by Abbie Lundberg

Shop Talk: Buying Online

Jan 15, 20013 mins
BPM Systems

As I write this (Dec. 8), I’m just wrapping up my holiday shopping. This is early for me, but I knew if I wanted to shop online, I’d have to leave a couple of weeks for delivery. (Hey, I’d even get my column in early if it would help me avoid the malls.)

Frankly, I am impressed by the improvements to the online shopping experience this year. Here are a few things that stood out:

What am I buying? Visual display has improved dramatically. Lots of sites let you enlarge product photos, and some let you pan or view the product from different angles. Product descriptions at the sites I visited were generally clear and useful. Some offered an expanded, drill-down description as well.

Shop by catalog, purchase online. Recognizing that scrolling through webpages, especially at home-connection speeds, is not most people’s idea of fun, many merchants now offer “Catalog Express” ordering, where you make your purchase decisions by leafing through a catalog, then go online and enter the product number into a search engine, which takes you directly to that product.

Site design. When I did browse, I found the best designed and inviting site to be American Girl Store, which uses frames effectively to display products in categories.

What’d I order? American Girl also has the most intuitive, user-friendly way to move back and forth between shopping and your order page, with its “Look Inside My Shopping Bag” button.

Why’d I order that! In addition to letting me change the quantities I was ordering, a number of sites offered a one-click “delete this item” option-very useful for those of us who like to change our minds.

Harry and David provides a list of people you’ve sent gifts to in the past, along with an option to send them the same thing or something different. Very handy.

A few things need to happen before Web shopping really takes off, though, the first (and most significant) two involving speed.

For the Web to really work for holiday shopping, companies have got to do something to ship items faster. Even I will brave the shopping mall rather than risk not having my daughter’s present arrive in time for Christmas morning.

I did some shopping from home over my pathetic 28.8K connection and some from the office. The office experience was delightful; the home experience was time-consuming, frustrating and annoying.

On at least one site, I was told items were in stock that, in fact, were not.

Harry and David offered me a 20 percent discount in its offer by mail, but there was no way for me to take advantage of it on the site.