My mission: use the World Wide Web to mock-purchase a PC. I was after a laptop with a docking station, a 133MHz Intel Pentium chip, 16Mb of RAM and a hard drive of at least 1Gb, delivered to a US address.
My results: mixed, at best.
I chose five online shops to test. Two were PC vendors: Dell and Gateway 2000. Two were resellers that operate only on the Web: NECX Direct and PC Shopping Planet. One was a company known for moving all kinds of merchandise fast: Wal-Mart Stores.
Online prices at Dell and Gateway generally were the same as retail or telephone sales. A Wal-Mart spokesman suggested shopping around once you know which model you want, because prices in physical stores could beat those online.
Overall, this crop of electronic commerce players did fairly well. And so they should: if computer companies don't get this stuff right, who will?
But the going sure wasn't easy at every site.
Sorry Gateway, but yours was the most boring-looking site. (Note: it was the US site).
Gateway tried to do too much, combining product information, company financials, press releases and tons of other corporate data with its online store. Some pages were huge masses of small text.
The site used frames, which meant the screen was split into grids of different sizes, each of which could be scrolled separately. Gateway also endorsed Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. I prefer a browser-agnostic attitude, but that's just me. (My Netscape Navigator worked just fine.)Gateway had some fun diversions, such astrivia about the company mascot, a black-and-white Holstein cow. (A cow sure puts its four stomachs to work, scoffing 150Kg of food and water every day. But I digress.)Scooting around the site wasn't as smooth as it should have been. For example, I clicked on "Build Your Own Gateway PC", but there was nothing to direct me to a PC with a docking station. I used the search engine to dig up the Gateway Solo. But I got sidetracked to pages that told me about Solo's virtues, with no obvious way to order one. I had to use the "Back" button to find an order page.
Order entry was easy enough. Gateway offered more payment methods than Dell: cash on delivery and debit cards, in addition to credit cards and purchase orders. Despite delays, I got the PC I wanted.
You've got to hand it to Dell. With no slow-to-download frames and only light graphics, this speedy site was a pleasure. It's no wonder the vendor does $US1 million worth of business per day online.
A form let me configure my PC by selecting options, and it kept a running tally of the price.
Dell's site was so easy to use that I mistakenly ordered a $US3407 machine before I could stop myself.
Minutes after I placed my order, I received a confirmation by electronic mail.
I placed a panicky call to the toll-free customer service line - which is plastered all over the site - where a nice man named Troy soothed me.
"Aww, I understand, ma'am. No problem, ma'am," he said, advising me to call the sales department the next day to cancel the order.
By the way, orders received on the Web aren't usually processed by Dell until the next day, and credit cards aren't tapped until the goods actually ship, or so said Troy.
The NECX site was slow but
sported a few nice features. (NECX isn't related to NEC.)
A freshness date at the top of the home page indicated when the information was posted, which is key in a market where prices constantly change. One truly great feature was the ability to do side-by-side PC comparisons. I picked the options, and then the site generated a chart to show how competing products stack up - right down to minutes of battery life. That's smart shopping.
A downside to NECX's site was all the graphics that demonstrated what various computers look like - they slowed down the site.
Also, hypertext links that were supposed to show product reviews didn't work.
I played six rounds of Minesweeper waiting for one review to pop up, only to get a generic error message.
But the ability to comparison-shop saves the site.
PC SHOPPING PLANET
PC Shopping Planet's home page was frustrating. Between lots of exclamation-pointed come-ons for "hot deals" and irritating attempts to coax me to register for special discounts and freebies, finding what I wanted was tough.
Instead of product categories to browse, I was confronted with a nonalphabetised list of vendors and computer model names.
I scanned for a Pentium 133. Being a risk-taker, I clicked on a company I hadn't heard of before: Magitronics.
It turned out I couldn't configure the machine and had to take the memory, hard drive and other options Shopping Planet offered. That's no good, especially when you're talking about a $US3999 PC.
There was no way to tell whether a docking station existed for this model, so I decided to come at the problem differently - by plugging the words "docking station" in to the site's search engine.
But I couldn't find a search facility. I backed up all the way to the home page with no luck. A button called "Information" brought me a list of links that included "How to Order" and "No-hassle Return Policy".
How about a no-hassle search function, for crying out loud?
"Product Specifications" told me how "we have packed our product pages with as much useful information as possible" and said I should call customer service with questions.
Pretty peeved, I bagged out without ordering.
If Sam Walton had lived to surf the Web, the Wal-Mart founder would have been right proud of this no-nonsense site.
With minimal graphics, the site gave me clean, simple hypertext product categories to explore.
I worked my way through the computer shop and clicked "Notebooks - Pentium". An alphabetical list of 102 links to particular brands and models appeared.
But when I tried to add a PC to my shopping cart, I got a message telling me to fill out a form with my name, address and other personal data. I am the type who likes to walk around with an item before I decide whether to buy.
But here I couldn't create a shopping basket without divulging personal stats. I didn't like it, but I did it.
I also couldn't customise my PC. I had to take what Wal-Mart offered, and it wasn't necessarily any cheaper than other stores.
And I had trouble figuring out how much I would pay for the docking station and ended up calling customer service.
Having to make that call knocked the Wal-Mart site down some, but I still liked its simplicity.