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December 7, 1997

Shopping by computer means
you can skip the crowds

By Timothy C. Barmann

One company urges you not to leave home without its charge card. But with on-line shopping, you don't even have to leave home.

For anyone who's had to maneuver around holiday traffic or push through throngs of last-minute shoppers at the malls, shopping by computer could be the alternative we've all been waiting for.

Proponents say it's easier and sometimes cheaper.

In some cases, it is. Take buying a book, for example. Two of the most popular Web sites that sell books, Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com) and Barnes and Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com), make it easy -- and offer bargains. Both sites let you search for book titles (Amazon claims to have 2.5 million, while Barnes and Noble says it has over 1 million) and buy the books using your credit card.

Experts say this may be the first holiday season where a significant number of shoppers turn to the Net.

Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass., research firm, estimates that on-line shoppers spend $4 million a day, and sales this year will reach $2.44 billion. The company predicts that number is only headed up, and will reach $17 billion by 2001.

Rhode Islanders are also reaching for their wallets while they sit at their keyboards. About 22 percent of those who have Internet access in the state have made on-line purchases, according to a survey by the University of Rhode Island last summer.

WHAT ARE people buying? Nearly a third are purchasing books, about a quarter are buying computer software, and about 1 in 10 are buying computer hardware, according to the URI survey.

Besides those items, among the most popular purchases are compact discs. Several sites now allow you to sample an album before buying it. One such site, CDNOW (http://www.cdnow.com) uses Real Audio technology to send you short clips from all the tracks of a CD. It's a great way to shop for music, and it will only get better once we all are able to get higher speed connections to the Internet.

If you are looking for computer equipment, you can find bargains at one of the many Internet auction sites. Among the most well-known is Onsale (http://www.onsale.com), which holds auctions five days a week on discontinued new merchandise and on some refurbished products, too.

A frequent user of Onsale told me the best bargains seem to come with items that are sold in huge quantities, and during auctions that take place during the week, as opposed to the weekend. Both observations make a lot of sense. The larger the quantity, the less demand there will be and the less you will have to pay. The shorter the time span, the fewer bidders there will be on any particular auction.

Beware of shipping and handling costs, however, which seem to be above the actual cost of shipping for many items at Onsale. A bargain can become an expensive purchase if it weighs a lot.

Another auction site to check out is Ebay (http://cayman.ebay.com/aw/index.html), where individuals can auction their own stuff. There you can find anything from Beanie Babies to computer equipment, toys, coins, books and jewelry.

ONE FRUSTRATION about window shopping on the Web is that some sites do not make it clear whether they offer on-line shopping.

For example, I went to the Toys 'R Us site (http:/www.toysrus.com), and waded through several menus and large graphic files, only to find that there was no mention of how to order products on-line.

The store's frequently-asked-questions Web page explained why the store charges sales tax on bicycle assemblies, but seemed to ignore the most basic question of whether it offers on-line shopping.

You can shop at a few local companies through Merchant's Bay (http://www.merchantsbay.com). That site, which hosts a half-dozen other local businesses, lets you buy a handful of items from pasta sauce to earth worms for composting.

The latter is sold by Beaver River Associates, in West Kingston, R.I. For $59, you can get the Worm World System that comes complete with a 2-foot by 11/2-foot box, two pounds of red wiggler worms, worm bedding, and an instruction and care guide. They ship, incidentally.

Your shopping experience may vary, depending on where you go. At Merchant's Bay, for example, ordering is needlessly difficult. You can go to an order-form page from the vendors on the site, but you have to remember or write down the product description and its price for each item you want to buy. A number of other on-line shopping ventures use a "shopping basket" feature that allows you to select an item and add it to a list. All the pertinent details are remembered for you until you are finished shopping and ready to check out.

IF YOU ARE traveling for the holiday, it might not be too late to make airplane reservations. I was pleasantly surprised recently at how easy and efficient it was to make a reservation on Southwest Airline's site (http://www.iflyswa.com). After entering my destination and dates of travel, the site smartly displayed available flights and their cost. It allowed me to easily examine other fare and time options if I changed my flight plans slightly.

Making travel reservations is a perfect fit with the World Wide Web. It will be the preferred way to travel once all the airlines implement systems like Southwest's. Better yet, let's hope one company can implement an easy-to-use system for all the airlines. They stand to provide a very worthwhile resource.

While many companies have developed their own Web sites, in addition, they have partnered with America Online to sell their wares there.

AOL, the largest on-line service with more than 10 million subscribers, is trying to take advantage of one of the greatest fears about on-line shopping: security. The on-line service "guarantees" the security of purchases made through its more than 100 on-line merchants.

In reality, most fears that credit cards will be stolen when you make Internet purchases have proved to be unfounded. It is incredibly difficult to steal a credit card number passing through the Internet. That's because most on-line stores take advantage of your browser's ability to encrypt your credit-card information.

To be safe, always make sure that when you place an order, you do so on sites that allow for "secure" ordering. On a secure page, your browser will let you know you've loaded a secure page. On Netscape 3.0 browsers, the broken key in the lower left-hand corner of the screen will become a solid key. On later versions of Netscape and on Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers, secure pages are indicated by a small closed lock.

If you still don't feel comfortable sending your credit-card number online, many stores will accept the number by phone or by fax.

Finally, instead of looking outside your window for Santa's sleigh, you can find out where your packages are if you've shipped by United Parcel Service (http://www.ups.com) or FedEx (http://www.fedex.com). Both offer tracking services if you have a tracking number assigned to the package when it was shipped.

If fact, Forrester Research predicts that the popularity of on-line shopping will prompt homeowners to install security boxes outside or inside garages where deliveries can be left while they are not home.

So much for chimney deliveries on Christmas eve.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.