Other than rather frequent snide comments about how the internet has changed from a source of open information for the fun of having information to one immense shopping mall, these columns have tended to steer clear of what appears to be today's most prolific use of the internet - buying. And if the truth be told, that steering clear hasn't only been in these columns. In my offline life (I do have one) I also try and keep my distance from shopping.
Lately, however, that has changed. I read somewhere that after about twelve years of marriage couples should consider remarrying because it's at about that time that everything in the house starts to wear out, and a wedding is a wonderful opportunity to get presents and restock the house. For us, at least, it couldn't hurt: we've been buying with a vengeance (and wouldn't mind getting presents). And because we're talking about expensive items, we're also shopping - comparing prices and merchandise in an effort to be conscientious consumers. But that means that whatever we save in money we've invariably lost in time. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could do all our shopping via the internet and in that way save not only time but also money? The past few months have offered me an opportunity to test that hypothesis. The conclusion seems to be a resounding "not necessarily".
Shopping is time consuming, but shopping online is as well. Ordering books or CDs via amazon.com is rather simple, and I admit to being very pleased with the merchandise I've received from them. But they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Looking for electronic equipment, for instance, seems on the whole to be more trouble than it's worth. Sites exist that supposedly do the comparing for you, giving you the bottom line on which offer is more worthwhile. But online stores are similar to their flesh and blood relatives - the merchandise they carry is only similar, not identical, so that ultimately it's close to impossible to really know who has the better offer. And though I've been told that prices on the web are cheaper, from the shopping I've done I'm far from convinced.
Online auctions are, perhaps, something different. At these we have a chance to make an offer, and hope that everyone else who's interested in the same item went to sleep early on the particular night we've bid. I've watched numerous times as the prices of items at auction sites jump from almost being given away free to close to the list price (or at least quite a bit more than I would be willing to pay) within the final ten minutes before closing. I've tried to bid on items in those last few minutes and had my offers rejected because the going price has passed my bid in the time it takes me to actually submit my offer. Everybody seems to be playing the same game. Thus, after quite a bit of observation, and not too little frustration, I've learned that ultimately most items, irregardless of how low the starting bid is set, seem to have a price from which they deviate only slightly. I've watched about 15 televisions (auctioned separately and individually) with a starting bid of 100 shekels get sold for 2500 shekels. The same television can be bought in a store for about 2800. Time after time it looks as though someone who bid 500 shekels is going to get a real bargain, and then all of a sudden the bids start pouring in and the standard, to be expected, price is reached. That's not to say that 300 shekels is something to be laughed at, but at that saving it's worth considering whether having contact with a store and a salesperson isn't preferable.
But I've already admitted to not being much of a shopper. I don't know if that makes me part of an endangered species or not, but many people are blessed with the love of shopping. And there are even people for whom the motto Born to Shop might best be changed to Born to Bid. It's not only that they're good at it, and know where to find the best bargains, but that they truly enjoy buying this way and are thus willing to devote the time needed to find and purchase those bargains. I can't say that I envy these people, but I respect their expertise. I also understand that becoming good at what they do demands time and practice, and frankly, both on and off the internet I'd rather not devote the time and effort necessary to becoming a true professional. The time I save by not devoting my life to learning to be a good buyer or a good bidder is ultimately more meaningful to me than the savings that I just might make on an item I buy. Essentially that's the difference that makes buying via amazon.com worthwile and via an online auction much less so - amazon.com lets me shop with less effort; with online auctions I may stay at home, but my efforts are at least equal to what I would expend were I to shop physically.
So far, however, I've primarily dealt with new merchandise. When it comes to used stuff ... well, I'm even a bit frightened to try. I'm not really much of a collector, I'm simply terrible at throwing things away. If the truth be told, I have to admit to being fearful that after exposing myself to the world of online auctioning of used items I'd quickly become a compulsive collector of junk - junk that others want to throw out. The idea, however, fascinates me, and not only me. These "you are what you sell" concept sites have, however, a limited, perhaps even an elitist, appeal. Popular culture seems much more interested in the possibility of being a part of consumer culture without ever leaving your home. The world became bored with dotcomguy well before his year-long experiment ended. I'm not sure it has ever taken much of an interest in the sites that seek to find something transcendent in online buying and selling. For me there's little doubt about which is the more interesting and enticing.
I still have to complain. One of the best sites for basic information, About.com, recently announced that it was reorganizing, and streamlining its site. The bottom line was very simple - simply making interesting and well organized information available to whomever might be looking for it, what was seemingly the purpose of the site from its inception, just wasn't lucrative. And the example seems to prove the point: the internet will thrive because it adapts to the needs of the day, to the desires of the public. The problem is that I simply don't seem to be that public.
On the other hand, after taking the family to the mall with almost alarming frequency over the past few months I have to admit that there's definitely something to be said for the experience. I enjoy it when the boys ask me to open the computer and log onto the web in order to find something interesting (in their terms), but I like it even more when they window shop and notice all sorts of interesting things. I like it when they take in the sights, like identifying the sort of cars that we pass. Coming across something unexpected and trying to make sense of it can and does happen on the internet, but it's a much richer experience at the mall. Of course we never only buy what we were looking for. Getting in the car and going shopping without also buying something to eat, for instance, is rather impossible. Thus, if I want to save money, in the end web shopping is probably cheaper. But as someone who spends a large part of his day in front of a computer screen, I have to admit that as much as I hate shopping, I definitely prefer to do it at the mall.
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