Dodging dodgy websites

As online merchants learn from the dot-com postmortems and apply those lessons to improve their e-commerce sites, do you find yourself buying more stuff - and more expensive stuff - over the internet? Me neither.

          As online merchants learn from the dot-com postmortems and apply those lessons to improve their e-commerce sites, do you find yourself buying more stuff - and more expensive stuff - over the internet?

          Me neither.

          Extrapolating a trend based on limited personal experience is always risky, but it's tough to ignore the impression that online shopping - more often than not - fails to beget online buying. Virtual window-shopping is what we're talking about, and the practice cannot be good news for companies that rely solely on online sales for survival.

          On the other hand, e-window-shopping may be an underestimated asset for companies with a presence in both the physical and virtual worlds, according to new research from Jupiter Media Metrix.

          Jupiter maintains that offline purchases influenced by online research will constitute almost two-thirds of the benefits that a traditional merchant derives from its website. Accounting for this fact will boost such a site's return on investment by 65%, the researchers contend.

          Whether those figures hold up in the real world is anyone's guess, but the general description of an online shopper/offline buyer fit this particular consumer as he recently went about the unpleasant task of purchasing a minivan.

          Mrs Buzz and I had determined early on that we wanted a Dodge Grand Caravan. The only unanswered question was who would win our business. Seeing as I write about the internet for a living, it seemed obligatory that I at least try to get the deal done through the web.

          Let's just say the experience was less than satisfying.

          One site promised to hook me up with a dealer in my area who could provide the specified vehicle and quote me a competitive price. In my area turned out to be 65 miles away . . . in a neighbouring state.

          Another site did a swell job of fielding my request for information and forwarding it to a nearby dealer who the site claimed would have the desired Dodge. The dealer immediately sent an email confirming my inquiry. . . . And I never heard from them again.

          A third site promised to convert 50,000 of my American Express Membership Rewards points into a $1000 certificate that could be applied to the minivan purchase, but the fine print was far too complex for the average trade journalist to understand. And the site's request for a $US300 deposit simply scared this potential buyer away.

          Frustrated, I went to the official Dodge website, found a list of dealers, dialled a round of old-fashioned phone calls, received a handful of verbal quotes, then dragged my butt down to the low bidder for hand-to-hand combat.

          The dealer experience was still the dealer experience, but at least I had stopped spinning my wheels.

          A Buzz reader who says my recent recommendation of the Road to Springfield website "nearly got me fired at work," offers this tip for those who believe the internet can be an instrument of good deeds, as well as frivolous and evil ones:

          "I'd like to let you in on a little company run by a friend of mine here in Homer, Alaska," Ben Stuart writes. "It's www.generousadventures.com and it is the only all-travel benefit auction on the internet right now. It receives donated adventure and accommodation trips from around the world and puts them up to bid on the site. At the close of the auction the proceeds go to various environmental organisations such as Robert F Kennedy's Waterkeeper Alliance, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Wildlife Fund."

          Land a swell trip at a decent price while doing your bit for the environment?

          Beats shopping for a minivan.

          Comments, suggestions and "What I did on my summer vacation" essays should be sent to buzz@nww.com.

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