Log on and start shopping. Everyone else is.
People are making millions of dollars on the Internet (though you’re probably not one of them), and millions more are being lost on the Internet (with any luck, not by you). Stock valuations of “dot com” businesses are in the billions, but many of them are still unprofitable. Companies ponder how to make money from the Internet, and in the process online retailing has become a new economy. During 1999 consumers in North America alone bought some $33 billion of products via the Internet; this year, the total is expected to exceed $60 billion. Advances in software have made online shopping as simple as a few mouse clicks.
The holiday buying season provides an ideal time to check out Internet storefronts –so I did. Although dozens of astronomical instrument and accessory dealers have information online, they all aren’t “e-stores.” I examined only those that offered online ordering of telescopes, excluding those that required a phone call or fax to place an order.
- Adorama Inc. | www.adorama.com
- Anacortes Telescope & Wild Bird | www.buytelescopes.com
- Apogee Inc. | www.apogeeinc.com
- Camera Corner | www.camcor.com
- Discovery Store | www.discovery.com
- Eagle Optics | www.eagleoptics.com
- Edmund Scientific Co. | www.scientificsonline.com
- eHobbies | www.ehobbies.com
- Focus Camera & Video | www.focuscamera.com
- Hardin Optical Co. | www.hardin-optical.com
- Lumicon | www.lumicon.com
- Oceanside Photo & Telescope | www.optcorp.com
- Orion Telescopes & Binoculars | www.telescope.com
- Shutan Camera & Video | www.shutan.com
- Stellarvue | www.stellarvue.com
- Wolf Camera | www.wolfcamera.com
No comparative pricing was done. The “street prices” of products generally don’t vary much among retailers. Nevertheless, individual merchants can offer Web specials, such as discontinued items or discounts on accessories bundled with a telescope purchase.
The vast majority of these sites use a virtual shopping basket or cart. As you browse products, clicking on a Buy It button logs your choice. Click on a Continue Shopping button, or use the Back button of your Web browser to explore further. You can add and remove products from your cart as you wish. When done making your selections, proceed to the Checkout, where you enter payment, billing, and shipping information. Often your order will be confirmed with e-mail.
A deal-killer for me when buying anything online is not knowing the final cost of an order before entering my credit-card number. While a company may note that a shipping fee will be added, guessing how much it costs to ship a telescope –or any large, heavy object–may prove surprising. When I purchased a new computer monitor via the Internet two years ago, one company would have charged me $70 for shipping. The monitor itself was a few dollars more at the business I finally bought it from, but shipping it added only $20.
The shopping basket allows you to do as much browsing as you like without commitment. Nothing is finalized until you submit your order, and in fact many Internet users merely window-shop. Studies have revealed that consumers fail to finalize about one-quarter of their transactions in online stores. This could be because the person was just browsing, the buyer changed his or her mind (“Wait a minute, will this Dobsonian fit in the Yugo?”), or a technical problem caused termination of the session. Wolf Camera e-mailed me two reminders about my abandoned shopping cart.
Similarities and Differences
The shopping experiences at these online stores were similar. All of the sites were easy to navigate to find specific products. Of the 22 companies examined, all allowed shipping to alternative addresses (to a business or a friend) and all but one had a shopping cart. The exception to the latter was Apogee, which provided a form to fill out and submit electronically to the company. This was the least-convenient ordering method because filling out the form required you to write down (or remember) the name and price of each item.
If you’ve already done your research –perhaps by examining telescopes at a local astronomy-club meeting–and know exactly what you want to buy, it’s easy to do some online comparison pricing. However, what if you don’t know which telescope to buy? Where can you find online sales help? Numerous sites offer guidance on how to select a telescope. Diagrams explain the types of optical systems, and some sites list the pros and cons of each. In a less-rigorous method, EfstonScience and Hardin Optical divide telescopes into categories for beginning, intermediate, and advanced users.
I expected that every store would make suggestions for additional purchases. Although “Want fries with that?” tactics are mocked for their annoyance factor, add-on sales are nevertheless a lucrative tool of retailers. Some companies listed only model-specific accessories, others went farther by recommending tripods, carrying cases, and books. Display the full description for a telescope to check for add-ons. In all, only half of the surveyed companies had some type of accessory suggestions.
A growing concern about Internet commerce is privacy. Companies collect information about you when you buy online: address, phone number, e-mail address, and credit-card number. Customers presume that their information won’t be passed to mass marketers. To reassure prospective customers, “e-tailers” often display privacy statements prominently on their sites explaining what, if anything, they will do with the information they collect, and about other aspects of the online store, such as the use of “cookies” (data saved by your Web browser so the store remembers who you are the next time you visit). Thirteen of the companies offer privacy statements.
Nevertheless, some people remain uneasy about entering their credit-card numbers and having them bounce who-knows-where through the Internet. Secure transmissions encrypt information so that it will be decoded only by the desired business. While sending credit-card numbers online is of great concern, it isn’t very different from reading your card number to someone during a phone call. In September, American Express announced plans to introduce single-use credit-card numbers. Each time you want to make an online purchase, you’ll obtain a set of numbers that will be valid for only that one purchase.
Online shopping offers many benefits. You can research products, print specifications, compare prices, and find a bargain –and do it all at midnight while eating the last piece of cheesecake. There’s no wasting gas and no hard sell by salespeople. Log on and shop.