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Shopping hit-and-miss online and off

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000


The online holiday shopping season looks familiar: Bargains still can be found, free shipping didn't disappear and customer service seems to be a mystery, though not just for e-tailers.

Take this tale of woe from a Tallahassee consumer: He spent six hours hitting the refresh button on his Internet browser waiting for a Sony PlayStation 2 video game console to be posted at Amazon.com. And a miracle happened: It showed up as available, so he clicked to put it in his cart and continued shopping.

At checkout, he learned his lesson: Putting it in his cart didn't make it his. It was gone, replaced by a note that he had been added to the waiting list. By shopping more, he lost out.

I had far less exasperating experiences. Still, my online holiday shopping underscored that e-tailers have work left to do.

And before the brick-and-mortar crowd clucks that it's always "easier in stores," I'll add that my traditional shopping didn't fare much better.

Looking to replace my old single-disc CD player, I spent hours reading reviews, settled on a five-disc model and compared prices. Lesson 1: Not all price comparison sites are created equal, and some are downright inaccurate.

At one, I typed in the make and model number of the Yamaha unit I wanted. I clicked on the best price that came up and was whisked to a site . . . for a Philips unit that happened to have the same model number.

The search continued, and I found the Yamaha player within the price range I wanted at an electronics store's site. But my efforts to click-and-buy repeatedly failed, so I called the retailer's 800 number. I was told that the company can't sell that particular model outside of its home territory, so it wasn't available to me. So why put it on the Web? Or why not at least explain the item's limited availability?

Another electronics store had one of those prices that seemed too good to be true. Once again, the CD player couldn't be ordered online. So I called the 800 number and got trapped in auto-answer hell. I bounced between the greeting and recorded "your business is important to us" messages but proceeded no further, despite repeated calls. No answer, no sale.

Venturing beyond my online search, I visited two electronics stores to check out their offerings, but all I could do was look. Nary a sales rep was in sight, even on a seemingly slow night.

Thanksgiving Day, I saw a newspaper ad from a third electronics retailer offering what seemed to be a nice holiday discount. The next day, I went to the store where I was greeted with warm indifference, a step above the other stores.

I wandered around looking for the CD players for a few minutes, then a sales rep came up and escorted me to the proper shelves.

My first question about the unit's quality was met with a nod and a perfunctory "it's good." Then I asked about the posted price. It was higher than what I was finding online (even with shipping) and there was less of a discount than the price billed in the store's ad.

The sales rep walked away, and I walked out.

Tiring of the chase, I returned home, went online, found a unit and ordered it. It would take a few days for shipping, which was free. I was relieved that the search was over but surprised when the box arrived.

The doorbell rang, but before I hobbled to the door on my injured ankle, UPS had left the box to sit outside unattended. No signature required, and no assurance the box would be there when the recipient got to it.

With a new CD player, naturally I needed music. I tried out some software from EdgeGain (www.edgegain.com) that integrates with the browser on your Windows PC and compares prices on CDs, books, videos and such. When you click on a CD at mymusic.com or CDNow.com, for example, it scours other sites to check prices, which show up in a little bar at the top of the screen.

In many instances, it worked well and would have saved me money. In others, it showed a few rough edges. For example, clicking on a Beatles box set priced about $300 on one site brought up a $90 set at another site. What a deal!

Except it wasn't the same set. The comparison software couldn't differentiate, and some of the sites selling the music had little or no information for consumers to figure out the difference.

That's not to say all my online experiences were bad. I found an online coupon for 20 percent off a PC purchase, which two co-workers used to buy machines. (The trick here, of course, will be to see whether the rebate checks appear as promised.)

And despite warnings that free shipping and bargains would be scarce this year, various promotional deals were fairly common.

I'm just glad I don't have more shopping to do.

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