Lost in a cyber wonder land

So you thought there'd be no hassle if you did your Christmas shopping from the computer? Think again, warns Rupert Wright
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The Independent Online
It looks likely to be a merry e-Christmas this year - not only for shoppers but also for the shareholders of internet companies.

Despite the drawbacks, net shopping is in vogue. Almost as boring as the dinner party conversation on how much property has gone up in value in the last six months is the internet shopping enthusiast. "I can send all my god children presents from e-toys, all gift-wrapped, so I don't even have to see them," says Hugh Holland, managing director of Kilgour French Stanbury, a Savile Row tailor.

But for every good experience on web shopping, there are a number of disadvantages that few mention. Here are the top 10 bugbears:

Finding the site. You have heard of this brilliant site where you can buy cut-price presents. Can you find it?

Can you heck. It is not like you can walk up and down the high street - "It's on the left past Woolworths" - and just stumble across it.

The site may have been taken down, moved its address, or simply disappeared. There is no way of knowing. You can key into a search engine, such as www.fast.no, and it gives you 223,000 listings of frankincense. All of them are completely useless.

Frozen screens. You have found the boo.com site that your sister nagged you to log on to.

You have waded through innumerable orange pages to find that boob tube she requested. You find the size and colour that she demands. You have filled in the form and entered your credit card details.

Then the screen freezes. You sit and look at it and it looks back at you.

Do you switch the machine off and start again? If you go through the same process, will the same thing happen or, even worse, will you end up with two orange boob tubes?

Filling out forms. Normally when you go shopping all you need is a credit or debit card, or a clip of cash.

Not any more. What you need now is the patience of a bureaucrat. Mother's maiden name? Password? Father's favourite colour? Who cares? Just send me the shirt.

Insecure data. This is a typical kind of American disclaimer, but it certainly puts the wind up shoppers not used to the American legal system. The reality is that you are quite safe to continue shopping.

However, it would certainly bother you if every time you produced your credit card in the shop, a voice shouted out: "You might get ripped off if you hand over that card."

They won't sell to you. You have found what you want, filled in the forms, handed over the credit card, then you discover one small message: we do not sell outside the United States. One of the joys of the internet is that it makes the world a smaller place. It is as easy to shop in Seattle as Sussex. The problem is, some of these retailers won't send you anything from Seattle

System error 47. We have no idea what this is, or why it should be different to error 46 or 48. We do know that it is very frustrating.

Delivery. Or non-delivery. While we agree that it is very nice when everything works smoothly, and the parcel goes gift-wrapped straight to your grandmother, what if it doesn't? You will look pretty stupid at Christmas if everyone is busy opening their presents and you have nothing to hand over.

The excuse of "the cheque is in the post" no longer convinces anyone. Expect a similar lack of success with "the present is in the post". More than a month ago I ordered two CDs from Amazon's record shop.

It has sent me many emails explaining why the CDs have not arrived, but I still don't have the discs.

Returns. The purchase arrives. You are so happy you rip open the packaging and look at it. It is the right colour, right texture. Only one slight problem: it's the wrong size. You then have to ferret about in the dustbin trying to find the packaging to send it back.

You have no idea what you are buying. It is very difficult to try things on when you are buying them on the internet. Nor can you get an accurate idea of colour, size or suitability. Richard Felton, managing director of Felton, Wills & Segar, one of the country's oldest florists, says internet shopping will never replace the real thing because of the problem of knowing what you are getting.

"It is true that you can get an accurate idea from Interflora of what you are going to get, but that is because of very stringent controls," he says.

"I think there is still no substitute for getting out there yourself. That is why you see old people in the high street on Saturdays. They want to see the babies and meet their friends."

Bespoke products. Try buying a bottle of Chateau Latour from Justerini & Brooks on the internet. What you can do is phone them up and they will send it round to you in a smart blue van.

These drawbacks are not enough to deter people from shopping on the internet. Perhaps the happiest Christmas of all will be enjoyed by Sir Peter Bonfield, chief executive of BT. While you struggle to fill in forms, send your credit card details to insecure sites and sit twiddling your thumbs while the screen freezes, he will charge you pounds 0.04 a minute for the privilege of buying nothing.

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