Bah Humbug

Last year I went Christmas shopping on the Web and since it was all virtual, I managed to spend a large number of virtual dollars – about $130,000, give or take some currency exchange, duty, delivery and handling. This year, I did another pass by a number of the old sites and some new ones. There were some interesting changes.

Most of the sites have been updated to the point where the navigation is simpler and the purchasing is secure. Or at least, more secure than last year. A lot of the sites have created drop-down boxes for such things as cities, states and postal codes. And therein lies an interesting problem. About 50 per cent of the 60 or 70 that I looked at did not include Canadian information such as provinces, nor would they accept Canadian postal codes. Given the current exchange rate, it’s probably not a big issue for a lot of people since by the time you factor in all of the charges for products coming from the States you can probably do better locally.

The one site that I found most interesting was a cosmetics firm in Quebec. It had the appropriate Canadian drop-downs, but when a friend of mine entered his postal code he was told that it was invalid. Okay, sometimes things like that happen. When my friend called the customer service number the service representative told him his postal code was invalid and they would not ship products to him. He was also informed that he should speak French since it was a French firm (France, not Quebec). After considerable discussion, my friend gave up. All of which goes to prove one of my soapbox topics – that companies need to pay attention to the core business information that supports or interacts with this new modern world of e-commerce. In this case, the postal code table was obviously out of date, but the customer service representative insisted that it was correct and that my friend was wrong, despite the fact that he has been using the invalid postal code for almost two years and gets all of his junk mail regularly.

The discussion about language was also interesting since he speaks Parisian French. The end result was that the cosmetics were not purchased and the company did not make a sale. More importantly, my friend was totally alienated by the customer service, or lack of it. Another lesson here – the customer will determine your success based on the treatment received.

I wasn’t all bad news though. The price of last year’s BMW Z3 went down by $1,500. I still can’t afford it, but it’s Christmas after all. Even better news is that some of the more enterprising yacht chandlers have created Web sites, catalogues and fast delivery methods. The neatest one is in Halifax, followed by Steveston Marine Hardware and Nikka Industries, both in Vancouver. Binnacle is obviously well placed for the eastern seaboard market and displays the catalogue in Canadian and U.S. dollars. It’s times like this that I wish I had become part of the IT brain drain and moved south – and not just for the winter.

Apart from my passions for fast cars and slow boats, the variety of goods on the ‘net seems to have expanded. Even Future Shop is in the act now. The lingerie and make-up is even more inventive than last year and definitely requires parental permission. The electronics continue to amaze and confound, and the folks that were advertising the beginner Web browser configuration were still there. Since Rogers Cable is now selling Internet on TV, I suppose it’s now possible for a beginner to order a beginner computer. For that matter, I suppose that with the right cell phone, you could order from the Web while you took the number 4 bus home from work.

Lest you think that I’m being a curmudgeon about the whole topic, I think Web shopping is improving tremendously, but perhaps this year the industry can take a hint from the name of a boat in my marina -“Dot Calm.” Now that the excitement has died a bit, we can get down to some serious work on the systems behind e-commerce. That’s where we need to improve.

Just to show that I have a tiny bit of Christmas spirit left, here are some special New Year’s wishes to some kind people, who have commented on, argued over or discussed my columns.

– To Frank Towler, a host of new wireless software. (No pun intended.)

– To Luc Nadon, a new IT strategy for government that reduces the bureaucratic processes.

– To Steve Venable, a government boss that appreciates his creative efforts.

– To Michele Le Fevre, a year filled with public relations successes.

– To Rick Ottewell, a happy resolution to the PeopleSoft Version 8 and beyond product strategies.

– To David Newman, some fun work on Parliament Hill.

– To Ben and Shelley Durda, a wild Pacific salmon for Stormy the wallpaper cat.

– To B. Turner, a bunch of worms ordered on the Web and delivered in an hour – and the site.

– To Bill Ross, Plus