Online shopping

You used to browse big fat catalogs where you could see the stuff much as you would in a store, then order it by mail. Before we began to run out of forests, mail order catalog shopping was very popular.

But it was a long time before your stuff arrived.

The big promise of online shopping was to avoid the main problem with mail order — that it was so long before your stuff arrived, by then you had forgotten you’d ordered it and you no longer had much interest in it. Time, it turns out, is to brick and mortar stores’ advantage when it comes to instant acquisition; you can catch people on the impulse and it’s bought, paid for and in their car before they realize they don’t need it.

And time is still a major wrench in the works of online consumerism; I want it now but if it takes too long I won’t buy it. So the likes of Amazon solved that problem, offering just about anything you could possibly think you might need, and taking the pain out of receiving and returning it. But of course they didn’t stop there. It was never a matter of simply making online shopping as close as possible to the experience of in-store shopping. It’s a whole different world.

Online you have whole universe of people of questionable intelligence — let’s face it, better described as psychotic strangers — who may or may not have any knowledge of the article in question but who seem hell bent on giving you their opinion on whether or not it’s any good. And it’s surprising how compelling their advice can be, even if you know they likely don’t know what they’re talking about.

It turns out the best part of a new thing you’re considering buying online — in fact the best part of the entire online shopping experience — may well be the reviews, which you can read free of charge and for which you will never suffer any buyer’s remorse.

“I would give this radio 5 stars, but it seems incapable of receiving the Bill and Bob show, which even my dad’s old radio could pick up fine every Sunday afternoon when I was 10. I tried different batteries.”

“This vacuum is very good, but I would say if you have a hamster make sure it’s not hiding in the couch when you use the crevice attachment.”

“Don’t listen to all the negatives regarding hamsters. My hamster will not fit up the crevice tool and can simply be pulled off with a little practice.”

“I’m thinking of buying one of these.”

“Mary you should see this.”

“Hello this is a test of my email.”

“I ordered a pencil case and I received something entirely different. Do not recommend.”

“Regarding the vacuum cleaner, it turns out I have a guinea pig so the previous advice regarding hamsters may be accurate after all.”

Of course it’s not important to the online store what you buy, only that you buy something. Anything. It’s likely you’re shopping on a storefront that brings together all sorts of vendors, and the store gets a cut whatever you do — probably even if all you do is look. That’s why even when you’re about to take the plunge, you’re distracted by examples of what other people in a similar position ended up buying.

Here, too, there must be something that attracts lunatics because people looking at pencil cases ended up buying ladders, and when someone bought a kayak they added a dog bowl. You struggle to see the connections, assuming you must be missing something.

You’ve found what you came for, a highly recommended mechanic’s wrench. So you put your wrench, the home perm kit and a limited edition German fountain pen into your online shopping cart.

The online shopping cart is the final snook online stores cock at brick and mortar counterparts, though to their credit they don’t go so far as to have a virtual checkers and baggers to ask you if you found everything or wanted virtual paper or plastic.

You virtually wheel your stuff to the virtual checkout, where there’s a final attempt to offer you credit cards, club memberships, stuff you looked at last year, a never to be repeated price for aged Cheddar and the like, before the coup de grace — expedited shipping.

Expedited shipping often turns out to be the four-leaf clover of the online shopping world; you pay it and assume you’ll get your stuff quicker, but it’s hard to say whether it did any good. If your stuff turns out to be sourced ‘overseas’ (a codeword for mainland China) then the chances are it didn’t. It’s like buying expensive gas so your engine lasts longer, or taking expensive daily probiotics to avoid getting appendicitis like your neighbor thought she almost did.

So you pay for expedited shipping just in case, click submit, and you’re surprised by an almost immediate ‘ding’ from your e-mail.

“Thank you for your order. The wrench is on backorder. The Home Perm Kit is unavailable so in light of other customers’ choices we substituted a jar of pickled onions. The German fountain pen will clear Hong Kong customs in a month or so.”