Web Shopping for the Very ImpatientHarry McCrackenContact PC World senior editor Harry McCracken
Instant gratification is the way of the Web. Not only can you get just
about anything online--an e-mail account, a home loan, the answer to a pressing
question about the Taft administration--but you can get it in minutes. There
is, however, one vast exception to the Web's no-wait policy: Online shopping
can often be painfully slow.
Sure, you can dump items willy-nilly into a virtual shopping cart and pay
for them in a flash. But then you'll usually end up biding your time for at
least a few days before your purchases arrive: The UPS's cheap-but-leisurely
ground service is the Web's shipping method of choice. And even grocery sites
such as Peapod usually require overnight notice to make a delivery. So when
I'm in a tearing rush (which is frequently), I'm much more inclined to browse
the mall than to browse the Web.
Web shopping may never be faster than retail, at least not
until some start-up figures out how to zap physical objects across the Internet
(an e-commerce breakthrough prophesied by Willy Wonka and the
Chocolate Factory). Still, I am happy to report that there are
some signs of an emerging effort among Web merchants to offer their customers
semi-instant gratification: delivery of products in a matter of minutes or
hours, rather than days.
Speed the Chow
Picture this: You develop a sudden craving for Fritos at work, so you toggle
from your spreadsheet for a moment to buy a bagful on the Web. An improbable
snacking scenario? A shopping site called Kozmo.com aims to make it a reality. And judging from my experiences
so far, it ... well ... delivers.
Kozmo.com's tagline--"We'll be right over"--isn't hype: The company's policy
is to make deliveries in under an hour, anytime from 10 a.m. until 1 a.m in
most cities it serves. Besides junk food (and a few healthful treats), it
stocks videos (for rent or sale), CDs, books, video games, magazines, medicinal
supplies, and other items. Service is currently available in Boston, Los Angeles,
New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
In a highly scientific experiment, I visited the Kozmo site to order two
pints of Ben & Jerry's (Cherry Garcia and Doonesberry) and a video (Mel
Brooks's immortal classic Young Frankenstein).
A scant 40 minutes later, a Lycra-clad Kozmo courier arrived with the goods.
Subsequent orders have arrived just as rapidly, including one I placed during
an industrial-strength New England snowstorm.
And Kozmo.com's free-delivery policy is the real deal--its prices aren't
set artificially high to compensate. You can get an emergency copy of
Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban, for instance, and pay
almost exactly what Amazon.com charges for a copy sent via the U.S. Postal
System. My only premium is the couple of bucks I slip the courier for each
delivery (which I do just to be on the safe side, since I can find no mention
of tipping etiquette in Kozmo's ordering FAQ).
Kozmo's cool, no doubt. But some aspects of the service need work: The
selection is spotty (in Boston, at least, you can't get a Pepsi or a Hershey
bar), and the search engine can be a hassle to figure out. Magazines are sometimes
weeks out-of-date--I can read those copies at my doctor's office, for free.
And although the company intends to expand to 20 cities by the end of the
year, service focuses on a handful of densely populated urban areas.
PC World's Boston office is covered; my home, 8 miles away in
suburbia, is not.
Even if Kozmo.com doesn't wend its way to your neighborhood anytime soon,
another super-quick shopping service might. A copycat outfit called Urbanfetch offers a similar range
of products (but a niftier array of electronics items), 24-hour service, and
a strict no-tipping policy. It's already up and running in New York, with
plans to expand both domestically and internationally by year's end.
Sameday.com has a different
approach to speedy service: If you place your order by 2 p.m., it promises
to deliver toys, power tools, sporting goods, jewelry, and other items by
8 p.m. the same day. Shipping costs a maximum of $7, no matter how many items
you order. Starting with Southern California, Sameday.com aims to serve 40
percent of U.S. households by the end of the year and to buddy up with established
Web stores that want to offer same-day delivery from their own sites.
You begin to see a future in which the Web brings us nearly everything
almost instantly. And while we're glued to our keyboards, today's bustling
malls could start to resemble ghost towns--quaint relics of an age in which
people left their homes to buy stuff.
Three-quarters of Internet users research their travel plans on the Web.
But a scant 16 percent have actually booked a flight online.
On the Net...
Search Engine Sleeper: Who has the biggest, quickest index
on the Web? Nope, not Yahoo or AltaVista. A site called Fast Search claims to be the winner, with more than 300 million
pages cataloged on superfast servers. And based on its lickety-split, exhaustive
responses to my search queries, I believe it... Well-Armed Octopus:
Information junkies will be intrigued by Octopus.com, a new site that lets you drag and drop snippets
of information from numerous sources (including PCWorld.com) into customized
personal pages. The beta version I tried was still a bit rough around the
edges, but promising... E-Mail for YoYos: If you sign up for YoYoMail, you'll get an in-box full
of animated ads--and a nickel for each one you watch. In theory, the big bucks
come when you collect commissions on friends who join up. My take: Friends
don't ask friends to stare at spam.
Gimme FiveSites for Disgruntled Consumers
Have a gripe with a company you've done business with? Don't stew, take
action. The following sites offer complaint forms, tips on resolving disputes,
and public forums for your beefs.
Federal Trade Commission Consumer Protection: Uncle Sam's consumer
portal offers a host of primers on solving problems, plus an online complaint
This site forwards grievance letters to merchants and spotlights those that
Better Business Bureau: Check with the BBB for company reports, consumer tips, and
information on local chapters.
Consumer World's Consumer Agencies and Organizations: Dozens
of links to watchdog groups, both governmental and private.
UGetHeard.com: Speak out on corporate
America's reprobates--and good citizens--at this ECaveat competitor.