Living with the Internet: Online shopping
Living with the Internet: Online shopping

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Living with the Internet: Online shopping

7 What's going on with online shopping

Most e-commerce sites are designed to mimic as far as possible the process of shopping in real life – find store, locate goods, go to checkout, pay. The only difference is that you cannot take the goods away with you, but have to wait for them to be delivered by post or courier. (Even then, there are parallels in real life – for example, when I buy a washing machine or a fridge from a department store, I do not expect to take it home with me; instead I pay and make arrangements to have the goods delivered.)

Most sites require you to register with them – usually requiring (as a minimum) that you enter your email address and create a password – before you can buy. It's useful to do that in advance, rather than getting all the way to the checkout before discovering that you need to register in order to complete the transaction. And whereas some sites (like Amazon) talk about adding goods to a virtual 'shopping basket', others provide a 'shopping cart' or a 'trolley'. But the basic idea is the same.

All of this is achieved by computer systems that link product databases (catalogues) with search engines, accounting and logistics systems and the online card-verification systems operated by Visa, Mastercard etc. Welding a variety of systems together to function as a seamless whole is a complex task, and early e-commerce sites had great difficulty in making their sites work dependably and consistently. Making them attractive to customers and easy to use proved an even more difficult task, which is one reason why so many of the early e-commerce companies failed. Added to that there is the problem of meshing the virtual world of computer transactions with the real world in which goods have to be delivered in real vans to real addresses. Again, early e-commerce operators often had problems at the delivery end.

By a quasi-Darwinian evolutionary process of survival of the fittest, competition has weeded out sites that didn't work, or companies that failed to deliver. Also, computer firms developed software packages specifically designed for e-commerce, and many competing companies – for example, many of the budget airlines (which sell tickets mainly or exclusively online) – actually use the same underlying e-commerce 'engine'. Widespread and demanding usage means that the engine has improved dramatically over time.

Nevertheless, online commerce has some way to go before everyone is prepared to use it. Currently, consumer reservations fall into three main categories:

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