Focus: Is the Internet the best way to shop?

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The Independent Online
ARE YOU a slippery surfer or a sticky one? You probably don't know, but the companies offering their wares on the Net do. The term - an update on the now-hackneyed phrase "web surfing" - has been coined by those offering their wares through electronic shopping, aka "e-commerce" (which has taken over from surfing as this year's buzzword).

So what distinguishes a slippery surfer from a sticky one? The former visits a site and never returns; the latter keeps coming back for more, and (the site's owners hope) may actually buy something online.

Obviously, what companies want is to have many sticky surfers. "Is that why so many sites look tacky?" asks the computer magazine IT Week, rhetorically. For the fact is that when it comes to shopping on the Net, many British sites are hard-pressed to create a virtual shopwindow which comes anywhere near the real thing.

"UK retailers are approximately 18 to 24 months behind the US in terms of the deployment of e-commerce, which is largely due to poor consumer confidence and unfamiliarity with the Internet," says Paul Mullis, who specialises in consumer products for the business advisers Ernst & Young. "But a growing number of companies believe digital TV will accelerate the arrival of e-commerce in the UK."

That's not to say that electronic shopping is not here already. If you care to visit www.shopguide.co.uk, you will find an "impartial" consumer guide to more than 350 online shops in Britain which let you buy online using encoded links so your credit card details cannot be stolen.

The problem is that many of the things you can buy with your computer are either more computer things - hardware and instant-delivery software - or items you don't need to know much more about. If you want to buy Thomas Harris's new book Hannibal, you can be sure it will look the same and have the same contents whether you order if from amazon.co.uk, WH Smith online, or simply walk to a nearby bookshop. Ditto CDs. But the story changes when it comes to items you would really like to have the chance to physically feel. It takes a great deal of faith in the colour reproduction of your screen to buy a new suit over the Net.

Yet Ernst & Young, which recently completed its second annual Internet Shopping Survey in the US, found people there are buying more, and more often, than 12 months ago: 51 per cent bought five or more items online in the year, compared to 34 per cent in 1997. The number of books bought doubled (no doubt due to the competition between amazon.com and Barnes & Noble's web- site), the number of music purchases more than tripled, one-fifth of shoppers bought gifts such as flowers, and almost as many bought items such as videos or DVDs. But the most popular products remained computer-related, or travel. Men still outnumber women, though the latter are catching up (49 per cent to 39 per cent; the remainder will be children or teenagers, who for the purposes of the survey seem to be sexless); and 70 per cent of online buyers are over 40.

In the UK, the figures are sure to be slightly different: women will not have caught up as much, so men will be the predominant surfer, and the age profile may be younger because older people may be less keen than their children to use electronic means.

As Mr Mullis says, that is changing; and the pace has accelerated since September with the launch of Dixon's Freeserve, pioneering subscription- free connection to the Internet. More than 50 companies have followed suit. The 16 per cent of the UK population which had web access at the beginning of this year is expected to hit 50 per cent before 2001. Freeserve has made itself pre-eminent, claiming to have more than a million customers.

Yet the web may not yet be quite the place to do business. David Birch, of the Internet consultancy Hyperion, thinks European companies are looking in the wrong direction when they gaze at amazon.com's web pages in search of the answers for e-commerce. "European e-commerce will be different, because it's not as dominated by the PC," he says. "Consumer e-commerce will be about digital TV and mobile phones. The power of mobile phones is already incredible, and that will take a quantum leap in a couple of years when the new generation of services called UMTS starts. And there are three times as many mobile subscribers in the world as Internet users."

But someone still has to deliver the goods once you have bought them electronically. And there too the message is mixed. Between November and February, Consumers International (a distinct group which is not part of the Consumer's Association) set a group of volunteers in 11 countries, including the UK, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan and the US, to buy more than 150 items from 17 countries.

Each participant tried to buy items from a list comprising a dictionary, a doll, jeans, a hairdryer, computer software and hardware, and champagne: they would try to get one from a site in their own country, and one from abroad.

The results? Two of the sites tried, out of 150, never provided goods but did debit the customer's account. Eight items took more than a month to arrive, with 11 never reaching their destination. Often goods were damaged. And many sites did not give clear information about delivery charges, which could affect the total cost when buying from abroad.

Anna Bradley, director of the National Consumer Council said: "These experiences show Internet shopping is not as convenient or as hassle-free as it's cracked up to be. Unless consumers have the confidence that their transactions will be processed speedily and efficiently, and any problems dealt with promptly, they are hardly going to embrace e-commerce with enthusiasm." The survey also tried returning half the goods, to check refunding policies: in two cases, the customers were still waiting for their money back more than four months after returning items. "That might sound like we're saying don't do business with small firms, but that's not really true," said Kate Scribbins, the project's coordinator. "In fact, some high street names were very bad at both sending and refunding items.

"What we found very worrying was that more than a quarter of sites offered no real-world or geographical information, like a telephone number or address, that would let you get in touch with them. This is one of the problems with the ethereal nature of the Net. Companies can take your money and disappear."

Perhaps what is really needed is not just sticky surfers - but a guarantee that you are visiting sticky sites.

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