Save time but be wary

On-line shopping has its benefits and its pitfalls.

Imagine that you are looking at a plan of a shopping mall. Instead of trying to remember whether the bookstore is left, left, right or left, right, left, before ending up in the chemist, you simply point the cursor at the name on the plan, and click. Welcome to Blackwells, and you are still sitting at home, oblivious to the rain pelting down outside, or even the scorching sunshine!

You have just "surfed" into the Blackwells branch in one of the new credit- card secure-shopping areas springing up on the Internet's World Wide Web. Credit card details can be used in these systems and shielded from cyberspace highwaymen. Without queuing at the till or hanging on the phone, you can order the book of your choice, and it will thump through your letter- box in a few days.

It is remarkably convenient, if dull. There are no book-laden shelves to browse, and no paper pages to thumb. Instead, you are merely looking at a list of titles. If you do select one, you can't take it home and start delving immediately. Internet shopping is not for those in pursuit of the full shopping experience, or even minor retail therapy.

The Internet is none the less a fantastic forum for buyer's research. Tesco, on Compuserve, offers a full wine advisory service. You can pinpoint a location on its world map, and learn what its viticulture has to offer. Tesco will also recommend a selection of wines to fit any menu and price range. However, unless you are prepared to hike to your local branch, you will have to wait up to 14 days before you reach for your corkscrew.

You can use the mine of information on the Net to find the cheapest widget in your area. At the moment, this could be time-consuming, but you will soon be able to program intelligent agents to hunt down that bargain widget, and even buy it for you.

Your research is of course limited to what is available on the Net. Within the shopping services already launched, this includes books, compact discs, flowers, existing mail order catalogues, a travel agent and a car dealer.

Outside of these UK-based secure services, the Internet is packed with offers of equipment and games for the computer enthusiast and all types of sexual material. Not only might your inquisitive 10-year-old read the pornography (which lurks in certain areas of the Internet), but, armed with your credit card, he or she might also buy it.

Everyday essentials are still missing from the UK-based stores. A low- cost supermarket on the Internet, which did an evening delivery round, and into which you could tap your shopping list as and when you think of an item, would be heaven-sent for many. But even Tesco and Sainsbury's only sell wine by the case. One of the fallacies of home economics is that it is cheaper to buy alcohol in bulk and drink it slowly over a long period of time. Also, if you actually want your wine the next day, Sainsbury's will charge you another pounds 27 for express delivery.

So is it cost-effective? If your interest in the Net is only for shopping, the monthly cost of between pounds 6.50 and pounds 15 to access it means that it is only economically viable if you do buy in quantity and minimise delivery costs.

Compuserve has a wide range of shopping services, and is secure for credit card transactions, but it is only available to subscribers, and the same will be true of Microsoft's new on-line service, expected later this month. A number of shopping centres are accessible free of charge via the Internet - but may not be secure for credit card use unless both you and the supplier are using the latest Netscape software.

The benefits are less easy to quantify. You can research the cheapest supplier - including special offers such as Virgin's "Buy 5 CDs get a 6th free". You do not have to pay the costs of travel to the stores and back.

But the most serious saving to be made by shopping on-line is time. Time is saved by not sitting in a traffic jam, trudging up and down the high street, or even clinging to the phone with Yellow Pages on your knees.

If time is money, and your hours saved from shopping can be converted into cash, then surfing to the shops could be worth it. But to get everything you want, you may have to venture outside the credit card secure services. If you do, then remember to ring the supplier with your card number and don't send it over the Net and into the arms of an electronic Dick Turpin.

Before you go shopping on-line:

DO

Do remember that you are paying a monthly subscription; some systems also charge for time spent on line.

Do search out the cheapest supplier.

Do supply your credit card number only when you are using secure systems such as Barclaysquare and Compuserve.

Do make sure the children are not too smart for their own good.

DON'T

Don't forget that you are spending real money, not playing a computer game.

Don't be tempted to order more than you really want, to obtain a bulk discount or to spread your overheads; it can easily turn out to be a false economy.

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