If the Web pundits are right, there's a new Mall of America being built — in cyberspace. Forrester Research estimates that consumers logged $530 million worth of online transactions last year. It expects that figure to surpass $7 billion by the end of the decade. The Yankee Group, another leading market researcher, is even more optimistic. It estimates that online shopping will exceed $10 billion by the year 2000.
You don't have to buy these predictions to appreciate that online shopping has finally arrived. Onsale Inc., the fast-growing electronic auction house, has logged more than 1 million visits since it opened less than two years ago. Jumbo!, the self-proclaimed biggest site on the Web, offers more than 100,000 software programs and receives more than 1.5 million visits a month.
Most of the here-and-now excitement about online shopping involves computer products. That's no surprise. "Why did we start by auctioning computers?" says Onsale CEO Jerry Kaplan. "Because the one thing we know about our customers is that they're sitting at their computers. They are, by definition, computer buyers."
Is it time for you to use technology to buy technology? Fast Company evaluated the state of Internet retailing with an online shopping spree to collect digital essentials for the well-equipped office. We went in search of a powerful computer, a collection of must-have peripherals, basic software for business users, and a few items to keep us entertained. We spent about $3,400 — and lots of hours in front of the screen.
Here's a report on where we shopped, what we bought, and what we learned about The Experience:. You decide whether you're ready to visit the virtual mall.
Going, Going, Gone
Shopper's Paradise: Onsale Inc. (www.onsale.com), the Web's leading electronic auction service. The site, based in Mountain View, California, held its first auction in May 1995. Since then it has sold 200,000 items. It's a digital bargain hunter's dream. Think Filene's Basement for the Net.
What's in Stock: A huge assortment of discontinued and refurbished equipment: computers, scanners and printers, and much more. Don't confuse discontinued with dysfunctional. There's plenty of good stuff here.
How to Buy: Like every store in cyberspace, Onsale is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But if you want to make a bid, you must time your moves with Onsale's auction schedule. The site runs three auctions a week.
The auction process is straightforward. Find the product you want and click on "bid." You'll learn when the auction closes, what the current high bids are, and the minimum increments required for new bids. If you're not a registered user, Onsale lets you sign up on the spot. You don't have to monitor the auction in real time. Just make a bid and start checking email. Onsale sends a message when someone outbids you. You can increase your bid via email or return to the site for more details.
Our Shopping Cart: A high-powered desktop computer built by a little-known company in Carbondale, Illinois. The CD Masters PC includes a Pentium 200 MMX chip, 64 megabytes of RAM, a 3.8 gigabyte hard drive, and a 33.6 voice/fax/data modem. The price tag was $1,875 (plus $45 for shipping and handling).
The Experience: We saved more than $500 off the best price we could find at any nonauction shopping site. Plus we had fun! CEO Kaplan calls Onsale "an interactive economic game" that's "part QVC, part Price Club, part stock market." It's not a bad description.
We arrived 10 minutes late to an auction that began at 6 PM EST on a Monday. The minimum bid was $750. Bidders had already raised the ante to $1,800. We bid $1,825 and led the pack.
Early Wednesday morning an email arrived. We'd been outbid! We increased our bid by $25, enough to get us back in the hunt. Late Wednesday afternoon, 30 minutes before the auction closed, we visited Onsale to watch the finale in real time. At 5:59 PM, 1 minute before closing, BT of New York City bid $1,875 and knocked us off the list. We matched BT's price (there were four computers up for bid), knocked someone else off the list, and started watching the clock. Going, going, gone. Time to celebrate. A few hours later we received an email confirming our win.
The Fine Print: You won't find top hardware models from big-name manufacturers such as Compaq and IBM. And it literally takes days — although only a few minutes per day — to win an auction.
Other Sites: The Web is full of auction sites, but none offers Onsale's product selection or traffic. Of course, fewer bidders means less competition. Visit AuctionPC (www.auctionpc.com), Cyberswap (www.cyberswap.com), and Cybersale (www.infopoint.com:80/auctions/cybersale).
Shopper's Paradise: Cyberian Outpost (www.cybout.com) is a virtual computer store that describes itself as the "cool place to shop for computer stuff." Now the world's largest online computer retailer, its sales have doubled every three months since it opened in May 1995. More than 7,000 shoppers visit every day, twice the population of the small Connecticut town where the company is based.
What's in Stock: Hardware, software, and peripherals for Windows and Macintosh environments. Cyberian Outpost offers a selection of more than 15,000 different products.
How to Buy: Think of the best direct-mail catalog you've seen. Now add a bunch of features that work only on the Net. Click on any one of 12 flags and watch the entire site reboot in a new language. Read detailed spec sheets for anything you want to buy. No more guessing about which modems work best with what computers, which peripherals need special "interface kits" to work with your laptop. Or check out the New Arrivals page, which offers products for sale just hours after they're released by the manufacturer.
Our Shopping Cart: An external Jaz drive by Iomega ($497.95), plus a Jaz Jet Interface Kit ($109.95) so the drive could work with our new CD Masters PC. Also a PalmPilot Professional ($389.95), a new version of the best-selling personal organizer from U.S. Robotics, plus a modem ($123.95) that lets the Pilot "hot sync" remotely with our new computer. Total next-day shipping charges: $22.
The Experience: Two of the most basic criteria for evaluating a retail environment are: Is it fun to shop there? Is it easy to find what you need? Cyberian Outpost scores high on both. It has real personality — a fun, energetic, engaging design that's light years ahead of the bleakness of most cyberstores.
Navigating the site's 15,000 products is less cumbersome than you might expect. They're divided into 10 common-sense categories such as laptops, printers, monitors, etc. A search engine allows shoppers to locate products by manufacturer, brand name, or subcategory. The result is a shopping trip that's fun and fast. It took less than 30 minutes to locate the products we needed, review the system requirements, and make the purchase. Since we ordered before 4:45 PM EST, our products shipped that day.
The Fine Print: The selection is impressive, but it still slights the big brands. The site offers seven different IBM Thinkpads, but no IBM desktops. Plenty of big companies, including Compaq and Packard Bell, aren't represented at all. Another gripe: Cyberian Outpost doesn't tell you, at the time you order, whether what you're buying is out of stock. It provides email notification within 24 hours. Why not a real-time message so you can find the item at another store?
Other Sites: NetBuyer (www.netbuyer.com), a Web store based on Computer Shopper, the popular print magazine from Ziff-Davis, should be the site of choice for newbies. It's a collection of advice, in-depth product comparisons, and trustworthy recommendations. ComputerESP (www.computeresp.com) is a Web service for comparison-shopping fanatics. It indexes more than 500,000 prices on more than 80,000 products. Enter what you're looking for and let ComputerESP check price tags around the world. You can't buy products off the site, but it links you to the appropriate Web stores.
Shopper's Paradise: ZDNet Software Library (www.hotfiles.com), which debuted in March 1996, is the ultimate one-stop shop for shareware and freeware, the most widely available forms of software on the Web. Think Wal-Mart for code.
What's in Stock: More than 15,000 software titles, games, and utilities, each of which is individually tested, rated, and reviewed. "We spend as much time keeping bad files out as getting good ones in," says Preston Gralla, 45, the ZDNet executive editor who runs the Software Library.
Few of these programs are actually for sale. They're free, at least for a trial period. That's the beauty of shareware. Some of the most popular programs are WinZip, a compression utility for Windows 95/NT (free to try, $29 if you keep it); Hey, Macaroni!, a screensaver that spoofs the way-too-popular Macarena song and dance (free); My Personal Diary, which lets users create an encrypted journal on their PC (free to try, $24.95 if you keep it).
How to Buy: The homepage is an easy-to-navigate set of software categories - Internet, home and education, Macintosh — plus a search engine that lets you browse the site's virtual shelves by company, brand, or functionality.
ZDNet Software Library doesn't have the personality of Cyberian Outpost, but it has something as important — the authority of Ziff-Davis. Click on Reviewers' Picks, for example, and you'll find 150 "five-star" programs selected by real experts.
Our Shopping Cart: Eudora Light V3.0.1 email client (free), Norton AntiVirus 2.0 for Windows 95 (free, but expires 30 days after installation, $70 list price), ACT! 3.0 contact manager (free, but expires 30 days after installation, $199 list price).
The Experience: Shopping for software on the Web isn't much fun. But there's nothing like finding great applications and getting them (or at least trying them) for free. Plus, many programs available on ZDNet aren't available elsewhere. There's simply not enough shelf space at Egghead or CompUSA.
Now the Bad News: Freeware isn't really free. You pay in the most precious currency of all — time. Downloading big files over slow modems can try your patience. It takes 40 minutes to download Eudora Light over a 28.8 Kbps modem. It takes more than 90 minutes to download ACT! 3.0.
The Fine Print: Why doesn't the Software Library answer in advance the one question everyone has: How long will it take to download? ZDNet also falters when it meets the world of commercial software. Downloading freeware such as Eudora Light was a snap. But downloading ACT! 3.0 was a hassle. The Software Library linked us to the Web site of Symantec, the company that makes the application, where we had to complete a long registration form before downloading.
Other Sites: If you can't find what you're looking for on ZDNet Software Library, visit CNET's three major software sites: www. shareware.com, www.download.com, www. buydirect.com. Buydirect.com lets you purchase commercial software, including familiar applications such as Claris Organizer and Sidekick. Jumbo! (www.jumbo.com) is another popular shareware site.
Shopper's Paradise: CDnow (http://www.cdnow.com) is music to any audiophile's ears. The site, founded by 27-year-old twins Jason and Matthew Olim, was launched in 1994. It now gets 1 million visitors per month.
What's in Stock: More than 200,000 CDs, albums, cassettes, videos, and CD-ROMs — from the greatest hits to the rarest cuts. If CDnow doesn't have it, it probably doesn't exist.
How to Buy: An online store with a selection this big is only as good as its search engine. CDnow's mostly works fine. Shoppers can search by artist, album title, song title, or record label. The results can be displayed alphabetically or chronologically, a handy feature for artists with extensive discographies.
Our Shopping Cart: Wallflowers, Bringing Down the Horse (Interscope, 1996, $15.36); Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool (Capitol, 1949, $10.59). Total shipping charges: $2.98.
The Experience: In many ways CDnow is more robust than Amazon.com, the much-celebrated Internet bookstore. It provides artist biographies, album reviews, links to musical roots and influences, and online discussion groups. It's a compelling example of what happens when commerce meets community. It also makes great use of RealAudio, with more than 215,000 sound clips.
The Fine Print: It's easier to search for pop music than for classical. Entering "Beethoven," for example, retrieved an odd collection of audio CDs, CD-ROMs, and videos.
Other Sites: Shop.org! (http://www.shop.org) is a service that links visitors to a variety of cybershops that are just for the weekend athlete and hobbyist: fishing, gardening, golf, wine. Virtual Emporium (www.virtualemporium.com) is a cybermall organized by activity: house and garden, sports and fitness, travel and services.
Gina Imperato (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of Fast Company's editorial staff.
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.