Web commerce: resistance is futile

So I broke down and did it today — as much as I advocate an active embrace of Web technology, I’ve always been something of a Luddite in the area of Internet commerce. Until today, I never bought a book on-line.

I’d always thought that an on-line bookstore could never approach the allure of the “real thing” — the smell of the books, the visual appeal of row after row of great stories waiting to be read, the satisfying tactile experience of leafing through a good biography while wedged into one of those overstuffed chairs.

All that changed today.

I went into our local big-box book superstore after work tonight to look for a present for my daughter’s seventh birthday. She loved reading Mr. Popper’s Penguins in school, and I figured that since it was a well-known children’s classic, and a Newbery honour winner at that, I might have a good shot at finding a copy on the shelf.

No such luck, so off to the special order desk I go, expecting to find someone with at least a passing familiarity with classic kid’s books.

“Can you please order me a copy of Mr. Popper’s Penguins?” I ask the staffer behind the desk. “It’s by Atwater.”

“Can I order you what?” she says.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” I repeat. “A classic kid’s book,” I say helpfully. “Everybody read it at one time – it was a Newbery Honour winner.”

Blank stare from special order person: “I can look it up for you — I might be able to order it — Mr. Popper…how do you spell that?”

A deep feeling of foreboding is coming over your trusted correspondent. Think I’ll test the system a little more before I entrust my order to this special order person.

“Before you do that,” I say, “can you look to see if you have a copy of The Cricket in Times Square in the store — by George Selden? It was a Newbery Honour Winner too.” (We already have a copy, but I’m testing her, you see).

“Can’t say that I’ve ever heard of it,” she says.

I feel distinctly like John Cleese in the Monty Python routine who, after 10 frustrating minutes of asking for dozens of different kinds of cheese in a cheese shop, is told that indeed, there is absolutely no cheese of any kind to be had. In that case, Cleese decided that the only reasonable thing to do was kill the purported cheese vendor.

I take a less violent approach — I head for home and Amazon.com.

With some trepidation, I log on — please search for Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

In seconds, I’m told that the book is available in both hardcover and paperback editions, and that either is available to be shipped within 24 hours.

While it’s on the subject, the site also gives me a synopsis of the story, tells me that it has a five-star rating from readers, that it was written in 1938, and that it was illustrated by Lawson, who did one of my other favourites , Ferdinand the Bull (I didn’t know that).

Maybe someone at my local big-box bookstore knows all this about Mr. Popper’s Penguins and The Cricket in Times Square, but certainly not the someone I was dealing with.

The point here is that only one person at Amazon.com (or even a person at the publisher, assuming they’re linked electronically) has to know all this good stuff about the book I want. If this one person ensures the information is entered into the database, it makes everyone and everything about Amazon.com look professional, informed and up to date. By default, I find myself liking anyone at Amazon.com infinitely better than my neighbourhood in-the-flesh special order person.

So I order my book, tell the site that it is indeed a gift (it asks me if I would like to include a greeting of my choice on the delivery slip, and if I would like to have it gift wrapped — yes, I would, thanks), it shows me a selection of tasteful gift wrap to chose from, and takes my order on my AMEX.

In case I’m wondering or nervous, it also offers to explain to me how my card number is secured with their encryption technology.

I may be visiting the bricks-and-mortar bookstore a lot less frequently in the future. OK, so Amazon.com doesn’t have a Starbucks attached to it, but that’s OK — I make a pretty good cappuccino myself, and I kind of like the idea of browsing the stacks in my pyjamas early on a Saturday morning.

Moral of the story? If you’re not seriously preparing your organization for the huge changes that Web technology is going to bring to the entire way that business is conducted (and I don’t mean just providing a static Web page of basic information about your company), be prepared to be, as they say, roadkill on the information highway.

Now, I wonder if they can rustle up a copy of Paddle to the Sea…..

Hanley is an IS professional living in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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