The world at their fingertips

Experiment: Jeans maker offers college students a challenge. Buy only from the Web. Oh, and here's $500 a week. So far, so much.

February 17, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Your average college-age consumer tends to be jobless and parent-dependent, with more than a few maxed-out credit cards and bounced checks.

She or he thrives on take-out, late-night jaunts to the 24-hour convenience store and intellectual impulse buys.

That is, unless the particular dorm dweller has been armed with $500 a week and challenged to confine all purchases to what can be found on the Internet.

"Up till now I've been a poor college student living on whatever my parents allow me," says Scott Raymond, a 19-year-old linguistics major at the University of Kansas. "I'm blown away at the good fortune of having all this extra cyber-cash to spend."

Raymond; Alanna Blanco, 23, a senior at Chico State University; and Tomiko Jones, 21, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, were picked out of nearly 600 applicants to participate in Levi's Semester Online.

In this original experiment, the hip cyber students, who are currently in the third of 20 weeks, must buy everything, from textbooks to toothpaste, off the Internet. And while that may be daunting, the complimentary beaucoup bucks certainly help make up for mall deprivation.

The money accumulates if it's not all spent, allowing the option for an ultimate purchase like a spring break vacation or a car, as long as it's bought online.

"The point was not to starve yourself, but to explore all the things the Internet can provide. They can both survive and have incremental spending," says Jay Thomas, director of digital media for Levi Strauss and Co. "It's not trying to do it as cheaply, but as creatively as you can."

A smattering of the students' online acquisitions to date includes roses for grandma, rabbit food, beauty supplies, electronic toys, jeans (Levi's, of course) and groceries.

"There is so much out there, it's incredible," says Blanco, a management information systems major at Chico, who spends up to six hours a day surfing for sustenance.

You can keep up with the students at http: //www.levi.com/ us/sol/main.asp, where their purchases and the sites they used are listed, as well as ratings of how difficult it was to perform specific transactions.

There are opportunities to send them fan mail, visit semester online message boards, and explore interactive features designed to flesh out the chosen three, who are also being transformed into Web celebs. In a weekly Webcast, they share shopping experiences, and a bit about themselves, via a dorm-cam.

"The fame and fortune aspect is interesting," Raymond says. "I don't have a girlfriend at the moment. Now I'll be looking more attractive."

Initially, Thomas considered 24-hour-a-day surveillance a la MTV's "The Real World," but decided that would be extremely boring, since it would pretty much amount to footage of an empty dorm room or the three in front of their computers clicking on a mouse.

So if they're not under Orwellian observation, how do the organizers know they're not organizing covert J. Crew expeditions?

"They don't have goons following us," says Raymond, who designs Web sites in his spare time. "If I have to buy a candy bar out of a machine, I'm not going to stop myself."

And, as Blanco has found, "there are certain things that are nearly impossible, like laundry, or prescriptions."

Add parking fines to the list as well.

But the participants are self-motivated and committed to virtual shopping despite the inevitable inconveniences.

"There are trade-offs, obviously," says Raymond, who plans on eating a lot of Papa John's pizza this semester, since the omnipresent pizzeria has a very convenient site. "For clothes and shoes, you'd like to be able to try it on."

Alanna also noted that Web inventory is iffy. She's ordered advertised goods such as tennis shoes, only to find out three days later that they're not even in stock.

Shipping costs and time delays are also annoying factors. But with patience and resourcefulness, they find what they're looking for. And sometimes it's shocking, like the "lobster you can have overnighted" that Blanco found at http: //www.greatfood.com. But she's still on a quest for online hotel reservations in the small village on the Yucatan Peninsula she plans to visit for spring break.

The challenge has inspired the students to refine their Web shopping skills and get a little creative.

For instance, Blanco and her friends have developed http: // www.feedalanna.com, a site offering Alanna, her rabbit Kashmir and all residents of Chico online food-ordering opportunities from local vendors.

When Raymond begins a search, he goes to a main Internet provider site, such as Lycos or Yahoo, both of which have online shopping links, which in turn lead to other links and possibilities.

And as long as they don't buy clothes manufactured by someone other than Levi's (or anything illegal or pornographic), it's all fair game.

Raymond, who has spent nearly every one of his cyber-cents so far, is living large on the Internet.

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