When the Going Gets Tough, do the Tough go to Cyberspace? The Art of Shopping on the WWW.

by Marjorie C. Luesebrink

The weekend guests had departed. The house was straightened. It was too late that Sunday afternoon to start cleaning closets or planning a new career. Outside, a California mist filled the air. It was--a shopping moment.

On this particular Sunday, however, I decided to forego the short drive over to South Coast Plaza and try, instead, the virtual malls of cyberspace. I'd log on to the World Wide Web and shop the world from my computer. I was all ready: my Cybercash account in working order, my birthday list on the clipboard, a cup of tea. Poised and ready for the symphonic beauty of a truly great shopping trip.

The Aesthetics of Shopping

For those of us who shop for entertainment and pleasure, shopping has many of the elements of art, sport, and connoisseurship. One must observe the proper rituals, execute the right choices, achieve the proper immersion, and create a recognizable harmony. Epicurean shoppers take delight in every detail of the process--selecting a location; dressing appropriately; merging joyously into the character of the place; taking delight in sensory variety, color, texture, aroma, sound, and taste; establishing a satisfying, rhythmic movement; and plunging into the challenge of finding the perfect, sought-after item as if by chance. Shopping is a way of developing intuition, grace, judgment, and timing.

A truly great shopper does Tiffany's and Nordie's and Loehmans and Filene's Basement (in the old days), the Penney's Catalogue, and the Orange County Swap Meet with equal ease and satisfying results. Of course, there are different styles. I have heard tell of world-class TV Shopping Network shoppers. For me, this venue is too static. One cannot roam free, swing as the mood hits from housewares to hats.

Since my family didn't shop, I apprenticed with one of the best--my friend, Pat Geary. I do what she taught me. First, we choose our spot. Mall shopping requires time, since we must at least consider every store as we canvass the center. Theme shopping, such as looking for the exact, strappy black sandals, might involve mapping the specialty stores on Balboa Island and down through Laguna. Bargain shopping can take place at several outlets, or at a discount destination. As you are dressing for your excursion, you decide what you will buy. Some of us always buy a great black jacket, whenever and where-ever. Others refuse to pass up the perfect silk shell or a great bargain on favorite lingerie. We also conjure up the optimal purchase for that day--something we hope to find but have no assurance about. Then it's time to meet, share buying aspirations, and begin.

Logistics of the Expedition

And so, with the handicap of no shopping buddy, I boot up the computer and begin a solo flight in cyberspace. Wear: Fisherman's sweater and faded levi's. Old, navy blue slouch socks. Will buy any time: Dragonfly pins or earrings. Interesting, sporty jackets or dusters. Unusual folk art or handcrafted items. Optimal purchases this mission: A captivating pair of earrings (once, months ago, when I was new to the World Wide Web, I stumbled across a shop in Boston that had silver earrings in the shape of chairs--that would do). Something in pale, yellow linen for spring. A birthday gift for Linda.

Where to?? I had some internet addresses--saved because they looked interesting. But going to an address is not freestyle shopping. It's running an errand. There are some 100 fashion-related listings and dozens of malls to choose from on the Web. The easiest way to find them is to go to the main menus of the big browsers. My Internet Service Provider is Netcom, so I start there.

The Play-By-Play

At the Netcom Homeport, there's a Shopping Icon. I click it, relishing the speed with which my 28.8 bpm modem downloads the next screen: Shopping Sites. Some of them are not promising; a couple seem to actually be malls--I select Shopping 2000, a familiar name. Shopping 2000 has several icons indicating different categories of products from sports equipment to computer supplies to books. I choose "Wear It!" Under "Wear it!" there are eleven entries. (Eleven! I never go to a mall that tiny unless I'm Theme shopping).

I can choose a Thoroughbred Racing Catalogue with a couple of items to show off at the races. Not on the list, but interesting. Sunglasses, neckties, computer products, flower shops, contacts lenses, t-shirts. The best choice is an entry called Factory Direct. Factory Direct sells Jewelry, Cutlery, and Lingerie. A strange selection, but two out of three will do. I choose Jewelry. "The finest Jewelry from Italy to 47th Street at low cost to you." The catalogue includes 3 gold heart pendants, 2 bracelets, 5 watches, 2 necklaces. I don't check the prices because ....

Good shoppers keep moving

There are plenty of other places to look. I skip to the Directory section of the Homeport and hyperlink to Point Communications' page of interesting new sites. Point Communications includes evaluations of the many sites as well as the directory. The top recommended shopping stop is the Shirt and Tie Museum which offers interesting shirts and ties and it's time to move on.

Next, I visit Alaskan Gold Nugget Jewelry. Lovely photo of Mt. McKinley on the opening screen (did I mention the long downloading time?). After I've gone for another cup of tea, I click for a look at some small, gold nugget earrings for young adults. $10.00. Nice idea. But, the picture is of the page of the catalogue. On my browser, the earrings look like bits of scrambled eggs. There is a large selection of other jewelry to view, nicely photographed, but I'm drawn to the Beaded Chain Earrings. They look like something I would buy, but I am reluctant to drop $154 on treasure I can't hold in my hand. It's the sensory part of the experience that is missing here.

Fat Sheep and Other Sites

The next entry I try is Fat Sheep Trading Post. Fat Sheep has Native American Handcrafts, according to the blurb. This online shopping mall is here to sell you Native American crafts, but with broader implications: "Our goal is to expose Native American culture to a much wider... spectrum of people..." The handcrafted ceremonial objects here are considered sacred, and come with a rich history and tradition: like a Medicine Staff from the Laguna Pueblo, or Humblechea, a wood pipe fashioned by the Lakota Sioux. Deerskin products (how 'bout a beeper pouch trimmed with bone?), and original jewelry designs are also exhibited. The drawback: I found no pricing online; eager buyers will have to either e-mail for more info, or visit the Fat Sheep storefront in New York City. My browser will not access the page.

Then, at The Cowboy Trail, I connect to Wheeling's Western Wear--Your Computer Campsite. Linda has horses, likes western touches to wear to parties at the stables. I click to visit the shop. Good stuff. There's a great-looking Western Wax Drifter--the natural companion of the cowboy: $179.95. The merchandise has the look of quality. The photos are clear and attractive. I wanted something less elaborate, but this might do. I bookmark the site.

You might note here that I am not necessarily systematic. This is not a shopping failure, but rather part of the intuitive skill.

Passing the Bubba Pages

I know better than to get in a long download with the Official Bubba Collection or the entry entitled: Screaming Man T-Shirts which offers "fashions for the sub-masses": for starters--"Honey will you be my Ball and Chain", the t-shirt. That way lies internet shopping madness.

The other entry is the J.C. Penney Catalogue. JC Penney's no-nonsense, growing patch of cyberspace offers shoppers not simply a look at select sale items, but dishes out a few helpful tips on home-making as well. Last time we visited, co-eds could learn how to decorate their dorms: "Make the most of your cookie-cutter quarters by maximizing space and adding color." By dialing a toll-free number, shoppers could snag a pair of men's Hunt Club denim shorts for $22 (two or more $19.99 each!). Function outshines flash here, consistent with the company's identity since James Cash Penney began it in 1913. Still successfully Dustbowl America. I resist the temptation.

In the Netcom directory is the Internet Yellow Pages. I choose "Apparel". Four entries--including the same Gold Nugget Jewelry and Fat Sheep. I find another place called TravelShop, a place to shop the globe. I hyperlink with exquisite anticipation to choose from London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Rodeo Drive, and Melrose Avenue. The definition of shopping on the Web is undistinguished from a wider concept of merchandising/information drops. The graphic of Paris comes with this information:

"Photo of Eiffel Tower" Long recognized as a world leader in fashion and culture ... now. Let's Shop Paris takes you to what is certainly one of the most exciting and interesting shopping destinations... Enjoy our Paris shopping directories and remember to check back with us soon because... Coming this spring- TravelShop makes Paris Shopping interactive

I could check out what was on the Rue Saint Honore: Armani. Laura Ashley. Azzedine Alaia. Balmain. Body Shop. Cerruti. Claude Montana. Comme Des Garcons. Dunhill. Escada. Ferragamo. Gucci. Jaeger de France. Hiroko Koshino.

The list went on and on. Addresses. Phone Numbers. But none of them are actually linked to the web. Later in spring, perhaps. It's not unbearable for one who lives in O.C. and has most of these shops available. If I were in North Dakota, I'd be heartbroken to see all of this promise and no action. Finding out where stores are and what they sell is not shopping, either, it's research.

The Long Stretch

By this time I am starting to get a little lost--something that never happens in real, embodied spaces. Good shoppers, though, press on.

I've always had luck with Global Network Navigator, so I retrace my steps and go there. I click the "Shopping Button." Sure enough, there's a concise listing of several internet malls. I shift in my seat and pull up my socks, gleeful with anticipation. Here we ARE! E-Mall, Time Warner's Dream Shop, The Empire Mall, Internet Plaza, Internet Shopping Network, marketplace MCI, Net@mart, Shopper's Advantage, The Shops at Santa Fe, The Tar Heel Mall. Now we're hummin'.

Time Warner's Dream Shop sounded like just the place and the graphics were entrancing. Of course. The Personal Shopper entry wouldn't display on my browser. Of the fewer than a dozen other possibilities, I liked The Bombay Company. The Bombay Company must have been a great place, because downloading it bumped me off the system.

I re-booted and went back to the GNN site. The Dream Shop also has an Eddie Bauer link. It was here that I began to feel sensory deprivation. The Bauer catalogue is good for ordering things you forgot to buy, but where is the smell of great leather, the sheen of new gore-tex, the nap of deep corduroy, the crush of a wonderful cap? I wanted to take pleasure in the workmanship, touch the seams. I was starting to miss the aromas of the mall, wish there were a few lingering lookers nearby, long for a place to pop in for a salad and a bit of people-watching. Instead, another cup of tea.

Clicking On

At least the anticipation is palpable.

The Empire Mall was the next stop. The opening screen was not very attractive, but they had a button for "Fashion Central" and fashion sounded good. My hopes rose dramatically at the prospect offered by Boston Slickers. (Raincoats weren't originally on the wish list, but they were now. Maybe I could buy one for a trip out to the real mall.) The page that came up was curious. It was an advertisement for Sean Moloney, Web Site Designs and Maintenance. The next click brought the message that the Boston Slickers' address (URL) was busy and I would have to try another time.

So I went to Crazy Moon Fashions. Unique t-shirts, hats, & vintage jeans. And typos. It was the Sixties all over again. The David Morgan site promised really interesting Celtic Jewelry, Akubra hats, Filson Clothing, and Ordnance Survey Maps of Britain. It was also produced by Sean Moloney, who seems to be the only person making money in cyberspace. Despite the staggering number of businesses with internet connections, Dataquest estimates that net revenue was $400 million for 1995. That sounds like a nice piece of change until you consider that Wal-Mart made $86 billion at their real stores during the year.

I got another General Protection Error and was bumped off the system again. I do not tell you these things lightly. The technical environment is an important aspect of the Art of Cybershopping.

Virtual Shopping Bags

I like the "shopping bags" feature. Many pages have a button that lets you put your purchase in a virtual shopping bag. Imagine, an infinitely-expanding shopping cart. No trips to the parking lot to put things in the trunk. No lugging them around all afternoon. You can select a string of purchases and then "pay" for them all at once.

Despite the warnings about money changing hands, Cybercash, E-Cash, and marketplaceMCI all promise safe credit exchanges--more will surely follow. The technical glitches were balanced by the thrill of the hunt. Re-booted and returned to the GNN site. Persistence is the hallmark of the elite shopper.

I went to Internet Plaza, marketplace MCI, E-Mall, Net@Mart, and a couple of others. It was all starting to run together. There were two bridal shops, some religious jewelry, diamond experts, handcrafted picture frames, children's clothes, a site that will offer clip-and-print coupons directly from your computer, and more than enough t-shirt places and send gift-box places and send flowers places. Dataquest also reports that the most successful businesses (80% of the sales), tend to be music, auto parts, computer supplies, and flowers.

Out on the Web there are plenty of places to buy things, but they don't necessarily qualify as "shopping" places, in the aesthetic definition. When I need new automobile mats or turtle wax, I look for the best price, but it's not a shopping spree, it's a "procurement errand." These kinds of things sit on my to-do list until I happen by a convenient store. The "Send Flowers" locations I kept finding are just a few of the estimated 4,000 florist shops online. I send flowers, but I don't "shop" for funeral sprays or Valentine roses. When flower opportunities come up, the emotion of the event overshadows the shopping component. Taking care of these chores on the Web, though, could save valuable time for the joys of creative shopping. You could get the J.C. Penney catalogue from several links.

It seemed like days between stations. I had been on-line for hours. Disaster. A disheartening shopping trip, for sure. Was I losing the touch in this new medium??

The Tourquoise Trail

I went back to the keyboard. Tried the The Shops at Santa Fe. Now here was an interesting site. Pretty graphics. All the shops in Santa Fe listed by area. I chose The Turquoise Trail. The first item under jewelry was the "Touch of Silk"--a wonderful, 30-strand liquid silver necklace. 26 inches long, adjustable to 30 inches. $89.00. Earrings, too, ten-strand, $19. I bookmarked this wonderful find and tried the "Dress Southwest" link. A Hopi-design t-shirt was the only entry.

The Last Stop

There comes a point in time in all fruitless shopping excursions when you cast your standards to the winds, abandon the rules; you leave the Mall and stop at the discount place on the way home and buy something, any little thing, to save the day. Luckily, I found Andy's Garage Sale. In addition to the "Joke of the Week," Andy and his wife offer two tempting links. One is a list of twenty amazing bargains and the other is the special, truly fantastic, bargain of the day. I tried the Twenty Bargains page first, figuring I'd work up to the Special Bargain of the Day. There were twenty bargains. A 40-peice stoneware dish set, was $59.99, now $23.00. Swan or hen pattern. A Green Dutch Oven. A Cordless Drill. A NASCAR Collector Card Set. Nonetheless, I clicked the button to download the Special Bargain of the Day. Waited while the bytes shuffled in. And, there on the screen it was. A King-Sized, scented pillow. $9.00. Vanilla and Floral Breezes.

Shopping, as I say, is a way of developing intuition, grace, judgment, and timing.

I logged off.


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Appeared in Orange Coast Magazine, June, 1996