Do you feel like a cable modem has been wired directly to your brain—that you’ve been branded a sucker for e-commerce and, as such, have been relentlessly bombarded by online shopaganda since who remembers when. No wonder. Dot-com companies spent an estimated $1.6 billion luring shoppers in 1999, with some Web sites sinking 80 percent of their annual budgets into advertising. And with good effect: Consumers bought an estimated $23-billion-plus in goods and services online last year—around $6 billion during the holiday season alone.
At least a few (okay, a lot) of those purchases were made by me. To help readers of Texas Monthly Biz understand the e-phoria now gripping the state and the nation, I spent a few weeks last fall surfing the Internet. To find out the difference between a good site and a great site, I comparison shopped. I stuffed my credit-card number into countless “cookies,” the techie mechanisms that hold your personal information, and hurled it into the ether, daring cyberthieves to come and get me. I griped to various e-tailers about merchandise that arrived in pieces or not at all. I ordered tricky stuff, like perishable foods and used CDs, from obscure vendors. I even sent a computer to my in-laws halfway across the country.
My criteria for distinguishing good from evil were clear. I considered sites based only in Texas. (I paid for my geographic bias by suffering through a plague of justtexas.com-types that peddle cornpone products like stuffed armadillo toilet seat covers.) I had to be able to place an order online; that is, the entire transaction, from browsing to payment, had to take place over the Net without my ever having to talk to a real live person. I wanted more than snazzy graphics and slick presentations; I wanted information, easy navigation, and readable fonts (are you listening, Shabang.com and groceryworks.com?). And I wanted customer service and a fair return policy; business, after all, is business.
So here are are my favorite sites, where your material dreams—for tamales or travel, Ruby Reds or Rolexes—are only a few clicks away.
Especially after days of surfing glitzy but vacuous web pages, Georgetown’s homegrowntexas.com may have appealed to me because of its simplicity. I scrolled quickly through the offerings—a couple hundred herbs, perennials, bulbs, and roses—and spied a Mutabilis, an old-fashioned rose that I’ve been lusting after (it’s frequently sold out at nurseries). Click, click, click and the one-gallon specimen was mine for $15. The delivery time was four to six weeks, or so I thought, until I received an e-mail notifying me that the company was out of Mutabilis until January; did I want something else? (They must have thought it was a Christmas present.) I said I’d wait. As of press time—late January—I was still waiting.
KUDOS Quite Texocentric; you can buy organic gardening books by Lone Star horticultural heroes like Howard Garrett, Malcolm Beck, Liz Druit, and Bill Welch.
GRIPES No information about the plants sold and no photos. Come educated or with a reference book in hand.
Our extended drought has withered my passion for potting and planting, but I felt something stir when I logged on to Austin’s garden.com. The site is gloriously lush—and it should be, considering the, uh, nature of the product being sold. Here you can find thousands of plants, bulbs, and seeds, as well as books, tools, bird feeders, and even the odd greenhouse. I broke down after more than an hour and ordered a potted amaryllis for my sister-in-law, Renee, whose dog had died. Four days later the plant arrived at her home in Nevada, but the pot was broken. I explained the problem in an e-mail to “customer solutions” and promptly received an apology and word that another amaryllis would be shipped to Renee immediately.
KUDOS Content-rich, with eye-popping photos, extensive stats about thousands of plants, and advice for growers in different regions.
GRIPES Renee is still waiting for a new amaryllis. And the site is slow to load: In fact, according to an online study, it’s one of the slowest, with a download time of 23.09 seconds. It’s a good thing that gardeners are patient.
Austin’s living.com burst on the scene last summer with $41.5 million in venture capital, the kind of loot required to compete with online furniture retailers that have established storefronts and brand recognition. High on style, middling on substance, and low on variety, this site made my list for its potential. Take the Accent Chairs category, where you’re presented with around a hundred choices. But 90 percent of them are staunchly traditional—how many ways can you say “Chippendale”?—and the other 10 percent are wacky creations direct from the set of Beetlejuice. The range of styles, however, is broader in other areas: lots of tables and a decent array of accessories.
KUDOS Big photos and good decorating advice.
GRIPES Product descriptions fall short; a bookcase is made with “engraved wood elements,” and a rug is covered with a “design as fresh as an autumn morning.” (I wish they sold garbage cans—I think I need to barf.)
We did it: we ordered a refrigerator over the internet. My husband, Richard, wanted one for his homebrew kegs; no need for a fancy unit, since he’d be pulling out most of the shelves and drilling three holes in the door for the taps. We logged on to Austin’s applianceorder.com, the brainchild of Trilogy Software employee Jason Wesbecher, who, like the rest of us, is disgusted by the bait-and-switch tactics at most appliance stores. Within minutes we’d found the KitchenAid 20.4-cubic-foot fridge of my brewmeister’s dreams for $737.64, including tax and free delivery—a savings of around $160 on the same model at Sears online. We ordered it, and the next day we got a call about scheduling delivery the following week … which is when it came, exactly in the condition promised. Who knew?
KUDOS Easy to compare a multitude of brands. And no unctuous salesclerks; the quickest and least painful appliance purchase in my life.
GRIPES Serves only major metropolitan areas—and not all.