Making a list, clicking it twice

December 23, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- It's 3: 30 p.m. and I have gone shopping. Actually, I haven't "gone" anywhere. I am sitting at my desk, discovering what a mall would look like after a neutron bomb hit. All goods, no humans. I am shopping online.

While waiting for a call back from a source in California, I send a calendar to a niece in France. Click. While on hold for an editor in Washington, I buy a sweater for my son-in-law in Montana. Click. While waiting for a ride home, I send an amaryllis to New York and a bird feeder to Boston. Click. Click.

Within 90 minutes, with assorted interruptions, I have bought, wrapped and shipped four presents. I have done this without my signature wrapping paper -- the daily newspaper -- or my signature Christmas snit. I have done it without any risk of bodily injury -- high blood pressure or fallen arches -- short of carpal tunnel syndrome.

I have, in fact, made my list and clicked it twice. Mission accomplished, naughty or nice.

This was, you will not be surprised to discover, my virgin journey into online shopping, a world subject to more hype than Furby -- the high-tech creature which is also, and almost only, available in the Netshop.

No circling the mall

According to the myriad articles, cover stories and TV features about the wonders of shopless shopping, I have been "giddily" buying Christmas presents while the poor troglodytes circle the mall for a parking place and try to wrestle down a surly salesclerk.

Why is it that I don't feel giddy? I feel efficient. I feel relieved. I feel rather as if the holidays were another errand that I ran. Which is decidedly unmerry.

I hate to sound like a retro e-crank in an era when Martha Stewart is selling snowflake kits online. But after my first e-mas, it seems to me there is a downside to any marketplace that comes without either a market or a place.

For the overworked

For openers, it feeds into the mass delusion that it's possible -- with just a bit more organization and a few more megabytes -- to lead a real life without ever leaving the office. This is the Christmas carol of the overworked American.

More to the point, it feeds into the delusion that we can lead that real life without interacting with anyone except the boss, family, friends and the UPS driver. Netshopping is, in short, perfect for those who dream of an impersonal Christmas.

Consider the testimony of the shopping-dot-com crowd. Most of us brag about the time we save. But many also boast that they no longer have to deal with those hassles known as . . . people.

Here is the trend in this cybertrendiness. In large part, we've been driven to the self-service Netshop for the same reasons we drive the car to the self-service gas station.

In the current so-called service economy, sales help is often so scarce that frustrated consumers prefer to help themselves -- which in turn makes help even scarcer. We have retreated gradually from the mall to the catalog, from the 800 numbers to America Online numbers.

Oh, somewhere in the virtual world, I am sure there is a human reading the orders, sending them to the distribution center and loading them onto the truck. But in my excursion, I didn't meet a shop owner or a salesclerk.

I also didn't run into anyone I knew at the mall, I didn't have a single personal exchange. I gave -- my credit card -- and the folks on my list received the present. The marketplace that was once a meeting place was transformed to private space.

I am a direct descendant of the gatherer side of the hunter-gatherer forebears. But virtual gathering isn't shopping as my gender knows and loves it. It's buying for the shop-aversive.

Personal touch? Why not avoid the middleman or middle-Web site altogether and exchange credit cards.

Holiday memories

Forgive my nostalgia. I grew up on "The Gift of the Magi." I confess that the rest of my presents were high-touch, not high-tech.

There is no doubt that The Ghost of Christmas Future is Efficiency, but it's left me looking forward to the night before this Christmas. All through the house, not a creature will be stirring. Not even a (computer) mouse.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/23/98

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