," and that if she ever felt uncomfortable about submitting credit card numbers, she could always call or fax in the necessary information.

Women below the age of 35 make up the largest consumer group that buys fashion and beauty products online. In general, however, the typical online shopper is the affluent white male, according to Binary Compass Enterprises. As much as 79 percent of all online shoppers are men with an average annual salary of $76,000 and 42 percent with a Master's degree or higher. However, the ratio of male to female online shoppers is expected to decrease in a few years.

When asked why he shops online, Hoff Stauffer, an environmental management consultant, listed convenience as his main motive. "I bought a book from Amazon.com last week," Stauffer commented, "Amazon discounted the book by about $5, but then added $5 in shipping costs. There were no savings to me - other than convenience."

Stauffer also used the so-called "virtual grocery store". "When I go to my condo in Boston, I sometimes use Peapod to deliver groceries. It is convenient to order online, but I doubt this service is economical. It just costs too much to deliver small amounts of groceries in a local delivery truck. It could be that Peapod is already out of business."

The once-booming growth of e-commerce has stalled with the recent burst of the dot-com bubble, which led to the fall of the NASDAQ Index and the closure of many e-retailers. Even Pets.com, with the robust financial backing from Amazon.com, Furniture.com and MotherNature.com, could not survive the intense competition with traditional retails. As stated in a Wall Street Journal editorial, "loading up 10,000 consumer items in a van and trucking them to a central location is cheaper than sending 10,000 vans to deliver the same goods individually to 10,000 doorsteps." The article concluded that "e-tailing is a wonderful consumer convenience and may become a profitable business model when and if consumers become willing to pay extra for it."

In a study conducted by Andersen Consulting on how the Internet shopping compares with other ways to shop such as through catalogues and stores, 62 percent of the respondents felt that shopping online was less time-consuming as compared to 33 percent for catalogues and 3 percent for stores. Over 59 percent of those surveyed mentioned convenience as the main attraction of online shopping, while only 21 percent mentioned competitive prices. Stauffer feels that online services, such as those provided by Dell Computers, are more likely to prevail than retail websites. "I can go online, see the options and design my own computer; then it is delivered within a week. I may pay a bit of premium for shipping, but the convenience is well worth it."

"The site is well designed to show the options and prices. This is far superior to driving to the store, parking, waiting in line to talk to a staff, and then selecting from a few models with limited design choices. You also have to wait in line to pay, haul the cumbersome boxes to the car, and drive home. I can spend two hours going through all this, or I can do the same thing in less than 30 minutes with a few clicks of the mouse at home."

Yet even though e-commerce - which makes everything from toys, books and clothes, to food, jewelry and flowers available - has experienced remarkable growth in recent years, figures from the National Retail Federation show that it constituted merely 0.5 percent of all retail sales. This number is expected to increase, but it is doubtful if online retail sales will account for more than 10 percent of total projected retail sales by 2003.

Joan Feigenbaum, a professor of computer science at Yale University, believes that e-commerce is suited for particular types of products. "I think that the future of certain kinds of online shopping, in particular shopping for books, office supplies, and computers is quite rosy. Other kinds of B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to consumers) activities are still developing, and we don't yet know what will thrive and what won't."

Security remains a major concern for most consumers. Jill Sison, DC '03, shops online only when other options are limited. So far, she has just bought books over the Internet. "I try to buy from larger retailers because they are more secure than some smaller firms; I definitely don't buy from any site that doesn't offer some proof of security."

In order to reassure customers, online retailers frequently state that the risks incurred by giving out one's credit card number over the Internet are no more than the risks we take everyday when we use our credit card to buy clothes or pay for groceries at the store. Most financial institutions set a $50 cap on the amount the consumer is liable for so long as any misuse is reported within a given time frame.

There are several useful common sense rules for online shopping:

  1. Never deal with a company that does not explain how your financial information will be handled. Most sites use the encryption tool SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), a security protocol developed by Netscape, or CyberCash, an Internet and electronic payment software. In addition, Visa and MasterCard are currently developing the SET (Secure Electronic Transaction), that uses cryptography and digital certificates to ensure messages sent out remain confidential.

  2. Keep records of the retailer's contact information. Commercial web sites should clearly state the name of the company, its location, phone numbers, and email addresses.

  3. Check if the website provides adequate description of the goods along with the total price of the merchandise inclusive of all tax and shipping charges.

  4. Double check the refund and return policy.

  5. Read the privacy policy carefully since many companies sell consumers' personal details to third-party marketers. Certain web sites may have reliability, trust, or privacy seals. These certifications are awarded by independent, non-profit organizations hoping to boost consumer confidence in online shopping.

Trapped in the urban ghettos of New Haven, Yalies have always ricocheted between submitting to the WASP-conformity of the GAP and the over-priced elitism of boutiques such as the Archetype. In recent years, however, online shopping has provided limitless options for Yalies. Everything from fashion to discount textbooks can be readily found in cyberspace. In this sense, e-commerce has demonstrated potentials to be far more than just a fad, though the prospect of it completely replacing traditional means of retailing remains small. In the mean while, consumers must learn to be "Net smart" and protect their rights while necessary security laws are being put in place.

 

 


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