Tuesday, December 7th, 1999

They almost look like the result of some sort of switching mistake in master control-these commercials seemingly out of the Lawrence Welk and Bing Crosby past-genial sweatered singing white guys at holiday time. The look-and the tinny monaural sound-is just what you’d expect from a rerun from the sixties, when color television was in its infancy.
But then you notice they’re singing about the Palm Pilots, MP3 players, and camcorders you can get at Amazon.com. And you realize, then, that you’ve been reached by the huge holiday ad campaign planned by they yet-to-be profitable internet startup. For them, this holiday season is now or never, and they’re doing everything they can to convince you that a trip to their website is easier, better, and perkier than a trip to the mall.
Me, I don’t need a lot of persuading that a mall visit is a brutal, grueling experience this time of year. What’s harder to buy into, however, is that the e-way is uniformly a better way. At some sites, the concept of "browsing" involves a major-league understanding of the mechanics of search engines-if you type in "DVDs", the search engine won’t match "DVD players" because the folks who programmed them were idiots-or maybe just engineers-and the idea of users as flawed, unpredictable variables in their neat equations just doesn’t occur to them. Then, there’s the mystery of shipping-at many places, you have to go through almost all the steps of the purchasing process-including entering your credit card number-before the brain-dead software tells you how much you really have to pay to bring that UPS truck to your door. Since what I usually do is calculate "Okay, is the cost of shipping less than the cost of sales tax?" as my primary determinant of using the web versus a local merchant, not knowing what the damn charges are makes me way less willing to do "what-if"s with some e-merchants.
The funny thing is that these mundane considerations about commerce on the web are far removed from the images of e-shopping we’re presented with in print and television ads. No, what we’re getting from the pasty white guys in colorful sweaters and print ads filled with young, active people who appear to have just paused between workouts to order a new mountain bike online is a comfortable feeling, as if ordering online is as old and familiar as a Bing Crosby Christmas special rerun, or as darn near as easy as thinking "mmmme want something."
The reality is, of course, nothing like that at all. For me, it’s more like a multiwindowed web browser assault on mysterious companies located far away with all the Consumer Reports wisdom I can bring to bear. It is a laborious, multistep process (even with Amazon’s "One-click buying") that ends with the ultimate leap of faith-handing some unseen server your credit card number, which you can be darn sure they’ll keep forever and ever, tabulating your purchases and even your near-purchases into a huge database that will, someday, come back to haunt you.
But, hey, why worry? Time for choir practice. Honey, where’s my bright red sweater?