Net's win over distance throws up more issues

Technology is a boon for doing business in far-off places, but that cranking back of the tyranny of distance inevitably kicks up more problems of its own. It's a catch-22 that businesses considering any kind of e-commerce can't ignore.

Technology is a boon for doing business in far-off places, but that cranking back of the tyranny of distance inevitably kicks up more problems of its own. It’s a catch-22 that businesses considering any kind of e-commerce can’t ignore.

Let me explain.

Seeking a bit of electronic gear for professional and private use earlier this year, but -- typically -- unwilling to buy new for top dollar, I searched the local web. Auction site TradeMe had a couple of items that looked likely, though there was no way of physically checking gear before I put my bid in.

I got brave, and topped the week-old best offer by a whole $5.

It turned out I was the highest bidder at auction – though again, unless I had stayed up till 11pm on the night that particular auction expired, I had no way of ensuring someone didn’t overbid me at the last moment (except for autobidding, but then you have to decide your top price, and I am far too lazy for that). But the real nail-nibbling occurred when I had to negotiate with the owner of the goods, who was, of course, located in Wellington, a means by which to do the real horse-trading (except with the horses, or rather electronics, at the other end of the island). He returned my email after a couple of days of worrying silence. Turned out he was away, in the wilds of Upper Hutt or some such. He wanted me to send a cheque upon receipt of which he would courier-post the gear.

TradeMe offers an online escrow service of sorts, SafeTrader. Escrow services, of which there are a few online in other countries, keep the buyer's money in trust until the seller ships the goods to the buyer and the buyer has had the opportunity to inspect them. They charge a small percentage or a flat fee.

Trouble was, my seller didn’t want to use SafeTrader. If you’ve ever tried to convince someone to do something by email, you’ll know it’s a little harder than doing it face to face. The relative anonymity of online transactions means people are often more curt and business-like and feel no responsibility to respond. His experience using the auction process reassured me (comments from buyers on past sellers help identify the bad apples), though not much, but in the end I didn’t even try.

It turned out fine, I’m happy to report (thanks, Arthur) but could have involved chasing someone dodgy, in two senses of the word, around another city. Virtually.

Mistakes are harder. A few weeks back I had the wonderful opportunity of staying at the Grand Chateau at Ruapehu (very nice, thanks for asking), and booked everything online. Room 121 was ready, all right, but for someone else. I had somehow flipped a month or two on my digital diary and booked for the dates of the Saturday and Sunday rather than the Friday and Saturday. The place was packed to its snowy gills.

Idiot, I hear you say, but as I stood at the reception desk waiting for the ever-helpful Chateau staffer to find us a place to stay somewhere, anywhere within a 50km radius, I couldn’t help be my techno-optimist self and think better technology may have helped.

Clever booking software would have noted that we were Aucklanders travelling down for the weekend and flagged a check that would have happened naturally on the phone – “Do you really want to stay the Saturday and the Sunday?”.

The answer, of course, was yes – and no. And what technology can cope with that?

Broatch is Computerworld chief sub-editor. Send email to Mark Broatch. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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