New Media

The message to retailers is clear: get with the e-commerce programme or die
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The Independent Online

So did you have an e-Christmas? Did everything go to plan? Did any website not fulfil your order in time? There are bound to have been a few hiccups, but I'm pleased to say that all the presents I ordered online arrived in good time and even bore some resemblance to the pictures on the sites that had inspired me to buy them in the first place.

So did you have an e-Christmas? Did everything go to plan? Did any website not fulfil your order in time? There are bound to have been a few hiccups, but I'm pleased to say that all the presents I ordered online arrived in good time and even bore some resemblance to the pictures on the sites that had inspired me to buy them in the first place.

No total figures for e-Christmas are available yet, but clearly with all the hype and the abundance of e-commerce sites, I'd guess that total sales online easily put the much-hyped Microsoft e-Christmas project of two years ago to shame. Not that anyone ever hailed the 1997 e-Christmas project a success - clearly it was too early, online consumers were still reticent about e-commerce and the lack of decent product did nothing to inspire the seven million people with Net access.

Back in November, CommerceNet and Nielsen Media Research predicted that 3.5 million people (27 per cent of the UK Internet population) would buy their presents online this year. Even if each person spent only £50 online, that would still be a whopping £53.5m.

The main drawback of shopping for Christmas presents online is that you do have to be organised enough to think of a present for someone, find the right site and spend at least five minutes buying the thing - but most important of all, do all that in time to have the item delivered before 25 December. Being very disorganised and a hater of shopping, I was amazed by how easy it was, since I've had some bad e-commerce experiences in the past.

But what if you didn't spend half an hour three weeks ago ordering your presents? This is where hats have to be taken off to lastminute.com, which was taking orders for Christmas gift delivery until 1pm on Christmas Eve - I wonder if its crew took any time off at all over Christmas?

The prize for the turkey of e-Christmas has to go to Argos, which shut up e-commerce shop at the beginning of December because it could not cope with the volume of Christmas orders.

I'm still waiting for the full report on e-Christmas and how many sites managed to survive the frenzied Christmas rush; the software supplier Compuware suggested that around half of all consumer sites would suffer some failures, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the sales figures are going to surpass all expectations.

Online consumers are now, by and large, very e-commerce friendly, and according to research from Fletcher, about 57 per cent now intend to spend even more money online this year. The message for retailers is very clear: get with an e-commerce programme or die.

The 'e' stands for ether

Trouble is brewing for the Internet bank First-e. It seems that a disgruntled customer sent out an e-mail to thousands of people, notifying them that First-e was not giving interest to its customers, could not manage its accounts and could not stop money disappearing. First-e's reaction was, as expected, to deny the claim, saying it was looking into the matter.

While that may just be a one-off system failure, the jigsaw puzzle of Internet banks not quite getting it right does seem to be missing a few pieces.

The strong reaction to a previous column about Smile gives me further cause for concern - although that was more to do with Smile rejecting many people on the basis of Experian's confidential records - as does the latest news on Egg, which suggests that customers asking to leave are seeing their savings disappear into the ether.

While it is worth giving the new breed of banks the benefit of the doubt, attributing such problems to teething troubles, the banks will have to pull their socks up.

Go fast for a tenner

With all the attention on its merger talks with Flextech, the cable operator Telewest's announcement that Net access via its cable modems would cost just £10 a month went largely unnoticed. The news is more important than it may seem, in that the price will likely be matched by the rival cable operator NTL/Cable & Wireless and call into question consumers' use of ADSL.

While the rub is invariably the £10 a month that users have to spend on voice-call charges with Telewest, the upside is that users will have always-on, high-speed access that can be connected up to either a TV or a PC, with no extra phone-usage charges.

Eventually, people will be able to buy or rent stand-alone cable modems without having to rent a digital set-top box and subscribe to TV services, although that is likely to be dependent on living in a Telewest franchise area and taking the telephony service. Nevertheless, the low-cost service is definitely going to have a detrimental impact on BT's plans for ADSL in the home.

amy@wagsell.co.uk

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