All over the country, we are seeing traditional shopping centers and malls disappear. Surely, online shopping accounts for much of this. This should come as no surprise. Online retailers seldom run out of stock; prices, even accounting for shipping, are reasonable; and there are far more products from which to choose; traffic and parking are non-issues.
No wonder brick-and-mortar stores find it hard to compete. But you can’t taste things online, nor can you try on clothes or get that feel that your purchase is “really you.” With service-oriented retailers, there is something comforting in a salesperson warmly wishing you happy holidays. One could even enjoy the decorations and ambience of the live shopping experience.
With some of my hobbies, I do most of my shopping online. I might be building a model of a World War II Navy Corsair fighter plane, but I want to depict it in the color scheme appropriate for late 1945 in the Pacific. Wary of the toxic nature of normal enamels, I need to find an accurate acrylic paint. Or perhaps I need to find an inexpensive ring-flash for my older Sony digital camera to shoot better macro photos of snowflakes this winter.
More recently, I’ve been searching for a small video camera for my model rockets. This camera goes in the model rocket and shoots a video from the craft in flight. Hence, the video camera must be exceptionally small and lightweight. Being retired, I’m on a fixed income and I can’t afford the latest thousand-dollar camera for a rocket that may have cost only $20. Traditional marketing logic tells us that an inexpensive version of such a camera shouldn’t exist. Not only does this unique product exist, but there are several offerings online, ranging from less than $10 to $30. One of these cameras is only 1 inch wide by 1 inch tall, another no larger than a five-stick pack of chewing gum. The videos they produce are stunning. It’s beyond the purpose of this column to recommend or detail a specific item or two, but rather to suggest that some online offerings do satisfy needs or wants — needs or wants that brick-and-mortar stores simply cannot provide.
Yet for all the abundant unusual offerings of the online world, there must be caveats. If you are one of the early adopters of a technology, there will undoubtedly be glitches along the way. Have you ever heard the 1948 Frank Loesser pop song “I’d Like to Get You on a Slow Boat to China”? Let’s change to phrase “Boat to China” to “Boat from China”! This describes two online shopping experiences. One miniature video camera I’d ordered online was shipped from China. I’d forgotten I even ordered it until it showed up in my mailbox some five months after the initial order. Better late than never, I suppose. Early this past spring, my wife ordered a pair of shoes for me (a name brand, coming direct from the manufacturer). I’m still waiting.
One vendor offered a waterproof miniature video camera. It arrived with detailed instructions, and the first order of business was to charge it. After 24 hours of sitting on the charger, there was no power. None of the controls worked, even though the charging light changed from red to green to show it was fully charged. I contacted the seller, who, without any hesitation issued a PayPal refund for the full price. I asked if he wished me to send the unit back. He told me to just keep it or discard it, but the refund was issued promptly and without any question. Do you think they expected that unit to fail?
Then there are support aspects of online purchases. With one notable exception, the English translations of the operating instructions are nothing if not laughable. One camera owner’s manual describes the unit as “So lovely design just for lady or girls as gifts.” Why this miniature digital video camera ought to be for “lady or girl” escapes me. But wait, as in the legendary Ginsu knives, there’s more! The “RESET” instructions claim: “Because of wrong operation or unknown reason, the equipment can not work. Need to reset the equipment. Press the reset hole with slime tool.” I looked, but could find no “slime” tool. I’m not even sure I want to find a “slime” tool. Equally confusing was the advice on changing the time displayed in the video: “The camera turns off. Put the CD into CD-ROM of PC. Make Sure the time on PC is the one you need to show on Camera. Connect camera and computure. Run the Time Changing Tool in the CD.” No CD was provided, of course. The “SPECIFICATIONS” section was no more informative. Under “Software” it listed only, “Operationg system or the mainstream audio and video playback software.” Huh? Everybody got that? Here’s the amusing part: This little camera works like a charm (once you’ve figured out how to operate it).
Online ordering is a pretty slick thing. It’s popular enough to affect the way we shop, perhaps forever. But maybe we’re sounding the death knell for brick-and-mortar stores a little too soon. Would you wait five months for a product from Boscov’s? How many of us would buy from the same manufacturer if they thought so little of their product that they issue refunds immediately and don’t even want the product back for analysis? Would we tolerate inscrutable instructions from a product we bought at Target? Meanwhile, let us remember those classic words: caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware!
Steve Lloyd actually does buy locally, especially in downtown Frederick. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.