Holiday Shopping RANT
December 2002

There has been a paradigm shift in holiday season shopping.  Instead of desperate parents and relatives bribing Toys'R'Us employees and spending hours on lines for the hit toy of the year, plugged-in folks cruise web sites for the latest techie-toy bargains and order on-line the things they know best - computer gadgets.

Yet the laws of supply and demand still apply in a twisted Internet kind of way, and the pendulum swings farther and more wildly as hundreds of thousands of people all pointing and clicking and gleefully typing in their credit card numbers send e-tailers and their suppliers into a frenzy,  trying to keep the supply channels moving.  And that's just half the fun.

The other half of the fun is that just because an on-line retailer advertises something does not necessarily mean that they have it in their little digital hands somewhere, ready to be shipped, EVEN IF THEY CLAIM THEY DO.

If that were not entertaining enough, there's the on-line price wars, and that's where things get REALLY messy.  Consider the on-line retailer who wants to fortify his bottom line by reducing his margin and selling disproportionately huge quantities of certain products.  Of course there's nothing wrong with that until you advertise a competitive price for goods you can't possibly deliver, and that brings me to what happened this year when I decided that my wife and I could not live without Sony's newest CD/DVD burner, the DRU-500A.  Huge demand coupled with the swabbie, er, I mean longshoreman's strike produced a recipe for on-line disasters as crates full of goodies from the Asian continent sat idle on ships and docks.  Add this to my religious dedication to avoiding paying suggested retail prices (not to mention state sales tax, etc.), and my endeavors become a predictable disaster.

PCNation advertises "we cut prices, not corners."  I ordered two DRU-500A's from them on November 13, knowing they were out of stock.  But knowing I stood to save $130 buy not walking into CompUSA, I didn't mind.  Besides, their web site said they expected to deliver in "2-5 days."

I checked their site every day.  First the order status showed that the warehouse was ready to deliver, but then it stayed like that a few days.  That's when I emailed them and found that the warehouse didn't have anything for me after all.  Then suddenly the web site showed the product would deliver in "1-2 weeks."  Oddly, on the 23rd the web site was showing "2-5 days" delivery time again.  It stayed that way for a whole day and then went back to "1-2 weeks".

Then on the 29th of November the PCNation web site again showed a delivery time of "2-5 days" for the DRU-500A's and it stayed like that for a couple of days, after which it went up to "2+ weeks."

At this point I did not feel the least bit guilty about pestering them incessantly about the order on their 800 number.  The last customer rep I spoke to (on 12/2) placed the blame squarely on their distributors, stating that the estimated ship dates are based on information from their distributor's computers.  He was also quite candid that while his computer showed that a supply shipment was expected on 12/6, that date was probably a fantasy and that he could not even promise me shipment by Christmas.

Well, he doesn't need to know I'm Jewish.

eCost.com was also offering low-ball prices on the DRU-500A's, and after hearing less than promising news about my drives from a PCNation customer service rep on an 11/27 phone call I thought maybe I should keep two bases covered.  So I ordered two of those mercurial Sony drives from eCost.com and decided I'd cancel the order from whoever failed to ship first.

I thought I was being slick when I was about to click [SUBMIT] in the shopping cart order page, then stopped and called a human being at eCost.com first!  This human told me that his screen showed a shipment of 150 units just came in, and there was a current back-order queue of just 127 to fill from those 150.  I was even assured not to worry, as two more shipments were expected by December 2nd.

Well that certainly sounded more well-informed than PCNation so I clicked [SUBMIT] before I even hung up the phone.  But just because someone sounds well-informed doesn't mean that he or she IS well-informed.  Early evening on Monday December 2 my order status at the eCost.com web site still showed "ALL BACKORDERED" so I lit up their 800 number (er, 877) too.

This service rep couldn't coherently explain how I missed the last bandwagon but did state that a shipment that was expected over the weekend had not yet arrived.

This all reminds me of what happened to Egghead.com before they went bust a few years ago.  They took my on-line order for a very new and groundbreaking Nikon digital camera, the Coolpix 950.  They were using some automatic competitive pricing system on their web site that posted an incredibly low price, which of course attracted a deluge of literally thousands of orders.  My camera didn't ship for nearly four months, during which time Egghead.com repeatedly offered to change or cancel my order as Nikon shipped them in pathetic dribs and drabs.  During this time I also called Nikon, wondering if Egghead.com was even an authorized dealer.  Egghead.com insisted yes, Nikon insisted no, but Nikon may not have realized that "Egghead" and "Egghead.com" were two completely different business entities.

My camera order languished in Egghead.com's computer system for so long that some of the data actually got purged from their computers before it had a chance to ship, requiring me to call them by phone for status, and apparently disconnecting their billing system from the order and shipping data, which is probably why over a year later their liquidator called me asking for my credit card info.  I refused of course.  Frankly I don't know for sure if I ever paid for the camera or not - I don't keep my paperwork any longer than the life of the respective warranty unless it's a business write-off.

Anyway, getting back to eCost.com vs PCNation, even though I ordered from eCost two weeks later than I ordered from PCNation, eCost managed to ship first.  The drives were about $11 apiece more at eCost, so that was either the price for my impatience or the cost of PCNation's incompetence, or both.  Cancelling the PCNation order was easy and painless, and probably a huge relief to them.  And while eCost didn't ship immediately like I initially thought they would, they still did manage to ship the drives in just six days, four of which comprised a long holiday weekend.  I had the drives in my greedy little hands by Friday December 6.

The saga was still not over however, since those DVD writers aren't much good without recording media.  So based on popular suggestions from people in a Usenet newsgroup, I ordered a couple of large spindles of blanks from CDRDVDRMEDIA.com., and hastily requested the somewhat costlier UPS 2nd-day air shipping.  After all, I was sure those DVD writers would come right away and I didn't want to be all dressed up with no place to go!

I ordered the media on the afternoon of November 27th, the day before Thanksgiving, so I obviously didn't expect the stuff to go out right away, and figured if it shipped on Friday I should be thankful.  Well, I didn't need to worry about being thankful.  On Monday December 2nd, the media supposedly shipped out.  Then I got suspicious and called them when on December 5th my 2nd-day air package hadn't arrived yet and the UPS tracking information said nothing more than "Dec 2 - billing information received".

The folks from CDRDVDRMEDIA (quite a mouthful, eh?) called back late that afternoon and reached my wife, and informed her that the package went out "yesterday."  Yet the tracking information at the UPS web site still hasn't changed.  How odd.  Anyway, their explanation was that they thought all the media was in stock when I placed the order, but when the stock picker went to prepare the shipment, there was no stock to be had.  Rather than inform me of the screw-up and resulting delay, they just held the shipment pending a delivery of fresh stock.

I thought the "yesterday" claim was inconsistent and sure enough, a check of the UPS web site on the 6th confirmed that the package didn't reach the UPS folks until the evening of the 5th, not the 4th.  That means that the weekend of the 7th I'll have the drives but no media, and I paid $12 extra to save three days shipping time when CDRDVDRMEDIA took twice that long just to get it out their door.  Doesn't seem worth it.

This on-line shopping thing can be a really mixed bag.

 


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