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.
I’m cross-eyed from staring at the cursor. I take a break and walk to my mailbox. Bills, bills, catalogs, bills—wait! Oh, boy! My CDs are here. I’d almost forgotten that I’d ordered old stuff by Neil Young, David Byrne, Billie Holiday, and the Who just a week earlier from CDbargains.com in Dallas. The site itself was forgettable; it’s little more than a searchable alphabetical listing by artist of hundreds of available titles, many used and for almost half the price of new. But as soon as Young started warbling the words to “After the Gold Rush,” I began to remember so much—even the seventies.
KUDOS Used CDs are guaranteed.
GRIPES The Quadrophenia jewel cases were a little muddy.
Talk about your masa appeal: I found not one but three tamale sites worth recommending: Alamotamale.com, from Houston’s Alamo Tamale; tamale-8.com, from Guerra’s Tamales of Edinburg; and tamale.com, from Pedro’s Tamales of Lubbock Read “The Great Texas Tamale Click-off”).
KUDOS Fun for everyone. Alamotamale.com features a dancing, mustached tamale—I think it’s a tamale—and salsa music; tamale.come’s audio made me smile, especially the “Arriba! Arriba!”; and tamale-8.com offers a slide show on the tamale-making process.
GRIPES Neither tamale.com nor tamale-8.com offers online confirmation that you order has been received.
Flash-in-the-pan internet companies can learn a thing or two about tenacity from Pittman and Davis, citrus farmers in the Rio Grande Valley since 1926. The company’s online selection is limited to what it knows best: fruit and juice. Ordering half a bushel of grapefruit and oranges from pittmandavis.com was easier than peeling a tangerine.
KUDOS Answers to nagging questions like how long it takes for a grapefruit tree to bear a full crop (eight years).
GRIPES Limited offerings; why not put the whole catalog online?
The bestfares.com site is cluttered, but this Arlington-based outfit has an awful lot it wants to tell you about airfares, hotel rooms, and rental cars, as well as cruise deals, senior discounts, and little-known mileage-reward programs. In the Airline Internet Specials section I found out I could be warming up in Phoenix or chilling in Chicago for round-trip fares of $119 and $139, respectively, from Austin. I browsed the most cut-rate fares in Snooze You Lose. And in News You Can Lose, a compendium of travel-related trivia, I learned I could buy a Boeing business jet from the 1999 Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog for $35.3 million and never have to worry about airfares again.
KUDOS Links galore to weather reports, ski conditions, travel-scam alerts, and the like.
GRIPES There’s no such thing as a free launch; to get off the ground—to access any areas of the site—you have to subscribe to Best Fares magazine for $59.90 a year.
The Southwest Airlines site, southwest.com, is much like the Dallas-based airline itself: efficient and fun and open to everyone. You don’t need to register or even have a password to book ticketless travel, and when you book, you receive double frequent-flier credits. (You have to become a Rapid Rewards member to qualify, but it’s free to sign up.) Check out package deals in Thrilling Thursday or read about Internet-only discounts in Internet Specials; subscribe to an e-mail service to be notified of late-breaking specials.
KUDOS Loads with a tailwind; fares pop up fast.
GRIPES Generates feelings of envy and misery. I can hardly take sitting at home when I see a special last-minute $178 round-trip fair from Austin to Seattle.
geopassage.com hopes to take advantage of the billions of dollars in revenue expected to be generated by online tour and cruise bookings over the next couple of years—but it isn’t just about the money. Owner Arti Srivastava, who operated a Seattle-based company specializing in journeys to India and Nepal before moving to Austin, has infused the site with her wanderlust. You can choose from prepackaged tours of thirteen countries, like sixteen days in the heart of Italy, or use the extensive profiles of cities, hotels, and tourist attractions to customize a tour of your own.
KUDOS Oh, the photographs . . . After days in front of my droning computer, the natural beauty of the lake region of Argentina was particularly alluring to me.
GRIPES Why so few countries?
travelocity.com is the fourth-largest e-commerce site in the nation based on sales ($301 million in the first half of 1999) and number of users (8 million). It’s not a position from which the FortWorth-based company is likely to slip, considering its five-year deal to be the exclusive reservations engine for America Online; its access to 95 percent of all airline seats, 42,000 hotels, 50 car rental companies, and 70,000 travel packages; and most important, the high-quality service it provides. Fare Sales and News not only retrieves the lowest airfares between your chosen airports, it also automatically searches for cheaper fares using nearby airports and even posts the driving distances between original airports and the alternatives. And you can track an airline’s rate changes with Fare Watcher E-mail: You select up to five city pairs and receive e-mail updates alerting you to drops in price.
KUDOS Airplane seat maps allow you to choose something other than the most undesirable seat onboard.
GRIPES Destination information needs to be updated. For instance: Austin’s population is no longer 500,000, and U.S. 183 is no longer under construction.
Hypochondriacs, beware: Austin’s rx.com is packed with enough information about various illnesses to keep you in diseases for several lifetimes. Fortunately, they sell prescription drugs (or placebos) to cure you, plus 25,000 over-the-counter products, such as bandages and activated charcoal. Except for all the medicines my aging dogs take, my life has been relatively free of prescription drugs, so I asked my friend Duane, a former pharmacist, to surf the site. He discovered online savings of 10 percent to 20 percent for drugs such as Zocor, which lowers cholesterol, and Cipro, an antibiotic, compared with the prices at Walgreen’s.
KUDOS The site’s online publication, RX Magazine, has well-written articles on heart disease, breast cancer, and the like, as well as loads of links to more information.
GRIPES Not the site’s fault, but even a day’s lag time between shopping online and receiving your meds may be too great if you’re sick.
The Luxe Life
Houston’s ashford.com reminds me of an airport duty-free shop, where none of the superpricey goods grabs my fancy right away. But if my plane is delayed long enough, I begin to appreciate the subtle appeal of designer fragrances and expensive jewelry. Ashford.com says it sells “the stuff you really, really want,” like a Rolex President ($15,900) or a Montblanc Solitaire platinum fountain pen ($12,400). I had intended to order something for myself—say, a loose 1.02 carat diamond ($4,650) or a pair of Revo sunglasses ($219.40)—but the only thing I found that I could afford was a Dooney and Bourke key case ($20), and I didn’t really, really want it.
KUDOS Well organized, easily navigable, and chock-full of product descriptions.
GRIPES Takes itself too seriously; a floral print is actually described as “whimsical.”
Bookmark heritagecoin.com if you want to snag an 1885 dime at auction for $3,000 (the going bid when I checked in), add a 1907 proof Indian eagle ten-dollar piece to your collection for $250,000, or read up on James Earle Fraser, the creator of the Indian head-buffalo nickel. Packed with crisp photos and reams of information, this site, created by Heritage Rare Coin Galleries of Dallas, will have even novice numismatists examining the change in their pockets and picking up pennies in parking lots looking for rarities.
KUDOS Complete; you can view the shop’s entire $20 million inventory online.
GRIPES Search engines are the coin of the online realm—but this site doesn’t have one.
Leave it to Dallas’ best-known retailer to produce a must-see upscale e-tail site. At Neimanmarcus.com, you can procure the necessities for a pearl-and-cashmere lifestyle from a subdued but posh selection: say, a Calvin Klein gown for $1,090 or a Dweck bronze bracelet for a mere $1,550. I love it that the Essentials category includes bumblebee hair clips and opera-length black satin gloves. I know I’d hate to be stranded anywhere without them.
KUDOS Like the stores, the site offers great customer service; a toll-free phone number and other contact information are prominent on every page.
GRIPES Slooooow loading. All the money in the world can’t make the day any longer.
Mall.com feels less like an e-tailer than an e-scalator, delivering you to the doorsteps of nearly 120 sites run by such established vendors as Macy’s and Target to Williams-Sonoma. The Austin-based site exudes as much personality as a brick-and-mortar suburban mall. But you don’t come to a hypermart for character; you come for the variety and the brand names, and that you get.
KUDOS A good search engine. When I typed in “V-neck cashmere sweater,” 23 possibilities were returned.
GRIPES Even more choices, please; 22 of the possibilities were from one e-store, Lands’ End.
At bottomlinemac.com, the site run by Austin-based Bottom Line Distribution, stalwarts who still worship at the altar of the mighty Apple can find Powerbooks, G4 towers, and darling blueberry iMacs at boffo prices. It’s worth enduring the site’s mirthlessness for the variety and the value: a library of instructional books and videos, tons of software for everyone from accountants to video editors, and printers and peripherals from Hewlett- Packard, Epson, and Global Village.
KUDOS Shipping is free for any order over $100 that weighs less than ten pounds.
GRIPES Ever heard of “proofreading,” guys?
World domination is a many-splendored thing. Round Rock’s Dell Computer is the number one mail-order PC maker in the universe, so why shouldn’t it be tops online? It is, of course, with some $35 million a day in goods sold through the Dell Web site, dell.com. But there’s more to offer than simply notebooks and desktops. There are Web services, like online tech support and Dell Talk, a chat room for Dell acolytes. At a sister site, gigabuys.com, you can choose from more than 30,000 software and peripheral products in a superstore environment. Or log on to webpc.com for a multimedia presentation about the new computer in the Dell line born last November, the one that boasts “plug-n-surf” simplicity and accent colors, all for under $1,000. (Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? At least they didn’t name it the iDell.)
KUDOS Loads of info about everything except Michael and Susan Dell’s mansion.
GRIPES No stock options for logging on.