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Harrop: Online and in your face

Published: Monday, Dec. 24, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

They don’t like the crowds, the traffic, the parking chaos. They dislike the sameness – the same mall chain stores piping in the same holiday music and selling the same made-in-China sweaters, whether in Spokane, Indianapolis or Raleigh.

They stress out when waiting for someone to take their payment. Small wonder that 45 percent of consumers are doing at least some holiday shopping this year via the Internet, according to the Deloitte consulting firm.

But if you think Internet shopping is a hassle-free environment overseen by invariably polite computers, you probably haven’t done much of it. No one escapes. Online merchants have mastered the science of getting in your face.

Case in point, I looked at a shoulder bag on Amazon. Checking the dimensions and color, that’s all. Now when I do a Google search, up comes an ad for the bag. I look for amusing quotes by Theodore Roosevelt, and there’s the bag. I check out some items on eBay, and the bag’s there. Two questions: When do they give up, and how can you make them go away? The answer to the first is, “I don’t know.” The answer to the second is, “You can’t.”

Google, Facebook and the rest shadow your wanderings online, gathering information to sell tailored ads beamed back at you. Very scientific and a bit creepy to those who haven’t totally surrendered yet on matters of privacy.

Buy undies at Victoria’s Secret, and the salesperson asks for your email address. Your inbox fills with intimations that the store has your number on lingerie. Look at a Lego V-wing Starfighter online, and some computer assumes that you buy presents for a boy between the ages of 7 and 12.

Email messages now wave hysterical discounts in your face – 40 percent, 50 percent, 65 percent – with the proviso that you perform certain tricks. You may have to spend $250 by 11:30 p.m. tonight, Central time.

Meanwhile, actual shopping on Internet sites, like through catalogues of yore, is not without its glitches. If the scarf bought in a romantically lit department store doesn’t look so hot in the cold daylight, you can lug it back. Online sellers have more sophisticated means to make cheesy merchandise look amazing. And your Web browser’s idea of the color “forest heather” may not match your ideal.

Of course, you can ship stuff back. The good online merchants make that as easy as possible, but you still have to put the item back into the container, reseal it, put a sticker on and, in many cases, bring the package to a post office or other shipper, where the lines may be even worse than at the department store. Meanwhile, if there’s a problem with the order that requires human contact, good luck to you.

For many, shopping remains an entertainment, and the holiday crowds add to the joy. Understanding this, some strictly online retailers are beginning to open physical shops so that people can touch, see and try on the wares.

Bonobos is an example. Once so militantly cyber that its founder gave a speech predicting the end of apparel stores, Bonobos now concedes that a guy other than the male model on the webpage might want to check its cotton chinos for size. He might also like to see how orange “burnt ochre” really is.

The unpleasant aspects of Internet shopping may not bother you, and let me say in honesty that I find the online assault more amusing than irritating. But anyone who promotes online shopping as the cure for holiday stress must have greater skill in disposing of Styrofoam packing materials than I do.

• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence (R.I.) editorial board.

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