Making a List, Clicking It Twice

Our reporter tries doing all her holiday shopping online. She finds that navigating the virtual mall isn't necessarily easy or quick.

By ABIGAIL GOLDMAN, Times Staff Writer

     It sounded like the best assignment I'd ever been given: Do your holiday shopping. At work. Online.
     No sweat, I thought. Days later, I knew otherwise.
     In my quest to buy nine gifts for babies, senior citizens and plenty in between, I made every newbie mistake possible. I discovered that online stores fail almost as often as I do, even erasing my shopping list. I also learned that looking for coupons beforehand is critical and that computerized "shopping agents" or "bots" are a godsend.
     In spite of a lot of wasted energy, I would shop online again--in limited doses. It took time, but going to the mall takes time.
     Last year, one Web surveyor pegged the burgeoning online shopping industry at just 1% of the country's retail sales. But that still gave e-tailers about $8 billion spent online in 1998. This year, every computer consulting outfit is predicting a booming online holiday shopping season, with perhaps a tenfold increase.
     I start on my adventure, figuring on a limit of $800 for all gifts--about the average American's holiday expenditure.
     First, I shop for my husband. I knew what I wanted--some video game-playing gizmo that everyone is talking about. The problem was that I had forgotten its exact name. I feel confident that the various sites will help me find it.
     First stop, Toys R Us ( The gift I want has a "dream" somewhere in the name, but when I use that word to search, I get 142 choices, including Barbie Deluxe Dream House and Electronic Dream Phone. Frustrated, I ignore this search and find a video game link. After clicking that, I see my gizmo right there on the first page: Sega's new Dreamcast video game console. Right.
     But I have pre-buyer's remorse and decide to check around--a common affliction. Web watchers say only a fraction of online shoppers complete their Web purchases.
     So I visit two other Web sites. After being frightened by EToys' ( 8 jillion accessory "recommendations" and's ( dizzying toy home page blinding me with an overabundance of choices, I decide to compare prices elsewhere.
     That meant a stop at a shopping bot ("bot" is short for robot, or a free Web service that searches for the best deal on a specified item). I am familiar with MySimon ( because its chief executive happens to be my big brother. He swears that his bot searches the greatest number of sites; I head there, figuring that if things go awry, I have someone to complain to.
     Other shopping bots to try include: Jango (, Bottom Dollar Shopping Agent (, Shopfind ( and BotSpot (
     Lucky for me, MySimon has a link right from its home page to the Dreamcast gizmo I want, so I click there and am dazzled by what it finds: five retail Web sites that sell the toy, plus it notes which ones have specials such as free shipping, although their best prices are within 4 cents of one another.
     I know Toys R Us takes returns at its stores; the bot also tells me another site has free tax and shipping, but that site lists shipping time as two to three weeks.
     So I return to the bot to look for the best-priced Dreamcast games.
     One of my rules is to buy as many things from one online store as I can, because I hate typing in all my credit information.
     I settle on spending my hard-earned dollars at ( because it offers free tax and shipping and has the Sega games I want. My final purchase includes the Dreamcast console and two games: "Sonic Adventure"--don't ask me what it's about--and a flight simulator game.
     Total: $296.85. Egad.
     Now on to my two nieces, a nephew and a soon-to-be newborn.
     I start with the baby, due to join us in time for the winter holidays, and go to one of my favorite baby stores, The Right Start ( Free gift wrapping and free shipping? I know I'm in the right place. Starting with the site's suggestions, I choose my items and head for the checkout.
     The system won't let me, however. I call the toll-free number to inquire and am told that the system is not working. Frustrated, I do the virtual equivalent of leaving a grocery cart full of perishables sitting near the door and head out in a huff. Time wasted: about an hour.
     Toys R Us doesn't have the baby book I liked at Right Start, so I search a few other Web sites of favorite brick-and-mortar toy stores and also come up empty. Then I head back to EToys, which has my book but says it will charge me for tax, shipping and gift wrapping. I decide the prices are low enough that I'll come out about even.
     I start to check out after grudgingly re-collecting "Baby's First Book" and a tape recorder-plus-microphone for my 3-year-old nephew. I also picked Curious Globonz, a plastic set of cartoonish connecting bones that glow in the dark for my 5 1/2-year-old niece; and for her wannabe-doctor 8-year-old sister, I choose Newton's Body Shop, a book-and-project kit that explains the workings of the human body.
     I see a few other possibilities, but I've gotten better at this. I save time by adding them to my Web shopping cart rather than bookmarking them, since every site I vist allows shoppers to ditch items before purchasing.
     At this point, bleary-eyed after several hours, I call it a day.
     The next morning, EToys greeted me by name--but it had mysteriously emptied from my cart all the fruits of my previous day's shopping. Then midway though reassembling my purchase, my computer performs a reviled "illegal function" and shuts itself down. By now, at least I know where to find my toys on the EToys Web page.
     I fill out all my credit information, designate the different shipping addresses and billing address and perform a variety of other typing tasks I hate. Then I encounter a curious space asking for "coupon numbers." This tells me: a) That there are coupons out there somewhere, and b) That I don't have one.
     With all the problems I've had, I don't relish doing any of this again. So I complete my EToys purchase and then set out in search of coupons by using Ask Jeeves (, which allows you to search using plain-English questions.
     Jeeves finds plenty of coupon sites, most of which are set up to print coupons for use in traditional stores. Finally, I got to Suzi (, which offers a "clickable coupon" for $10 off my first EToys purchase.
     I call EToys' 800 number and hear that it doesn't like to apply coupons retroactively. But when I ask a snippy operator why he would risk my canceling an entire order for a $10 coupon, he gets nicer. He determines the best way to maintain my order is simply to credit my card $10 the next day after the items are shipped and the charge has gone through. Victory.
     Suzi also gives me a lead. She has a coupon for a gourmet store, and though I don't find what I want there, I check to see if one of my favorite New York stores is online.
     Indeed, Dean & Deluca ( is a member of the modern age, and I'm happy to take care of both my mother-in-law and sister-in-law there. I decide on a package of chocolate-dipped biscotti for each woman, with a complement of Italian and Swiss coffees for my mother-in-law and British and Indian teas for my husband's sister.
     I head to check out and discover that Dean & Deluca allows me only one shipping address. It also doesn't let me designate different items to go into different packages.
     Back to the phone. A very helpful Dean & Deluca employee told me to note my wishes in the comments section. Skeptical but tired, I do as he told me, listing which items should go in which gift box, how each box should be labeled with the recipient's name, and that all should be shipped to me (I knew I'd see them before the holiday). But I had to do it all twice, because the first set of elaborate instructions mysteriously disappeared.
     Wiser now, I finish off the rest of my shopping list. I use a combination of bots and search engines to find Yiddish videos for my father-in-law ( I also select a cashmere sweater set in charcoal for my sister, whom I was matched up with for the family grabbag, while cursing Nordstrom's site ( for what I considered excessive shipping and gift-wrapping charges.
     Grand shopping total: $728.91. And one week later, I had received the Sega gizmo and games, the correctly marked and boxed gourmet packs from Dean & Deluca and the sweater set. By the same time, my brother had the gifts for his children, and my sister had the EToys items for her girls (which she said came with "EToys" emblazoned on the label; a problem, since girls old enough to read are old enough to badger their mother in anticipation).
     I was still without the Yiddish video for my father-in-law, but I cut Ergo Media Inc. slack when I e-mail and learn that its system was knocked out by Hurricane Floyd.
     I would be lying if I suggested that I saved any time shopping online. But I would use the Web again--especially for electronics and toys--when I already know what I want, have found applicable coupons and used a bot to further narrow down the best choice.
     I still hate typing in my shopping information, however. So online veteran that I am, I search online for a Web credit card application.

* * *
     More Coverage
     * A frantic, find-the-best-deal, comparison shop-off between online and offline vendors. C5
     * Retail shopping on the Internet may triple this year and new sites keep opening every day. To help you navigate, a guide to online shopping sites in 10 popular categories, from books to toys. C5
* * *

     What She Bought

     * At ( Sega Dreamcast console plus two games, "Air Force Delta" and "Sonic Adventure."
     Total price: $296.85
     * At Dean & Deluca ( Two bags chocolate-dipped biscotti, two gourmet teas and three imported coffees.
     Total price: $116.66
     * At EToys ( Baby book, tape recorder and microphone, glow-in-the-dark connecting bones set and kid's pre-med kit and book.
     Total price, with coupon: $88.05
     * At Ergo Media ( Classic movie on video tape. Total price: $55.45
     * At Nordstrom ( Charcoal gray cashmere sweater set.
     Total price: $171.90
     Grand total: $728.91
     Note: All prices include applicable tax, shipping and gift wrap.

     Online Shopping Tips

     * Search for online shopping coupons. Check out CcRewards, ( and Suzi Coupon (
     * Use a shopping bot, a free Web service, that compares prices. They are especially good at finding deals on the Net's most plentiful items: computers, software, games, toys, books, music and videos.
     * Once at an online store, check shipping, sales tax and gift-wrapping policies before shopping. Click on "site map," "shipping" or "frequently asked questions" if that information is not immediately apparent. Also find out if a shopping site will let you ship purchases to more than one address.
     * As you shop, write down choices and move them to the shopping cart, wish list, or both. You can always remove unwanted items from your cart before making a final purchase, and you don't have to worry about cluttering bookmarks or retrieving items after you've moved on.
     * When you can, buy multiple items at one store to avoid the need to repeat personal information.
     * Keep your user name and password for each site in which you're registered on a written master list or separate computer file, and include the site's address. This will save you from having to reenter your billing address and other information each time you make a purchase.
     * Print out any receipt or final form. Some shopping sites remind you to do this, and others promise to e-mail you a receipt. But you should print out the finalized form regardless.
     * Don't hesitate to follow up with e-mails, or toll-free phone calls to check on an order. Note the date and time of your call and take the name of whoever waits on you so that you can follow up again if you have to.

     Top 20 Web Retailers

     The most popular sites for U.S. home Web users in August 1999:
                               Buyers  Projected
Rank/site              (in thousands)   buy rate  Buyer*  Non-buyer*
1.                     789       7.1%    0:53        0:12
2.                        314       12.1    0:59        0:11
3.             289        7.5    0:49        0:06
4.               269       12.6    0:33        0:08
5.                   256       15.5    0:38        0:07
6.               241       12.6    0:32        0:06
7.                  191       17.6    0:35        0:08
8.                    167        7.4    0:42        0:10
9.                       95        1.8    1:22        0:20
10.                93        5.4    0:30        0:03
11.                   80       21.0    0:12        1:00
12.                   80       13.1    0:31        0:05
13.                    73        4.5    0:34        0:08
14.                      67        0.2    2:20        2:41
15.                  65        6.3    0:21        0:10
16.                      57        5.2    1:10        0:10
17.                      52        4.7    0:41        0:04
18.                      52        2.4    1:32        0:17
19.                     51        4.2    0:22        0:16
20.               43       15.0    1:11        0:07

     *Avg. time spent (hours:minutes)
     Source: PC Data Online

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times