Customer disservice

Although still a Web shopper, Matthew JC. Powell isn't quite so much of a fan anymore . . .

Funny, it seems like only last week I was rushing to the defence of the Web as a medium for business. I saw it being unfairly criticised by people who saw only its minor flaws and overlooked its major strengths. I've made a habit lately of rushing to the defence of the unfairly criticised, but that is another column altogether.

What's happened since last week is an almost complete re-evaluation of my attitude towards doing business online. Some of this has been because of comments that have been made to me in response to last week's column, some of it has been second-hand reports I've read in stories, and the key thing was a first-hand experience. I'll go through these in order.

Several readers have contacted me with stories of their credit card numbers and various passwords having been intercepted or "hacked" in the process of doing business online. Despite my protestations to the contrary, these people (whom I generally think of as reliable witnesses) were absolutely certain that the Web was the only way their info could have been stolen. A friend of mine - a technical sort of Web guy - explained to me the process by which a credit card number could be intercepted and used, often without the rightful owner of the card even being aware it's happened. He made it sound scarily easy, then hopped into his Porsche and headed off to collect his unemployment cheque (he didn't really; I made that bit up).

Then over the past few days I've been reading reports that suggest, quite the opposite to what I had believed, that businesses that invest in a Web site as an adjunct to their traditional shopfronts don't add significantly to the growth their businesses could have expected without the Web. What's more, businesses that go for the fully online experience (abandoning the shopfront altogether) have no greater success in turning idle shoppers into actual buyers than ordinary old shops.

I had thought that customers headed out on the Web to shop for things only when they actually wanted something, not just to browse. From my own experience, I don't spend too much time just looking at CD covers and so forth online: if I want a CD that I can't get locally, I'll go looking for it online and if I find it I buy it. Apparently I'm not the typical Web shopper. The typical Web shopper apparently likes to loiter around Amazon.com, looking at the titles of books and reading what other readers said about them, then wanders away again. Hey, whatever turns you on. The upshot is that, where I saw Web shopping as the new ideal, a way to find what I want with elegant search engines rather than endless wandering, most people see it as just another shop.

The final thing was a purchase I made some months ago, which arrived at the beginning of last week. It's a bunch of Beatles T-shirts I bought online from the US. I'd had my eye on them for a while, but pounced when the price went down. Problem: the friendly folks in Customs (who, I trust, will have forgotten this column by the time I next need to re-enter the country) read the enclosed invoice, which listed both the sale price and the regular retail price. Presuming from the number of shirts in the box that I must be smuggling them in for sale to minors, they slapped a bill for import duty on them, based on the normal retail price.

Needless to say, I'm unhappy about this. Not only has the Web turned out to be just another shop, it turns out it's one where you don't even know what the price is until someone else comes along and tells you. It's like having someone follow you around at a sale, saying "you saved five bucks on that widget, gimme three and we'll call it even". I'm tempted to say "forget it" and let Customs return my shirts - as a matter of principle as well as the fact I can't afford it. But then I'll have to write to the original vendor and explain the situation before I can get a refund, and chances are they'll say I'm an idiot. And they'll say it in e-mail, so I can't even intimidate them with my piercing glower. I can be quite impressive when I glower.

So I'm forced to think again about what I gain from shopping on the Web as opposed to what I lose in terms of "the personal touch". And businesses investigating the Web as a probable route for expansion also need to make sure they'll actually benefit tangibly, rather than just being on the bandwagon.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@ idg.com.au

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