Why I’m not sold on online shopping

NO MORE piling into the local shopping centre scrum. This Christmas, I decided to let my laptop do the walking. Online shopping is quick, easy and convenient, or so we’re told. Payments provider eWay reckons Australians’ collective online spend will top $1.5 billion this festive season; while the Adobe Digital Index Holiday Shopping Prediction 2014 noted our love of mobile phone technology would see online sales grow by 15 per cent ahead of the holidays. But, if that’s the case, then why do so many online retailers seem intent on inflicting upon customers the virtual equivalents of interminable queues, carpark snarl-ups, pushy sales staff, shipping stuff-ups and pricing snafus?

After logging onto an online pet store this week to purchase treats for the only family member likely to demonstrate any gratitude, I sought to login to my existing account, typing in what I hoped were the correct details. ‘Username and password do not match or you do not have an account yet,’ came the surly response. So I punched the ‘lost password’ button and received a further message: ‘An e-mail has been sent to your e-mail address. The e-mail contains a verification token, please paste the token in the field below to prove that you are the owner of this account.’

An hour later, the email still hadn’t arrived, leading me to conclude that perhaps I hadn’t previously set up an account after all. I tried creating a new one. Hit the ‘submit’ button. Testily, I was told: ‘Please agree to our terms of Service first’ and, just in case I didn’t follow, the words ‘I agree to the Terms of Service’ on the original form were now highlighted in angry red, and accompanied by an asterix (‘Right here, dumb-ass.’). I ticked the box. Hit the ‘submit’ button again. Back came the following information: ‘This e-mail is already registered. If you forgot your password, click on the Forgot your password link and a new password will be sent to you.’

It’s no wonder that online shoppers regular nominate complicated password rules as one of their top frustrations. I get that security is crucial when personal and credit card details are at stake, and God knows I can dig myself into a financial pit without a fraudster’s assistance, but seriously? A minimum of six – no, eight – no, ten – characters. A combination of upper and lower case letters. A sprinkling of numbers. A couple of alphanumeric characters, or better still, characters from Greek, Coptic or Cyrillic alphabets. No phone numbers, pets’ names, dates of birth, words, reversed words, or phrases. No using the same password for different sites. Change passwords regularly. Don’t reuse them.

Indeed, European research conducted by Opinion Way on behalf of Kaspersky Lab recently revealed that the impossibility of managing multiple passwords means 55 per cent of shoppers have to reset their passwords once a month; and 8 per cent every single time they splurge online. But this irritation was secondary to that invoked by those wavy, blurry and often unreadable splodges known as CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) which 60 per cent of online shoppers in another survey considered dementing.

Other cyber shopping gripes? Slow loading pages. Stubborn pop-up ads that refuse to shut the hell down (given the thumbs-down by 52 per cent of online shoppers). Paying extra for express shipping, only to have goods arrive late or not at all. Shipping costs that blow out, but not until the final click. Endlessly rebuffing unrelated product offers (spoofed beautifully in a series of Google Analytics videos released in 2012). Being unable to redeem promo codes, gift cards, or promised discounts (46 per cent of shoppers hate this one). Some even describe the existence of the ‘coupons game’, in which savvy shoppers use coupon sites to source codes entitling them to discounts or free shipping, as ‘annoying’. Railing against them in TIME magazine, Brad Tuttle demands to know, ‘Why force us to play this game?’

But ‘behavioural targeting’ is perhaps the most unsettling online shopping outcome. Did you know that retailers are now able to use your every online search, social media update, web purchase, or coupon redemption, to build a profile of you and your purchasing history and habits? This knowledge is ostensibly used to ‘customise your shopping experience’. (Translation: ‘to excise your secret desires, pry your wallet open and bleed you dry’.) Come to think of it, maybe I’ll just abandon all my online shopping carts and let them join millions of their brethren out there in cyberspace. I’ll do battle with the Christmas crowds. And I’ll always, always, pay in cash.

An edited version of this story was published in The Courier-Mail on 26 December 2014.

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