MY APOLOGIES TO A BOY named Kevin who lives in Avon, Conn., for keeping what should have been his copy of Harry Potter No. 4, still in its plastic wrap, in my study for two weeks. The outside of the box was addressed to me, the inside label was addressed to Kevin, and the result was confusion. My order, you see, had been sent to me, and Kevin's to him. The computer said so.
I imagine Kevin as a cheeky 12 year old who was irked with his parents for not taking him to the bookstore at midnight to buy a copy of the tale about a wizard-in-training orphan. His parents knew something he didn't -- that his favorite aunt had ordered the book for him from Amazon.com. But his surprise, I can only assume, was not at the gift but at receiving an order for S.D. Scalet of Cambridge, Mass.
J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was supposed to be the event that made online bookselling as real as The Velveteen Rabbit. Amazon.com teamed up with FedEx to give the first 250,000 customers who ordered advance copies a free upgrade to delivery on the Saturday release date. Amazon.com received more than 400,000 preorders alone, and FedEx lined up 100 flights and 9,000 delivery personnel and vehicles from 700 stations to deliver the 2.7-pound tomes.
Things didn't go quite as planned, though. The next week, a spokesperson from the Web's biggest retailer sheepishly admitted that a software glitch screwed up 3,800 orders, which doesn't include the mix-up that befell Kevin and me. Although I was counting on my order to keep me company on a business trip, I wasn't nearly as upset as some Potterites, who, according to The Boston Globe, flamed Amazon.com on chat sites when the white and purple truck didn't round their corner that Saturday. But I didn't mind so much, really. A gift certificate, not my credit card, had paid for the book.
I shop online. It's mall shopping without the crowds, catalog shopping without the clutter. I've purchased everything from books and CDs to water filters and camping goods to sweaters and shampoo to cat litter and boxes of cereal. I've received gifts never seen by the sender and sent gifts I never saw. And nearly every time, one thing has powered my click-happy finger: a bargain. Gift certificates are good, free shipping for eschewing the catalog is better, and ridiculous deals are the best. Once I spent $30 to get $30 off, which left me wondering whether my name and address were really that valuable. Still, online shopping is worth the trouble only if a good deal is involved.
I go online at home the old-fashioned click, dial and screech way, a la 56Kbps. I wait for JPEGs to download, for JPEGs that never download, for JPEGs that are so illegible that I wish they hadn't downloaded. I cope with search engines that don't work or are just annoying, like one home goods and clothing store that hardly ever finds what I seek but always offers me a gift certificate instead -- that way, I can commit to buying more things at a place that doesn't have what I want anyway.
Then there are the e-mails to sort through, because no matter how hard I try to check all the right boxes and uncheck the wrong ones, I will end up receiving regular, colorful e-mails from a store that wants me to buy another 20-pound bag of cat food when my 15-pound darling isn't halfway through the last one. This doesn't even count the three or four status updates that seem standard with any online order.
The worst part, though, is getting the darn packages. When I worked at home and therefore had delusions that I would actually be able to answer the doorbell when the sun was high in the sky, the local UPS guy knew me as the woman who regularly and wildly chased him down on the street. A typical morning: I waited until noon to shower, thinking he'd come at 9 a.m. like last time. I took the world's fastest shower (a little-known environmental benefit of online shopping), poked my wet head out the door, found the little yellow note and caught a glimpse of the big brown truck. (I've been told that UPS has trademarked brown for clothing and vehicles, and what a lovely color it is.) There I was, running through my neighborhood in untied shoes, chasing a brown blur that had just delivered my third notice, thinking to myself how nice it would be if I had my bike -- which had a flat tire, which needed an air pump, which brought me back to the contents of my package. Someone wiser than me once pointed out that until everyone has a lockable mailbox the size of your average meat locker, online shopping will continue to be a bother.
And the freebies are running out. Already the deals at Amazing-bargains.com -- a tacky but useful site that posts the coupon codes for online deals -- have become less amazing. (Save $10 on a $30 order? Pshaw.) Online sellers are under pressure to start turning a profit. But the freebies haven't been going on long enough to put local stores out of business -- and specialty items aside, consumers will go back to them, once the prices are the same. Until people have faster connections, more trust in online retailing, a better delivery method and stores come up with a more effective way of dealing with returns and order fulfillment problems, there's plenty of money to be made inside the bricks.
The Random Factor
I'll order online again, but not until memories of my book purchase gone awry have dulled. Eventually I sent Harry back to Amazon.com, but to this day, Amazon.com's computers insist that I was shipped two copies of the book I really wanted: My friend Mary Sharratt's debut novel, which was published this year by the nonprofit Coffee House Press. Hardly the latest best-seller.
As I thumbed through Summit Avenue, I thought of the last time I saw her, in Harvard Square. It was snowing great wet flakes that night, big as your thumbnail, but Mary had been going to bookstores doing guerrilla marketing: taking the books her press had published and putting them in the fronts of shelves, facing them forward so that more than a slender spine showed. Big publishers pay big bucks to get fancy display space for their books; the Coffee House Press has book lovers like Mary.
The biggest thing missing from online selling is the random factor. You're walking through a store and something catches your eye -- not the best-sellers displayed on a website's front page or items that match your search, or the selections that the collaborative filtering software is convinced you'll like because complete strangers exhibit similar buying patterns, but an item that someone left in the wrong spot. And you pick it up, and it becomes part of your day.
Or maybe there is the random factor, except now it only happens when your order lands in the wrong box. I like to imagine that Kevin and his family are reading Mary's book right now. Who knows, maybe I'll end up reading Harry Potter. I could order it from Amazon.com; as an apology, I got a $5 credit.