Thursday, November 11, 1999

Shoppers line up online


More time-pressed gift-givers expected to sign off malls, sign on to cyberspace

BY ANNE MICHAUD
Enquirer contributor

        Life got easier this year for Angela Brown. She began buying clothes online from Eddie Bauer and Spiegel. She located hard-to-find books about African Americans via www.cushcity.com. Now, she plans to take her newfound ease along for the holidays, shopping for her 8-year-old son at toy sites she has yet to identify.

        Though the Browns' Silverton home is just a mile from Kenwood Towne Centre, Ms. Brown does not anticipate spending much time there.

        “I really don't like to do the mall around Christmas time,” the 36-year-old auditor said. It's crowded, she said, and time-consuming.

        Thousands will be joining her online, shopping from the cozy cocoon of home, as they prepare for the gift-giving of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

        Internet experts proclaimed 1998 the year online shopping arrived. It had become simple and secure enough for the novice. This year, shopping online will rival the credit card for universal appeal.

        “People are pouring into the online stores,” according to The Best of Online Shopping, a guide published in October by Lisa and Jonathan Price.

        They estimate that 81 percent of Web users will shop online this holiday season.

        The idea appeals to most everyone who has wished the holidays could be simpler. Online, you can shop after-hours, if you prefer, in your pajamas. You can save time, browsing several sites in the time it takes to find a parking space at a busy mall. Prices can be lower and the selection has become vast.

        Retailers are scurrying to get in on the action. America Online, Fashionmall.com and a host of others have created portal sites that act as virtual malls, linking shoppers to several retailers from one Web location. One site, www.americangreetings.com, will even personalize your holiday cards and snail mail them for you.

        Those innovations are fine for people like Angela Brown who have spent the last year or so becoming comfortable with online shopping. For others, the idea may be as daunting as sending a credit-card number out into cyberspace.

        More on security later. The first step is finding what you want. Many search engines now have their own dedicated shopping sections, including AltaVista (shopping.altavista.com), Lycos (www.lycos.com/shopnet) and Yahoo! (shopping.yahoo.com). Just type in the item you're seeking, and reap the results.

        Bargain hunters may want to visit sites that offer price comparisons among online stores. They include CompareNet (www.comparenet.com), DealTime (www.dealtime.com), Bottomdollar.com (www.bottomdollar.com) and mySimon (www.mysimon.com).

        Mardee Sherman has come up with some real finds by searching online. She lives in Madison Place and works as a costume coordinator for the Cincinnati Opera, Dayton Opera and others. For the gypsy drag role in La Traviata, she needed women's high heels, size 15, to fit the male player.

        “I found it online, double-wide,” she said.

        In another case, Ms. Sherman was looking for a gift for a friend who is crazy about I Love Lucy. She searched eBay (www.ebay.com), the booming person-to-person auction site, and found a mouse pad printed with Lucille Ball's likeness.

        Ms. Sherman, 44, plans to shop online for a brother in Utah and nieces in Colorado this holiday season. Widely dispersed families contribute to the popularity of online shopping: Most sites will ship anywhere for the same charge as sending the item to your home.

        “I tend to do a ton of shopping, so I get really sick of it,” she said. “Every bit of time I can save is helpful.”

        Like others, Ms. Sherman became comfortable with online shopping by visiting the sites of catalog retailers she had known and trusted for years.

        She said she uses the catalogs as a resource, paging through them before signing on to her computer to order. It saves a telephone call, and retailers sometimes offer discounts and specials online that don't appear in catalogs.

        Sticking with retailers you know is one way to lower the risk of shopping online. Lands' End, Ikea and L.L. Bean are just a few with online service. Big-name sites such as Amazon.com (www.amazon.com) are low-risk as well.

        Guidebooks are available. The Best of Online Shopping (Ballantine Books) promises to weed out the “mediocre and crummy sites.” Other titles include The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Shopping by Preston Gralla (MacMillan Computer Publications) and Buying Online for Dummies by Joseph Lowery (IDG Books Worldwide).

        A couple of consumer organizations offer a seal of approval to worthy sites, including the Better Business Bureau (www.bbbonline.org) and TRUSTe (www.truste.org).

        Other things to look for when shopping online are a telephone number, address and return policy. Each retailer should have them.

        Be sure you are using a secure server, which encrypts your personal information. Secure Web sites begin with http://. Also, Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator display a padlock icon on secure sites, usually in the bottom right corner of the screen.

        Paying with plastic is a good idea. Most credit-card companies will allow you to dispute charges. Another protection is to print your order before hitting the “submit” button. Then you will have a hard copy for your records. Many sites also e-mail you a receipt after you place an order, often within minutes.

        Derek Cedillo was one of the online shopping pioneers. Eight years ago, when “nobody was online but college students,” he said, he found his first apartment online. He bought a computer that way, and several airline tickets.

        Back then, you could trust almost everyone online, he believes. Now, you must be more careful.

        “Just like anything else, the bigger it gets, the less scrupulous people become because they feel they can get lost in a crowd,” said Mr. Cedillo, 26, an engineer for General Electric who lives in Liberty Township.

        He has sold about 50 or 60 items, mostly computer-related, through eBay, the leader in the growing field of online auction sites. When he started more than two years ago, he accepted personal checks and shipped items as soon as he received the check. Now, he waits until it clears the bank.

        “It's not that I've been burned, I'm just more careful,” he said. “Four or five times, people have promised to buy and haven't followed through.”

        With a promise to buy, Mr. Cedillo takes the item out of circulation. Then he has to repost it for auction later.

        The auction site has its own set of built-in protections. Buyers can post feedback comments about a seller, establishing a track record for good or bad.

        Even with the occasional disappointment, Mr. Cedillo swears by online shopping. He and his wife found cloth diapers online — and lots of helpful advice about them — for their 18-month-old at the Baby Lane (www.thebabylane.com).

        “They're my favorite Internet vendor of all time,” he said. “We even order our baby creams from her now, she was so good to us when we were first starting out.”

        Indeed, parents are among the fastest-growing users of online shopping. A visit to the mall with baby can be an all-day event.

        Pam and Randy Price of Mount Washington buy formula online by the case.

        “You don't have to leave your house to get it,” said Ms. Price, 27, an administrative assistant. It's a little more expensive with the shipping cost, but she said that's the price of convenience.

        Her 5-month-old, Rhiannon, can expect some holiday gifts from her mom's favorite site this year, Baby Center (www.babycenter.com).

        “She's a good baby,” Ms. Price said.

        TOP SITES

        Here are some sites recommended by readers or by popular opinion.

        • www.cushcity.com: African-American books, music and more.

        • www.festivals.com/~kwanzaa/: Information about Kwanzaa, links to e-cards and shopping.

        • www.jewishmall.com: Shopping for Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays.

        • www.christmas.com: Shopping, celebration suggestions.

        • www.eddiebauer.com: Eddie Bauer clothing and home goods.

        • www.spiegel.com: Women's clothing and home electronics.

        • www.ebay.com: Online auctions.

        • www.thebabylane.com: Baby items.

        • www.amazon.com: Books, music, out-of-print publications.

        • www.drugstore.com: Health and beauty items, pharmacy.

        • www.babycenter.com: Advice, discussion and shopping.

        • www.barnesandnoble.com: Books, software, e-cards.

        • www.petsmart.com: Pet food and supplies.

        • www.digitalchef.com: Cooking supplies, cookbooks, recipes, gourmet food.

        • www.azazz.com: Discount department store.

        • www.etoys.com: Toys, software, guaranteed low prices.

        • www.gap.com: Clothing.

        • www.nordstrom.com: The retailer finally comes to Cincinnati.

       



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