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12/15/2006
03:39 PM
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Elbowing Through The Holiday Crowds At Online Stores

Shopping for holiday gifts online sure seemed the perfect panacea. No crowds, no squinting down cluttered aisles, no jerk who just took that parking space I had my eye on. But even online, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas shopping in the bricks-and-mortar world. In other words, lost time, difficulty finding what you want, questionable customer service, and just general annoyance.

Shopping for holiday gifts online sure seemed the perfect panacea. No crowds, no squinting down cluttered aisles, no jerk who just took that parking space I had my eye on. But even online, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas shopping in the bricks-and-mortar world. In other words, lost time, difficulty finding what you want, questionable customer service, and just general annoyance.In a Dec. 4 story I wrote about what went wrong with sites that failed or slowed in late November due to holiday shoppers, I warned that this could be an ongoing theme well into December. Well, even though reporters aren't supposed to become part of their stories, as living, breathing people (believe it or not), that's sometimes what happens.

So here's my own story. On Dec. 13, in hot pursuit of a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse play set (my two-year-old daughter loves that show, and the theme song by They Might Be Giants is pretty cool in a retro sort of way, too), I first went to Disney.com, at which I was forbidden to enter until I downloaded the latest version of Flash. That was about a five-minute side trip, about the same time it would've taken me to drive down to the local megastore. Once in, I searched in vain for the blasted play set, using ever search word I could think of and clicking on to every relevant subject category. Sometimes pages took a while to load and I had to refresh a few times; the site obviously wasn't performing to par. I finally gave up and settled on a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse CD, which would at least make a decent stocking stuffer, then headed to the Cars movie section to get some things for my son. With checkout, total time spent was 45 minutes or so, comparable to the time I would've spent in a store. (By the way, the hard-to-find Mickey Mouse play set, which retailed at about $40, is now on eBay with one opportunist asking for more than $200. Forget that.)

Then I went to Wal-Mart for more toys. Again, the site was acting a bit quirky and slow. My colleague John Soat got an email from an InformationWeek reader that same day saying that Wal-Mart's site had a down-for-maintenance sign on it at noon, and "If you believe they picked noon today to schedule maintenance, I've got some mountain land here in Florida to sell you." Then I read a story this morning by my colleague Antone Gonsalves about how Wal-Mart's site went down yesterday (Dec. 14) due to an unexpected rush for Elmo dolls. (At a real store, you'd at least have the choice of buying something else…a blue-vested Wal-Mart employee wouldn't be hurriedly escorting you to the door). So at 1:57 p.m. EST today, Dec. 15, I did a quick visit to Wal-Mart's site, and the bottom half of the home page, right under Featured Categories of toys, wasn't loading. It stayed that way for several minutes. Then it loaded with a different homepage with the Featured Categories section replaced by something called Spotlight.

So lets go back to Disney.com for a minute. On Dec. 14, I get an "urgent update" e-mail that says the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse CD was "unavailable" when the order was processed, and it's now back-ordered. No mention of whether it will arrive by Christmas. If I want more information, I'm invited to e-mail guest services. But otherwise, they've got my credit card number, and will ship me the CD when it comes in, whenever that will be. So as it turns out, I need to drive to the store on the Saturday before Christmas anyway, to get something else to stuff in my daughter's stocking.

Maybe it's just me. Am I expecting too much from my online holiday shopping experience? When I'm out and about tomorrow, I could very well curse the physical shopping experience and pine for those moments of clicking through the online sites, bouts of frustration and all.

But that's the impetus that got me writing this blog. What's been your experience this year with holiday shopping online? Did you breeze right through your chosen sites, or are you ready to strangle Mickey through the screen? Am I being too hard on online retailers-are their technical problems understandable and forgivable? I want to hear your thoughts, and your story.

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