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E-commerce Tuesday, 5 January, 1999, 15:50 GMT
Web window shopping beats High Street
Did Santa and Noddy or the Net bring you presents?
Did Santa and Noddy or the Net bring you presents?
By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall
Did shopping online finally catch on last Christmas? The figures are filtering in and the signs are that consumers are finally overcoming their phobias about buying over the Internet.

Predictably, US users are out in front. America Online subscribers spent about $1.2bn shopping online in the month from Thanksgiving to December 27, according to the company. It said 1.25m of its 15m members bought from the Net for the first time at Christmas.

A study of the buying habits of more than a thousand Net users by Zona Reseach and intelliquest suggested online spending had increased nearly 200 per cent on the previous Christmas. Fifty-eight per cent said they had spent nothing online in 1997.

In the UK, the picture is less clear. A survey commissioned by Dell suggested more than three million households would buy some of their presents from Websites. But an NOP poll for BT Click+ reported that while 20 per cent of the population used the Net, only one in ten had considered online purchases.

In one practical example, the Blueberry new media company said business grew thirteen-fold month-on-month between October and November at the Website it designed for Fat Face clothing, and was doing record business in December.

Sales of the end of century

"1998 was the year that most merchants thought about e-commerce," said New Media director Piers Hogarth-Scott, "1999 will be the year that most merchants do e-commerce."

They will have to do it better than some of the major retailers reviewed by the quality testing company TesCom over Christmas.

It tried to buy socks from Marks and Spencer, wine from Tesco, videos from Argos, Barbie dolls from Toys R Us and Christmas decorations from Great Universal Stores, all from their Websites.

TesCom concluded that those new to the Web would give up in frustration at the slow speed and technical errors of the services. Finding the socks on the M&S site proved extremely difficult and trying to buy them resulted in a JavaScript error.

The Oxford Street test

I tried a direct comparison at Christmas between shopping in the crowds and rain of the West End of London and ordering online. I set out from Oxford Circus looking for three presents I might buy for the family with the intention of then returning to the office to see if it was any easier acquiring them online.

First stop was the famous Hamleys toy store in Regent Street. There was a huge choice here which seemed to belie the notion that the Internet could hold more in its database warehouses. You could also pick up and play with some of the toys, but only if you could fight your way through the crush of people to do so. I found a My Little Pony figure my daughter would love for 16.99.

Next, to Waterstones bookstore on Charing Cross Road. The Internet cannot match the atmosphere of a bookstore and the ability to browse and read off the shelves. There were a number of discounted books, but the one I had targeted as a present - Glenn Hoddle's World Cup story - was full price at 17.99.

Finally to Dorothy Perkins on Oxford Street, the light fading, the Christmas illuminations coming on, the rain spattering the pavement. Men can get embarrassed buying any kind of lingerie for their other half. I took a cursory look at a satin camisole, 28, and made my escape. Maybe I could get it with the anonymity of an online purchase.

Shop till your line drops

Back at the office, I found Hamley's online store and the exact same item I had chosen. But, paradoxically, the choice of toys was pitifully small. The price was the same though and no delivery charges. Entering the credit card details seemed smooth and secure. had the Glenn Hoddle book and it was more than 7 cheaper than in Waterstones. I read a review and ordered it gift-wrapped with a message.

Dorothy Perkins had the camisole in its online store. The photo did not look much like the item and was a poor guide. But there was information including washing instructions and a size guide and suggestions for similar things to buy.

The savings were not significant. The toy cost the same, the book was cheaper online by 2.32 after delivery and a 2 giftwrap was taken into account and the camisole online was 1.95 more with postage. But it had taken twenty minutes at my desk compared to four hours on a miserable day in Oxford Street.

There was no instant gratification of having the gifts, but the book arrived two working days later nicely wrapped, the toy came the next day, and then, a note from Dorothy Perkins. The item was no longer available, it said, my credit card had not been charged.

Why did I not get this message when I originally ordered the goods online? Oh dear, nothing to do but trek back for another dreaded session in the Lingerie department.

Ben and Russ Sellers and Piers Hogarth-Scott of Blueberry
Chris Nuttall tests online shopping for BBC Breakfast News
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