This holiday season, it's a dot.com jungle out there. Every newspaper ad, billboard, and shopping bag in sight bears a "www." address. Over the next few weeks, you're likely to hear as many radio spots for Internet shopping sites as you will Christmas carols.
Just a year after the e-commerce craze began in earnest, you can find Web storefronts from established superstores such as Wal-Mart Stores and Circuit City to small Internet upstarts like Mustardstore, which sells thousands of varieties of the condiment. Analysts are predicting a holiday season that will knock the boots off Santa and his elves. Consumers are expected to spend an estimated $6 billion online this November and December, up from $3.1 billion during the same period in 1998, according to Jupiter Communications, an Internet research firm in New York. And shoppers venturing into the electronic frontier can expect to find an enormous selection--and some great bargains--as merchants lure them with free shipping, steep discounts, and special Internet-only sales. "Retailers will be giving away the farm this month," says Lisa Price, co-author of The Best of Online Shopping (Ballantine Books, $16). But virtual shoppers will also encounter confusion and frustration as they shop. Even worse, many will be let down. Seema Williams, an analyst for Forrester Research, a high-tech consulting company in Cambridge, Mass., predicts "massive strain" on fulfillment and customer-service systems. "Not everyone will be able to handle the volume of orders they get," Williams says.
Fortunately, there are some easy strategies that can make your online shopping experience no more frustrating than a trip to the mall. The most obvious way to start shopping is to go straight to the store, which is usually as simple as keying in a merchant's name sandwiched between a "www." and a ".com." But don't expect to see all that you would see on the shelves. Although some catalog companies offer all their merchandise on the Web, most brick-and-mortar retailers sell only a sampling. On some sites, you can't purchase anything: The Old Navy and Pottery Barn sites, for example, will only help you locate a store, order a catalog, or find out what's on sale.
"SHOPPING BOTS." Shoppers who want to browse can head to an online mall (such as imall.com or WebMarket). These are shopping portals that provide links to merchants who fork over a percentage of their sales. Regular search engines, such as Yahoo!, Excite, and Lycos, all have their own shopping sections where retailers are organized by categories. If you can't find enough in the stores they've chosen for you, you can type in the name of a product and see what turns up. Be prepared for an onslaught: A search for "flannel pajamas" on Infoseek turned up 30,196 links. Not all of them were shopping sites, but there were enough to keep me browsing for days.
One way to cut through the clutter is to shop through an online community. iVillage's own surfers scour the Net for products most likely to appeal to the site's members. "We have a pretty good idea of what the iVillage woman is looking for, and we hunt out the best deals from the most reliable merchants," says Nicole Stagg, executive director for commerce channels. Although iVillage has partnerships with many merchants, Stagg says those ties don't play into her picks.
For customers who want to comparison shop, "shopping bots" are great tools. Sites such as mySimon, PriceSCAN, and bottomdollar.com are specialized search engines that track inventories and prices at hundreds of Web stores. They're especially helpful if you're looking for a specific product, but you may be overwhelmed by the choices. A search on mySimon for a Palm V yielded 48 online sellers of the electronic organizer for prices ranging from $278.45 (at ecost.com) to $409.99 on eByWeb.
While it's smart to be bargain-conscious, e-commerce experts warn against making buying decisions solely on price. On the Web, it's hard to tell if you're dealing with a reputable merchant with established fulfillment channels or an enterprising geek running a business out of his garage. "The safest bet is to go with names you know and trust," advises David Sanderson, head of e-commerce for consultant Bain & Co.
FEW SAFEGUARDS. The major catalog merchants, many of which were the first to establish a Web presence, are widely considered reliable. In a recent Forrester survey of shoppers, landsend.com, llbean.com, and jcrew.com were among the top-rated apparel sites. Among Web-based businesses, such retailers as Amazon.com and eToys have been around long enough to work glitches in ordering, customer-service, and fulfillment. Big-name brick-and-mortar retailers that have gone online are also safe bets. "These guys have a valuable brand equity to protect," says James Tenser, principal for retail strategy at Nexgenix, a Los Angeles-based Net consultancy. "They're not going to blow it by giving you a crummy online shopping experience." A case in point: Nordstrom, which is known for superior service in stores, has a similarly well-serviced Web site. My keyword search quickly led me to a pashmina shawl. But I was informed immediately, even before ordering, that the pistachio-colored one I favored wouldn't be available for shipping for 10 days. The site also has clear images of its products and up-front information about shipping charges and return policies. Inquiries about orders are answered promptly, either by a telephone representative at an 800 number or via e-mail.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of reliable smaller merchants selling their wares on the Web. Unfortunately, consumer safeguards on the Internet are few and far between. Last month, Consumer Reports Online (www.consumerreports.org) unveiled an e-rating system that evaluates retail sites on such criteria as breadth of content, quality of product information, and convenience. The ratings are available by subscription ($24 a year or $3.95 per issue) and only include the most heavily trafficked sites. Another service that provides some clue to reliability is BizRate.com, which resembles a combination of a shopping bot and Zagat restaurant guide. BizRate ranks more than 1,700 online merchants on the basis of feedback from consumers who have made a purchase on the Web. Says Farhad Mohit, its CEO: "Think of us as sitting at the cash register asking you how satisfied you were with your shopping experience and then checking back with you later to make sure you got exactly what you wanted." With just a few moves of the mouse at BizRate, I found eight sites selling Pokemon toys and learned that eToys is almost twice as likely as FAO Schwarz is to deliver in a timely manner.
Web shopping has plenty of pitfalls, including busy servers and cumbersome order forms. At many Web sites, shoppers trying to send the same present to various people will have to fill out order forms repeatedly to have the gifts shipped to different addresses. Another nuisance is that shipping costs often aren't revealed until a transaction is almost complete. In some cases, the add-on can turn an attractive sale into a pricey proposition. And return policies vary widely: Some e-merchants require consumers to call or e-mail for a special number before they can send something back; others will only credit the purchaser for a return or exchange, which can be awkward if you've already sent a gift. Before making any Web purchases, check out customer-service policies by going to the "help" section on the home page. And save the e-mail confirmation of a purchase.
The good news is that the more you do it, the more convenient online shopping gets. At the best sites, you can register ordering information so future purchases can be made with a single click. Frequent shoppers can sign up for a digital wallet: Qpass, for instance, is a payment system accepted by any merchant on the Web who takes credit cards. Not only does it bill shoppers in one lump sum, but it stores purchase information and keeps track of receipts. At some sites, you can even register to get e-mail reminders of birthdays and anniversaries. Many retailers will keep track of what you've bought, and will nudge you electronically to buy other products they think you'd like. The bottom line: Once you've started online shopping, there may be no turning back.