The modem I got for Christmas in 1997 has been doing overtime this month. It's normally used only for email and checking what's on at the cinema, but this is e-commerce's first proper Christmas, so I've decided to put online shopping to the test. My aim is to spend those last shopping days at home, throwing another log on the fire and reaching for a mince pie. My credit card has been propped up next to my mouse for the past week, and things are looking good so far. An estimated 27 per cent of UK internet users now purchase via the web, according to recent research from CommerceNet, but will I make it to 25 December without a single trip to Selfridges?
It would be great if everyone wanted books and CDs, but my sister specifically wanted the original seven-inch vinyl record of Baccara's disco anthem Yes Sir, I Can Boogie. I went to Amazon, thinking I might at least find a clue, and clicked on a section called Amazon zShops, not knowing what it was. This led me to a whole new section of goods - including antiques and comics - which also listed vinyl. I did a search and found it in less than five minutes. Part of me was disappointed that it was so easy. I didn't buy it straight away, deciding to try and order it somewhere else and keep the one which arrived first.
Avoiding Amazon meant I had to wade through endless pages of music shops and all the other things that "vinyl" dragged up - like home pages for rainwear fetishists. Eventually, I found Netsounds (www.netsounds.com).
You can't browse this site, but if you enter the song or artist you're looking for, it lists all the places that sell it. Most of the vendors are small, independent outlets. You pay on the site, which then notifies the vendor who fulfils the transaction. I found Yes Sir, I Can Boogie for #4.95 plus #1.50 p&p. It was sold by Collectable Records, a Stafford-based shop, and the next day I received a confirmation email.
Meanwhile, I returned to Amazon's zShop to complete my order there. I found the record (a bargain at #1) and tried to order it. But instead of being able to buy it there, I was given the email address of another vendor and told to sort it out myself. The zShop is actually a marketplace, quite distinct from Amazon's books/CDs operation. My vendor was a shop in Edgworth, Lancashire called Rix, run by Richard Wilkes. I emailed him and, amusingly, he wrote back saying it was easier to buy the record via Netsounds so I ended up buying the same record from the same site again, but from Rix. Rix was considerably cheaper, at #2 including p&p, and the record arrived after two days. The other one, from Collectable Records, is still at large.
My next mission was a gift for my two-year-old niece. I'd read in The Observer that eToys (www.etoys.co.uk) was selling Fisher Price Magna Doodles - one of my own favourite toys as a child - and I decided to purchase one of these. The Magna Doodle is a magnetic plastic drawing board, rather like the Etch A Sketch. I left mine in the car at Disneyland when I was five and it melted in the heat - hopefully my niece will be spared this trauma.
EToys does sell the Magna Doodle, but it was out of stock. So I went to Toys 'R' Us (www.toysrus.co.uk) which had it in stock. I was a bit confused when I tried to buy it and was redirected to DiscountToys.co.uk, but this apparently fulfils orders from Toys 'R' Us. The toy cost #11.78, with free delivery, and buying it was straightforward. I entered my work address for delivery, and received a confirmation email soon afterwards.
However, the next day I received another email telling me that the company would not deliver to work addresses. Irritatingly, I had to go through the whole procedure again. Why couldn't that be clear from the start?
It wasted a whole day.
I re-sent my purchase on a Monday night, and read on the site that delivery is within three working days by courier, and on weekdays only. I expected the toy to arrive on Thursday or Friday. It didn't, but early on Saturday morning I opened my front door to a nice old lady from around the corner where my toy had been mistakenly sent. She had given it back to the courier but wanted to warn me of the mistake. Fortunately, the courier found the right address as soon as I got back into bed. The box was a bit dented, but the toy was fine.
After all this, buying books felt like a lazy option, so to spice things up I turned these purchases into another nail-biting competition. My mum likes page-turning dramas, so I chose Maeve Binchy's Tara Road. My dad specifically asked for T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I went to two different vendors. Which would deliver first?
For Tara Road, I went to Waterstone's (www.waterstones.co.uk). It was advertised at a discount #6.99, down to #4.19. But when I went to pay, there was no discount at all. It was still #6.99 plus #2.45 p&p. Click!
I was gone.
WHSmith's site (www.bookshop.co.uk) was more satisfactory. I found the same book for #5.45 plus #1.95 p&p. The purchasing process was a bit long-winded, but delivery was promised in two to three days. Amazon came up trumps for the T.E. Lawrence book: it was on offer at several different prices, the cheapest being #2.39 plus #2.45 for delivery. I was suspicious of this price, but I could see the cover and there didn't seem to be anything wrong with it. Delivery was promised after one working day.
It would have made more sense to use one vendor to save on delivery, but I wanted to put them to the test. Both orders were made late on a Monday night, and both of the books arrived on Wednesday. I was impressed, although slightly disappointed that my competition had only resulted in a draw. Still, this is the kind of service that makes you go back for more.
Most of the gifts I bought were things I'd looked for specifically, which is probably the best way to approach online shopping, but I did come across a few gems while browsing. Best of the bunch was Presents Direct (www.presentsdirect.com), which I arrived at via Rich Clickings (www.richclickings.co.uk), an A-Z of Christmas shopping sites. Rich Clickings has a vast amount of links, some more appropriate than others: it never occurred to me to give someone an insurance policy for Christmas, for example.
It's easy to get carried away at Presents Direct. In fact, returning there for the purposes of this article, I chided myself for not buying the battery-operated disco skipping rope. I never realised how many things I needed until I went to this site, which lists items under categories such as Urban Chic and Toys for Boys. I eventually settled for three items: a novelty handkerchief for my father with the share pages from Black Monday printed on it (#5), a box of Sea Monkeys (a retro grow-your-own pet) for my sister (#6.50), and best of all, a leopard skin ironing-board cover (#7.50), which is so wonderful I might keep it myself. Delivery is #3.95.
I filled in all the usual credit card and address details, and clicked to confirm, but because I had ignored the "where did you hear of us" box, I was sent back to do it all again. If there's one way for an e-commerce site to annoy its customers, it's by making them re-enter all their details after a minor glitch.
The problem got worse, because after re-entering my details the site seemed to think my shopping basket was empty. It clearly wasn't, but in the end I had to quit my browser entirely and start again. Fortunately for Presents Direct, I really wanted that leopard skin ironing-board cover.
Delivery was to be after seven working days. It took eight, not including the weekend in the middle, so this is not a last-minute shopping site.
The items I didn't find online - or rather, chose not to buy - were surprising, as I'd expected them to be some of the easiest. They were all for my brother, for some reason. He wanted a Soundblaster soundcard for his PC, which a shop near his home in the Netherlands sells for 59 guilders - about #18. Similar soundcards in this country were around #24 at all the major e-tailers, so I'll be buying it over there.
The other failures were an alarm clock and a bottle of whisky. I found many alarm clocks, and was particularly taken with a tasteful 1960s-style Luna clock made of lime-green resin, sold by Kitsch & Co in London (www.kitsch.co.uk).
It was #24.95 and I got as far as entering my credit card number before deciding I really wanted to hold the clock in my hand first, and hear what it sounded like. A bottle of whisky was easily found at The Whisky Shop (www.whiskyshop.com), but I objected to paying #6.50 for delivery, and even if it was free, I didn't see the point in buying it online. There's an Oddbins on the corner of my road.
A whole Stilton was to be my final purchase - not as a gift, but as the centrepiece for my own Christmas party. This was another thing which I decided was really best bought in person, because the choice online was so limited and delivery was expensive: Teddington Cheese (www.teddingtoncheese.co.uk) only had one choice and delivery is #5.95. I also wasn't sure I wanted a 10lb Stilton delivered to work and left to fester under my desk for the afternoon.
All things considered, then, is it possible to organise a whole Christmas with your mouse and a credit card? Of course not - unless you are very determined or can afford Fortnum & Mason hampers. There are enough reliable e-tailers to ease the stress, but show me a fully online Christmas and I'll show you 10 Amazon books and a turkey sandwich. The sites that work best are those that either give great value for money, or offer things you wouldn't have found otherwise. Books and leopard skin ironing-board covers come under those stipulations. Alarm clocks and cheese do not.
So have I escaped the evil clutches of Selfridges this season? Yes, but I might just pop into Argos.