The Whole Internet: The Next GenerationBy Kiersten Conner-Sax & Ed Krol
1st Edition October 1999
1-56592-428-2, Order Number: 4282
558 pages, $24.95
Buying and Selling
Do sane people really buy things over the Internet?
Absolutely. People use the Internet to buy everything from dog bones to books to groceries, and even to shop for homes and cars. More importantly, their credit cards aren't immediately maxed out, their credit rating isn't destroyed, and their bank accounts aren't raided. Why not? Because shopping online hasn't, thus far, proved to be more dangerous than shopping at a mall.
As soon as the World Wide Web soared in popularity and legitimized the Internet for the nontechnical crowd, retailers envisioned the Internet as a marvelous combination of advertising and direct-sales medium. Savvy catalog-retailers focused on the Web to increase existing sales, as L.L. Bean did, offering secure online ordering via their web sites. Others created innovative sales models that took advantage of the Web's accessibility: the creators of Amazon.com realized that a virtual storefront was all they needed. With only a small warehouse, and without an actual bookstore, they could sell books cheaper than the competition.
Amazon competes against other big bookstores, but when you're buying books, you have other options. If you're looking for a Hemingway first edition, for example, it may be easier to find the book for sale by an individual seller--a collector in another state, perhaps, who is selling off his collection and advertising on the Internet.
The Internet has always been a haven for the esoteric and the strange, and that doesn't change when it comes to shopping. Looking for something unusual or one-of-a-kind? Try Usenet newsgroups, web rings, or collector's sites. Newsgroups like misc.forsale function as 24-hour virtual flea markets. Looking all over the world becomes as easy as looking down the street. The Internet also provides a convenient means for selling goods and services for the individual crafter or collector.
The Internet is a useful tool even if you don't complete the transaction online. Before you make that major purchase, you'll probably want to do a little research. Choosing between jobs in different cities? Take a look at housing prices, school reports, pollution rates, tax rates, and more. Thinking about buying a used car? Check out the virtual paper trail a dealer's left with Usenet messages, or write to an auto club for a recommendation.
What if you do want to buy something over the Web--are such transactions safe? Do you want to be transmitting your credit card number, social security number, and address over the Internet? As with most things in life involving money, you'll need to take some basic precautions. Once you do, however, you'll probably be fairly well protected. In fact, using the Internet increases the security of some of your transactions--your tax return won't get lost in the mail, and how well do you know that waiter who just disappeared with your credit card?--and the added convenience can be tremendous.
Just think: you could buy a car without ever having to speak to a car salesman. That's progress.
The Basics of Buying Merchandise Online
Why would you want to shop on the Internet? You'll miss many of the advantages of shopping in person: the social milieu of the mall, the conspicuous consuming, meeting your mother for lunch and hoping that, even though you're well into your mid-20s, she'll still buy you that suede jacket you'll be able to wear maybe two or three days out of every year.
Well, Internet shopping does have some advantages--great advantages, depending on what you're buying. Unique items, such as antiques, handmade crafts, or a mint-condition Libearty Beanie Baby, are more easily located via a search engine than a phone book. Similarly, if you know what you want and don't mind paying shipping charges (keep in mind the gas you'll expend driving to the mall, the value of your time, and the cost of having your bumper repaired after you finally find a parking space and someone cuts you off and you consequently accidentally nick his fender), it's much easier to order specialized items--a book from the bestseller list, say, or a SuperVGA3DxQuadspeedhypno card for your monitor--and have them sent to your home. My uncle swears by the site for Cuban cigars.
In this chapter, we'll describe four paradigms for how people buy and sell things. If you understand the paradigm and know how to find the marketplace you want, you've learned what the chapter has to offer.
There are several different models for buying and selling things:
- The store. Web stores are generally large-scale retail establishments that use a shopping-cart sales model and accept credit cards via a secure server. Examples include Amazon.com, J.Crew, and Microsoft's Expedia travel service.
- The auction. Auctions make person-to-person sales easier and provide a forum for feedback. Examples include Up4Sale and eBay.
- The want ads. The want ad model is fairly straightforward, including classified advertising listings on the Web and postings of items for sale on Usenet. You'll also find classified advertising listings on individual hobbyist's web pages.
- The convention. The convention model is our most abstract: a group of users communicating via newsgroup or mailing list, for example. Just like a real-life convention, our online convention paradigm focuses on communication and research more than straightforward sales.
These are important to different extents, depending on what you're interested in. If you're buying a ticket, you're probably interested in a store, though the convention might help if you want to find out about upcoming events or if the event you want is sold out. If you're buying an item from an individual, such as a Beanie Baby, you're probably interested in an auction, want ad, or a convention. As you can see, the models overlap, and you'll frequently find the item you want in more than one setting. Thus, understanding the differences between them becomes even more important.
The Shopping-Cart Model
Web pages are becoming increasingly more like applications: you use them to do things, buy things, or view things. One of the most popular applications is for shopping, and this application is frequently implemented via what we call the shopping cart model.
When shopping for products in the stores of the World Wide Web, you'll find that most web sites use the metaphor of a shopping cart to guide your selection and payment. To begin shopping, browse the web site for products. If you find one you like, there will usually be a button labeled "Buy," "Purchase," or "Add to Cart." Once you've clicked that button, most sites display a page listing the current contents of your cart. You may then continue shopping (either by clicking a link or clicking the Back button), add or remove items from your cart, or pay for your selections. To do so, click the appropriate link, which in this case is usually labeled "Check Out." At this point, you'll be asked for credit card and shipping information.
Not every web retailer follows this model, but many do. A good web site dedicated to shopping will be well organized, present product and price information clearly, and provide both a good search facility and a secure server.One-click ordering
Another popular web shopping option is commonly referred to as and one-click ordering. This model allows you to enter billing and shipping information only once, after which time the data is stored on your computer as a cookie. When you return to the web site in the future, you won't need to enter the information again.
What Makes Shopping on the Internet a Good Idea?
The Internet is an invaluable tool for the smart shopper, even if you never close a deal via email or transmit a credit card number via a secure link. Why? Because you can research scads of information easily and quickly, and some of that information may not be available in other media. Research the product you're planning to buy by examining consumer literature, product descriptions, and price comparisons. Then, research the seller the same way. You can glean additional information, however, by joining mailing lists on the topic, contacting other users via email, looking at Usenet posts by or about the seller, or consulting informational web pages about the individuals in that community.
The Internet also allows you to contact a broad range of buyers and sellers. You can use it to read and post advertisements to everyone with Internet access around the world. Thus, you can learn about esoteric or hard-to-find items relatively easily, and can also compare a greater range of prices. Instead of only your local newspaper's classifieds, you suddenly have worldwide classifieds.
The Internet's search functions also make it a good shopping tool. While your local paper probably doesn't have a listing of four-bedroom houses in Boston in the $150-$200,000 price range, it's easy to use the Internet to review a list of just those kinds of houses. Moreover, if you're moving across the country, you can use the Internet to do a lot of your research in advance. You'll save yourself a fair amount of aggravation by determining the neighborhood you want to live in by researching schools and crime levels via the Internet instead of by word of mouth or the local paper. That way, you'll be prepared when you arrive in the new town.
Similarly, if you know the exact item you're looking for--the latest New York Times bestseller, say, or a CD that's about to come out--you may prefer to order the item over the Internet rather than visit a store. Such purchases are especially good when you have a long list of similar items (and thus can save on shipping costs).
One nice feature of online specialty stores is the ability to notify you when something you are interested in becomes available. Stores like Amazon.com and CDNOW.com allow you to request email alerts, such as, "Send me an email when any Mrs. Polifax novels are released" or "Send me a weekly update of new folk music recordings."
One-click ordering is another Internet plus. Moreover, if you frequently order from catalogs, you may prefer to enter ordering information via a keyboard than relay it verbally to a telephone operator, who could ask you to spell your name, verify everything three times and still enter the wrong size. While you may have to enter a lot of information the first time you make a purchase (name, address, phone number, credit card number, passwords, etc.), many sites will save this information for you as a cookie, so that you don't have to enter it the next time you order. We'll discuss further whether you actually want to save such information later in this chapter.
What Makes Shopping on the Internet a Bad Idea?
The main problem with shopping over the Internet is that it's virtual. You can't drive the car, squeeze the melons, or look into the seller's eyes. You'll also have to pay a (usually small) surcharge for shipping and handling and wait for the item to arrive. Perhaps more importantly, if you need to return whatever you ordered, you'll have to pay to ship it back.
Another problem, though one that has been vastly exaggerated, is the possibility of fraud or theft. The Internet's low cost of entry and ease of achieving anonymity allows scam artists to proliferate. Spotting such people is simple if you take a few precautions, but the risk is still there.
If you don't like receiving junk mail, electronic or otherwise, buying on the Internet may not be for you. The forms you have to fill out to have merchandise sent contain all the information marketers need to send you reams of unsolicited mail. While many reputable retailers will provide an option to not receive unsolicited information, many do not, and selling lists of names and addresses is a valuable source of revenue to many firms.
Password insecurity is another problem with Internet shopping. Many sites, particularly those that provide one-click ordering, require a password. If you do a lot of shopping online, you can end up with literally dozens of passwords. To be safe, you'll want to have a different, non-English word for each account, and not write that password down anywhere. Short of CIA training, it's unlikely that this is a possibility for you, and you'll probably use two or three passwords, at most, and become a security risk to yourself. While this is a problem with Internet use in general, shopping sites exacerbate it.
The Credit Card Myth
To many people, their greatest fear about shopping directly over the Internet is transmitting a credit card number to a retailer. Thus far, however, using a credit card over the Web has proved no more risky than using it in person or over the telephone. Even though many retailers support secure online ordering, there is a fear that a dedicated hacker will steal credit card numbers, break into bank accounts, set fire to your house, and steal your dog. In fact, people aren't entirely sure of what they're afraid of when it comes to the Internet, as the email I received recently illustrates:
IMPORTANT VIRUS NOTICE If you see a message on the boards with a subject line of "Badtimes," delete it immediately WITHOUT reading it. This is the most dangerous virus yet. It will re-write your hard drive. Not only that, but it will scramble any disks that are even close to your computer (20' range at 72 Fahrenheit). It will recalibrate your refrigerator's coolness setting so all your ice cream melts and milk curdles. It will demagnetize the strips on all your credit cards, reprogram your ATM access code, screw up the tracking on your VCR and use subspace field harmonics to scratch any CDs you try to play. It will give your ex-boy/girlfriend your new phone number. It will program your phone auto-dial to call only your mother's number. It will give you nightmares about circus midgets. It will replace your shampoo with Nair and your Nair with Rogaine, all while dating your current boy/girlfriend behind your back and billing their hotel rendezvous to your Visa card. It will seduce your grandmother. It does not matter if she is dead. Such is the power of "Badtimes" it reaches out beyond the grave to sully those things we hold most dear. It will rewrite your back-up files, changing all your active verbs to passive tense and incorporating undetectable misspellings which grossly change the interpretation of key sentences. "Badtimes" will give you Dutch Elm disease. It will leave the toilet seat up and leave the hairdryer plugged in dangerously close to a full bathtub. It will wantonly remove the forbidden tags from your mattresses and pillows, and refill your skim milk with whole. It is insidious and subtle. It is dangerous and terrifying to behold. It is also a rather interesting shade of mauve. These are just a few signs. Be very, very afraid. PLEASE FORWARD THIS MESSAGE TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW!!!
Could a virus do all these things? No, it couldn't. Similarly, transmitting your credit card number via a secure server that uses encryption is, in my opinion, safer than handing that credit card to a waiter, for example, who disappears with the card and returns a few minutes later. With Internet transmission, the number is encoded and no one ever sees it; in a restaurant, a perhaps surly, underpaid individual has unrestricted access to that number.
More tellingly, there have been very few examples of financial abuse as a result of shopping online.
Is Shopping on AOL Different Than Shopping on the Web?
Shopping on America Online is not safer than shopping on the Web, and doesn't provide better deals.
It seems that every time I log on to AOL, I'm greeted with an invitation to buy something. Recently, I was greeted with two sales solicitations even before that soothing male voice so warmly welcomed me.
About half of the AOL welcome screen is dedicated to shopping and products (see Figure 6-1).
Figure 6-1. Opportunities to purchase ham, picture frames, and more
Even my new mail was clogged with offers (see Figure 6-2).
Figure 6-2. Where else could I find arthritis relief, insurance, and flowers, all in one place?
The point I'm trying to make is that if you use AOL, it's hard not to shop online.
The actual shopping experience is largely similar to shopping on the Web--the same shopping-cart model, the same input of credit card information. I had hoped that since AOL already had all my credit card information, one-click ordering might be an option, but such was not the case. In fact, many of AOL's shopping links are merely links to the merchandiser's site on the World Wide Web. Don't think that you'll make up the cost of AOL subscription fees in special AOL "member's only" deals, either; those I checked out were all identical to deals available to any other consumer.
AOL does offer an "increased" level of security over shopping on the Web. AOL requires a certification process of the merchants they list and vows to "protect you" should credit card fraud occur. The fine print reveals that this protection ranges to that normally afforded by your credit card, plus fifty bucks (see Figure 6-3).
Figure 6-3. Big Brother with exclamation points
The upshot? America Online does have substantial shopper's resources, but it doesn't offer anything you won't be likely to find on the Internet.
Throughout this chapter, I try to cover the safest, most convenient means of exchanging money online. Here are some general tips for safely conducting business on the Internet.
Things to Remember When Trading Online
The wild-west nature of the World Wide Web is appealing to people who seek the thrill of the deal. If you plan to trade online regularly, however, a reputation as a scoundrel will only prove a hindrance. Be sure to learn about the community you're trading within, and remember the following (throughout this chapter, "sellers" refers to individuals selling goods, while "vendors" refers to corporations):
Consumer-information web sites
- Don't be a chump--never give out your credit card number for free merchandise.
- Before buying from individual sellers, try to find out whether there is a "good traders" list on the topic. These lists are generally created by groups of users and may contain detailed information about individuals who buy or sell goods on the Net. Pay attention to warnings about bad sellers.
- Determine the seller's refund and return policies before you place an order.
- If you're interested in trying a new vendor, one that you are not familiar with, ask the vendor for its physical location (address and phone number) so that you can check on its reliability with outside organizations, such as the Better Business Bureau and other consumer agencies.
- If you're buying from a vendor with a web site, pay attention to the site's URL. If it doesn't look legitimate (legitimate J. Crew clothes probably won't be found at http://www.takemymoney.com/~floyd/00000877.htm), don't buy from this vendor. (One hint: be suspicious of any commercial web site with a URL that contains a ~.)
- Print out a copy of your order (including any confirmation numbers), and save it until the merchandise arrives.
- If you're sending an individual a check, print out a copy of the agreement the two of you made and send that along with the payment.
- The same laws apply to online vendors as to real-world vendors. By law, a vendor must ship your order within the time stated in its ads (30 days if no time is stated). The Fair Credit Billing Act protects credit card transactions.
- If you're paranoid about your credit card number, phone the vendor directly, or use an application to encrypt the number with PGP.
- If you really don't feel good about buying directly over the Internet, you may want to check out Trade-direct at http://www.trade-direct.com. This service will act as a broker between you and another party, and allows you to pay by check instead of credit card.
If you'd like to register a complaint about a user or learn more about a merchant on the Web, here are a few good places to start. Cybercop (http://www.cybercops.org) bills itself as "a place for consumers to gripe about their bad experiences, vent their frustrations, or just report suspicious online activity." The site maintains archives of complaints, with a section on consumer "success stories" about people who've resolved consumer disputes. The Internet ScamBusters site (http://www.scambusters.org/index.html ) focuses on email abuse and Internet fraud and explains the reality behind many nefarious Internet offers. The old standbys, the Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.org), National Consumer Complaint Center (http://www.alexanderlaw.com/nccc/cb-intro.html), and the Federal Trade Commission (http://www.ftc.gov), all maintain web sites with pages dedicated to online concerns. Most offer information in a newsletter-style format.
When buying products online, there are a number of paradigmatic activities that are repeated in lots of different contexts. Once you know how to buy a book online, you already know all you need to know to buy a CD online, or a sweater, or a plane ticket.
The different kinds of shopping activities appear to be:
- Buying a "generic" product, such as a book, CD, or item of clothing. You'll usually find these items in online "stores."
- Buying a generic product that requires local delivery, such as groceries or meals. Again, you'll usually find such items in the storefront format.
- Buying a one-of-a-kind product or collector's item. These items are more likely to be found via conventions, auctions, or want ads.
- General "fan" activity, which is often mixed with buying and selling fan paraphernalia, such as concert tickets or bootlegged recordings. This is more suited to a convention.
In the following sections, we'll discuss how to find and secure books, music, tickets, new and used cars, houses, apartments, computer equipment, groceries, and meals online. We'll also discuss the intricacies of buying from individual sellers.
Books, Music, and the Amazonian Revolution
In 1994, a young investment banker name Jeff Bezos quit his Wall Street job to open a bookstore. The bookstore was Amazon.com, and it changed the way people bought books.
Bezos wasn't necessarily a bibliophile--after noticing the manic growth of the Web, he chose books from a list of twenty products he thought could be sold successfully online. Why books? For one thing, because there are a lot of titles out there for consumers to choose from. Bezos' philosophy ("Our goal is that if it's in print, it's in stock"), appealed to consumers who could search for specific books they might not find at the local bookstore. With a database of more than two and a half million books both in and out of print, Amazon presented a wide range of choices.
The 10 to 40 percent discounts appealed to consumers, as well. Amazon sells its books more cheaply than other retailers, since it doesn't have a storefront and maintains very little inventory. Once customers have ordered their books (or, now, music, toys, and other products) via a secure server on the Web, Amazon then requests the purchase directly from a publisher or distributor. Amazon's other advantage lies in its marketing. Customers can search for books, for example, by keyword, author, title, or subject. Amazon can then recommend other books customers might be interested in, track their preferences, and send them email when a book they've been looking for arrives. The site also provides links to reviews in popular publications and allows readers to review books online.
So what? Well, Bezos and Amazon created the classic web store, and people who've never used the Internet before are now flocking to the site. Booksellers Barnes & Noble and Borders have both followed suit and opened up web sites hawking books at deep discounts. For the first time, a large number of people feel confident buying nongeeky consumer products on the Web. Amazon isn't the only--or even the best--place to buy books or music online, but it has changed the way people think about the Web.
Buying books online has certain advantages over buying them at a bookstore. If you're researching a specific or esoteric topic, such as a travel destination, wedding vows, or John Quincy Adams, the Web is a great place to get recommendations for titles. Once you've found the books you're looking for, even the local superstore may not have all of the titles you want. Moreover, books are fairly safe to buy online: books don't really vary in production quality, since the bindings shouldn't be cracked, the pages shouldn't fall out, and the text really shouldn't vary from copy to copy. Finally, many web sites offer discounts over local bookstores.
There are a few disadvantages, as well. For all the recommendations you get online, you can't pick up the book and browse through it, looking over the table of contents or scanning the index. Additionally, you'll have to pay shipping charges and wait a few days for the books to arrive.
One of the Web's best book-related features is the research you can do on the books beforehand. You can solicit recommendations from:
- Newsgroups, on a specific topic
- Special-interest web sites
- Literary magazines and newspapers
- Bookseller's web sites
You'll find plenty of recommendations, particularly from the booksellers, who frequently provide comment pages for readers.
When shopping for books online, keep in mind that while Amazon is the most famous, it isn't the only site that sells books. Both Borders (http://borders.com) and Barnes & Noble (http://www.bn.com) have web sites that sell books at a discount. Acses (http://www.acses.com) searches for books at over 25 online bookstores, including Amazon, and returns results in order of price, including shipping. Publishers' web sites are another option. Most provide information about their books and authors, and many allow you to order their books directly. You're unlikely to find discounts at these sites, however, since such a practice would (understandably) annoy retail booksellers.Book purchasing walkthrough
When might you use the Web to purchase a book? Perhaps you have a specific task to research. You're getting married and don't know what kind of ceremony to have. Where to start?
First, take a look on the Web. The newsgroup soc.couples.wedding seems like a good place to start. The FAQ post has a section that's just what we need, as shown in Figure 6-4.
Figure 6-4. Finding books about sincerity
At this point, you may want to post to the newsgroup to find out what other people think of these titles. What kind of people have used them? Do they seem to have tastes similar to yours? Similarly, you may want to look the titles up at Amazon.com and see whether other book buyers have had positive or negative things to say about each book. For example, take a look at Amazon's entry on wedding vows, by Peg Kehret, which appears in Figure 6-5. Unfortunately, there's only one customer review. However, between the publisher's synopsis and the comments from "A reader from united states," we now have a much better idea of what the book is about.
Figure 6-5. Additional information about a book on wedding vows
For the sake of argument, let's assume that we want to buy all six books listed in the FAQ. Let's take a look at Acses, a book "supersite" that searches through a list of online bookstores for the best prices. When we visit the home page, we click on the ISBN Search link, to search for the lowest prices on multiple titles, as in Figure 6-6.
Figure 6-6. Using Acses to find books for cheap
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and that number is the social security number of the publishing world. Keep in mind that different editions have different ISBNs, as do paperback and hardback editions. Since we only have the ISBN number for one title, I Do, we'll have to search for the rest. To do so, follow Acses' instructions and perform a standard search by author, title, or keyword. You can search for each individual title or enter a keyword, like "wedding vows," and see whether the titles you want turn up in the resulting list. If a title has two ISBNs, try the most recent publication first. If the book's not out yet, however, and the older title is still in stock, you may be better off going with that.
It's easiest to open up a second browser window to perform this research. That way, when you find the ISBN number, you can copy and paste it into the Advanced Search window.
Once you've found all the ISBN numbers, choose your location and preferred currency from the drop-down menus, and click the Search button.
The Acses results page (Figure 6-7) shows us how much the books will cost from different vendors and how its research progressed. Click the Total Price link, in the left-hand column, to order the books from the appropriate shop.
Figure 6-7. The Acses results page
Acses does have a few flaws, however: clicking the link to alphaCraze.com doesn't transmit the entire order. You'll have to click on each and add it to your virtual shopping cart.Paying for the books
If this is the first time you've bought books online, things bog down at this point. As mentioned earlier, you have to click on each title to add it to your order, a process that quickly becomes painful on a slow connection. Once you're ready to check out, you'll need to enter a wealth of information: billing address, home and daytime phone numbers, shipping address, email address, and credit card number. You'll also need to choose a shipping method and specify any special instructions.
Once that's done, however, many sites support one-click ordering, so that shopping at them becomes a much more streamlined experience (see Figure 6-8).
Figure 6-8. One-click experience
If you click Amazon's Buy 1 Now button, you won't even have to confirm the order. All your shipping and billing information is saved as a cookie on your hard drive, and the book is sent to your default shipping address.
The Web is changing the way music is sold. As with books, music is well suited to the online store paradigm: there is a wide selection of products to choose from, and, when purchasing music on compact disc, the quality is uniform. Even better, you can try before you buy, by listening to audio selections from the music online. SonicNet (http://www.sonicnet.com) offers a wide selection of clips. The new Liquid Audio technology even allows you to buy music by downloading it. And, increasingly, web sites allow you to create your own compilations of music for cassette tape or CD.
Buying albums over the Web is very similar to buying books, with one important exception. While you can't pick a book up and leaf through it, you can perform the virtual equivalent on an album. Many music sellers, including Amazon, CD World, CD Now, Tower Records, and others, provide links to audio files containing clips from the album in question. These files are usually in RealAudio format, though you'll sometimes find WAV or AU files as well. You're likely to find audio clips at web sites for individual record labels. Individual web pages or newsgroups are another option. You may find more sound clips here, though they probably won't be in RealAudio format and may be posted illegally.Finding music on the Web
Where to find music on the Web? If you're looking to buy, try Amazon.com, Tower Records, CD Universe, or CDNOW. If you'd like to find information or fan pages about a band, try the All-Music Guide (http://www.allmusic.com) or the Ultimate Band List (http://www.ubl.com); you might also search a Usenet archive site to learn about music newsgroups. Band labels are also online, and these present one of the more interesting phenomena in buying music online.
Some independent labels have shifted their distribution almost entirely to the Internet, allowing customers to place orders for albums via the Web, and, eventually, to download albums in the same manner. Distributing records over the Internet has the same advantages as distributing books: low overhead. For a small record label, low overhead can translate into a profit margin. If you're interested in finding such labels, take a look at the Partial Guide at http://www3.sympatico.ca/partialguide/indie.html.Compiling your own CD
Many web sites are springing up to create the CDs for you. Sites such as CustomDisc.com and SuperSonic Boom (see the Resource Catalog for a more comprehensive list) allow you to pick and choose music tracks for inclusion on a CD that they'll then send you, for a price (see Figure 6-9). Although it's improving rapidly, the selection of music at these sites isn't comprehensive enough to make them really worthwhile, probably due to copyright restrictions. Even such seemingly public-domain friendly genres as folk and Christmas songs lacked selection breadth. I was excited to find Ella Fitzgerald listed as an artist at one site, only to see such song selections as, "I Want the Waiter with the Water" (lyrics: "I want the waiter with the water for my daughter"). Additionally, most were slow and lacked adequate search features.
Figure 6-9. Creating a CD of Christmas songs
Another, better option is to compile songs on your computer and transfer them to compact disc or MP3 player. Unfortunately, you'll need access to a writable CD-ROM drive. A burgeoning number of sites, including Billboard and Music Boulevard, support the Liquid Audio format. This technology provides CD quality audio more quickly and reliably than RealAudio, and is designed to allow you to download singles (usually at a cost of a dollar or two) to your computer; from there, you may do with them as you wish: use your computer as a stereo or burn the songs to a writable CD. To learn more about Liquid Audio, take a look at its web site: http://www.liquidaudio.com. You may also want to check out the MP3 format. To learn more about MP3, see Chapter 10.Musical trading
What if you want to find music that money can't buy? Finding music on the Internet also leads you into our convention paradigm. The Web is a great means of finding the bootleg cassette and videotapes that fans make at concerts. To do so, take a look at newsgroups, web pages, and mailing lists related to the group you're interested in. You're likely to find listings of people interested in trading or copying such tapes. For example, clicking the Bootlegs link at a Barenaked Ladies fan site eventually took us to the page in Figure 6-10.
Figure 6-10. Obtaining copies of Barenaked Ladies bootlegs
By clicking the links to the shows that were taped, you can obtain additional information about the recording and how to get it. The best way to reach someone is usually via email; the person making the request generally sends an audio tape for the show to be copied on or trades a bootleg tape of her own. Be sure to follow any rules listed, and be polite.
Such web sites are usually a good source of information about bands or musicians, especially for concert schedules--you'll often find information there well in advance of professional sites, such as TicketMaster.
Selling tickets is another burgeoning commercial enterprise occurring via our online store model. You can find tickets for everything from movies to concerts to sporting events, not to mention airline tickets that are often substantially discounted. Most of these tickets can be found at commercial sites--a concert hall or theater's web site, for example--but you can frequently find substantially discounted tickets to upcoming events at the various for-sale newsgroups.Event tickets
One web site, MovieLink (http://www.movielink.com), uses an innovative ticket purchasing model. When you visit the site, you can view trailers of the movie, read descriptions, and visit links to the official movie site or to gossip pages about the stars. If you choose to buy tickets, you enter your credit card information via a secure server. Then, when you reach the theater, you insert your credit card in a machine in the lobby, which spits out your tickets. You'll pay a small premium (usually a dollar or so per ticket) for the convenience.
Additionally, you can buy tickets to just about any event from TicketMaster (http://www.ticketmaster.com; see Figure 6-11) or a ticket broker over the Web. Buying tickets this way actually offers distinct advantages over ordering tickets over the phone, since the web site presents all your options, including seating plans (Figure 6-12), in an easy-to-read format.
Figure 6-11. Online ticket ordering with TicketMaster
Figure 6-12. Madison Square Garden seating plan
Ticket brokers are another option for buying tickets online. These businesses, which are illegal in some areas, resell tickets for higher than face value, and often have tickets to events that are otherwise sold out. There are too many regional ticket brokers to cover here; search for one in your area that seems reputable.Airline tickets
If you're looking for airline tickets, the Internet is a bargain-hunting haven. American Airlines (http://www.americanair.com) and US Airways (http://www.usairways.com) both offer web site sections and mailing lists that allow users to receive news of discounted tickets a week or so before the departure date. Additionally, airline web sites frequently describe other special offers, such as bonus frequent flyer promotions and credit card offers.
Microsoft's travel web site, Expedia (http://expedia.msn.com), is usually a convenient source for good deals. Clicking the Travel Agent link is the first step in finding low-cost airline tickets. The site also offers hotel and car rental reservations. Enter your itinerary information via Microsoft's secure server, wait a few minutes, and Expedia searches its database. Select a flight from the returned listing, enter your credit card number, and make the purchase. You may then use either a standard, paper ticket or an electronic, paperless ticket. Standard tickets are sent through the mail and should arrive within five days. I've used both methods without problem. In fact, I once had to give a travel agent a confirmation number before she could find a bargain flight turned up by Expedia.
The Priceline web site was recently granted a patent for its manner of doing business--a Web first. As ubiquitously advertised by William Shatner, the site uses a "reverse auction" format to sell airline tickets and other high-priced goods. Potential passengers name the amount they're willing to pay, and the airlines decide whether they're willing to sell a ticket for that amount. To use the site, you'll need to input more than the usual amount of information (I had to input nine separate pages worth), since Priceline checks on fares from various airports at various times. Once you've submitted your request (including your credit card number), Priceline gets back to you within the hour about a fare.
Increasingly, you can use the Web to order groceries or dinner and have either one delivered to your door. The general model seems to be that of the store that delivers: the web site contracts with local vendors, who receive the order and deliver the goods. So don't worry--that cucumber came from your local grocery, not a central processing center in Cleveland.
The idea of buying groceries online may seem a little strange at first. Shopping for food, particularly produce, is a very tactile experience. You're taking a risk when you grocery shop online; however, you're also avoiding crowded aisles, waiting in line, and the sound of screaming children.
The national online grocery services, Peapod (http://www.peapod.com) and Net Grocer (http://www.netgrocer.com), each contract with a local supermarket. After you transmit your order, the local market delivers your food either the same day or the next day. Temperature-controlled containers keep frozen foods frozen. Peapod promises that produce specialists hand-pick fresh produce according to Produce Marketing Association standards.
What are the advantages to buying groceries online? If you need a lot of staples, such as canned food or dry goods, there's really nothing to lose. You'll automatically receive the market's preferred customer savings, and you can submit coupons as you normally would. Peapod saves your last three grocery orders, so that you don't have to make another grocery list from scratch. Delivery is free for orders over $60. So go ahead, look up recipes on the Web, make a shopping list, buy the groceries online, and have them arrive after you get home from work.
Peapod's software, which I used to conduct this research, made the task simple (though the Java-based programming also made it somewhat slow). It's thorough, however, and for most products, you can even read the nutritional information on the labels.
Once you've filled your shopping cart, click the Check Out button (see Figure 6-13). You'll have to enter your delivery and credit card information the first time you shop with Peapod. If you need to stop shopping and resume later, Peapod saves your order for future reference.
Figure 6-13. Grocery shopping via Peapod
If you'd like to avoid the pesky human interaction that comes with ordering food over the phone, you can do so over the Web. While I only found two nationwide delivery services available at the time of this writing, Cybermeals (http://www.cybermeals.com) and Cyberchefs (http://www.cyberchefs.com), take a look at http://www.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/Companies/Restaurants/Delivery_Services/ to see whether others have become available. Unsurprisingly, more than a few service Silicon Valley. The nationwide services contract with local restaurants to deliver meals.
Ordering is easy. Input your address and state whether you'd prefer take out or delivery, and Cybermeals provides a listing of restaurants that service your area, including the restaurant's hours and whether they are open. Clicking on a restaurant's link takes you to a detailed menu that allows you to choose details down to the last anchovy.
Cyberchefs, in Figure 6-14, works in the same manner.
Figure 6-14. Mmm, pizza from Cyberchefs
Name a delivery time and complete the transaction as you would any other online purchase.
While I doubt that this will come as a surprise, the Internet is a great place to buy computer equipment. Moreover, computer equipment may be bought in forums spanning three of our paradigms: stores, auctions, and want ads. New and used hardware, software, and peripherals are easy to find. In fact, a number of software retailers have shut down their storefronts and now operate solely via catalogs and web sites. The great advantage to shopping for computer equipment online is the ability to compare prices easily.
Before you buy, be sure to research your product first. Many products have confusing names and configuration options, and returns can be a hassle when shipping is involved. You'll also want to shop around for the best price.
Such prices do range wildly. The digital camera market, which is admittedly volatile, sees prices for the same camera range by three to four hundred dollars. Obviously, calling multiple electronic/computer stores would be a hassle, but typing a query into the PriceWatch (http://www.pricewatch.com) search engine takes only seconds.
See the Resource Catalog for a listing of computing equipment retailers on the Web. The Insight web site (http://www.insight.com) deserves special mention. This site provides a plug-in that will test your computer specifications and make recommendations as to whether software and peripherals will work adequately on your system.
Many retailers, including Dell, Gateway, and PC's for Everyone, sell entire desktop and notebook computers online. They allow you to configure a computer exactly as you see fit, including any cards or peripherals you desire. Since looking at a floor model computer in a show room can't tell you much more than reading a computer's specifications online, you have very little to lose in shopping this way.
How might you go about buying a new computer? First, do some research. c|net's Computers.com (http://www.computers.com) presents reviews of hardware in categories including desktop configurations, monitors, scanners, storage, notebooks, modems, cameras, memory, servers, printers, hand-helds, and graphics and sound. Let's say we wanted to find a very thin notebook computer, so we click the Notebook link, as in Figure 6-15.
Figure 6-15. Computers.com's notebooks page
The page is broken down nicely for our needs. There's a link to Ultralight notebooks and various feature articles. After doing some research here, and at a few other web sites that review computers, we decide to go with the Hitachi VisionBook Traveler.
The next step is to find a good price for the VisionBook. At the top of c|net's review is a link labeled Latest Prices. Clicking the link returns a list of prices, the lowest being $1,446.28 from a vendor called Hardware Street. Just to be safe, let's try another price comparison. The PriceWatch site has a low price of $1623, so it seems like a good idea to go with the Hardware Street price.
Or is it? How much do we know about Hardware Street? According to Computers.com, we know that they offer an extended warranty and a return policy for 30 days. We can take a look at the Hardware Street web site; their home page confirms the 30-day return policy and adds that when you place an order, they plant a tree. That's all well and good. Do a little research of your own, as we've discussed previously: a search on Infoseek for information about the company turned up a web site called ResellerRatings.com (http://www.sysopt.com/vendsurv.html ) that had a section on buyer comments, shown in Figure 6-16, that was somewhat mixed.
Figure 6-16. User comments
A search at Deja.com revealed the interesting story that appears in Figure 6-17. A few other messages confirm the fact that buying via Shopper.com is cheaper than buying directly from Hardware Street. All in all, Hardware Street looks like an okay place to buy from, so let's go to Shopper.com and go ahead. (In case you haven't noticed, we're now back in a store.) When we click the Buy Info button, we see a listing of the specifications of the VisionBook.
Figure 6-17. Cheaper prices
Be sure to confirm that this is the model you're looking for. Click the Add to Cart button, and you'll follow the standard shopping-cart purchasing model to buy your new computer.
And what about used hardware? Computer equipment, which usually doesn't have moving parts to wear out, is actively sold by individuals in both the auction and want-ad format. CPUs may become out of date quickly, but they also seem to work forever; disk drives and monitors will eventually fail, but may take five to six years to do so. Take a look at web-based classified ads, Internet auctions, and for-sale newsgroups if you're interested in buying such equipment. Similarly, many of the online auction sites do a big business in peripherals. See the section "Buying from Individuals," later in this chapter, for tips on this kind of transaction.
Software is another excellent online buy, again, because it's a standardized product. Some manufacturers even allow you to download the software directly, allowing for near-instant gratification (depending on your modem speed). Purchase the software with a credit card, and they'll mail you the manuals or send them as Adobe Acrobat files. Take a look at Beyond.com (http://www.beyond.com) for a list of downloadable software.
Of course, many people download software without paying for it--in the form of shareware. There are a number of excellent shareware archives on the Web (see the Resource Catalog for a complete list), and there's very little risk to buying software in this manner (so long as you can have an up-to-date virus checker installed). Once you've found a software package you'd like to try, follow the instructions to download and install the files to your computer. If you'd like to keep the software, remit payment to the makers. This may take the form of a secure credit card transaction or a check to a snail-mail address. Some software developers take payment in beer, but that seems unwieldy for most transactions.
Big Ticket Items
Some purchases are just too big and can't be delivered to your door. However, you can use the Internet to research everything about your prospective car or house. Additionally, you can apply for financing online and use that knowledge to weigh your options. Think of the Web as a tool for facilitating such purchases.
The idea of buying a car over the Internet may seem quite strange. A car is something you need to be quite careful about buying and to perform a thorough physical inspection on. However, the Internet is a wonderful place to start: you probably have a very specific idea of what you want, and it may be difficult to find within your local area. Moreover, since prices are negotiable, it's probably better to broaden your search.
Of course, even with all the bells and whistles that car makers are currently adding to their WWW sites, you still can't test drive a car over the Web.
The first step is to decide on the car you want. Do research on the Web and via actual tactile experiences. Then use Internet dealer or locator services to find that car at the best price. You can even use services like CarFinance.com to set up an auto loan ahead of time. While many web sites are devoted to locating specific cars for consumers, you can also look at auto enthusiasts' web pages, which frequently have classified or bulletin board listings of cars for sale, or for-sale newsgroups in your area.
Here's a real-life example. Last year, my fiancé and I realized we needed a car, since the lease on our reliable, yet microscopically small, Honda Civic was about to run out. We decided that a used Audi 4000 was the way to go, based on our desire for all-wheel drive coupled with abject poverty. After looking at ne.forsale and an Audi club web site, we found a 1985 Audi 4000S Quattro for sale from a guy in New Hampshire. My uncle, my friend who lives in Idaho, and my fiancé's mother all told us not to buy it. We drove to New Hampshire for a test drive. It was manufactured while I was still in high school, had 98,000 miles on the odometer (which we learned later was stuck), and the rear doors didn't open from the inside.
"We'll take it!" we told the guy from New Hampshire. After all, it had a sunroof.
Since the odds are high that you're a somewhat more rational person, let's take a look at how you might go about using the Internet to buy a car.Researching a car purchase
First, decide on the car you want. The informational conventions about automobiles on the Internet are legion. To get started, you might visit a few auto maker web sites. Or, if you have a few different models in mind, you might want to compare them. Microsoft's CarPoint (http://carpoint.msn.com) is a good place to begin. Click on the Prices & Reviews link to get started (see Figure 6-18).
Figure 6-18. Microsoft's CarPoint reviews
The resources you'll find here make it easy to compare the value of various cars on a point-by-point basis. Let's say we're interested in the Volkswagen Beetle, and select it from the new car reviews section. Clicking the Compare link takes us to a page that compares the Beetle with other cars in the same price range, as shown in Figure 6-19.
Figure 6-19. Comparing car prices
At $16,000 or more, the Beetle seems pretty pricey. What makes it so special? Visiting The Bubble Car (http://spyder.tcn.net/beetle/ ) links to a movie of a Beetle in a head-on crash (the dummy bounced right off the airbag) and describes an article from CNN that "everybody" should read. Since the article states that the new Beetle involved "a massive data-center migration to client/server Unix systems, Oracle Corp. databases and SAP AG software" for Volkswagen factories, the car starts to seem like a better buy. If we wanted more information, however, we could take a look at Car Talk's test-drive notebook (http://cartalk.cars.com/Info/Testdrive/ ) or the newsgroup rec.autos.makers.vw.
We decide we want the Beetle despite its exorbitant price. Since we're taking the leather seats, we'll need financing, and try CarPoint's Financing link. Turns out, however, that CarPoint provides only advice, not actual money, so click the Back button a few times to get back to the Automotive channel.
Look at Infoseek's web sites listing and click the Finance your car link. From there, it's easy to reach CarFinance.com and apply for a loan online (see Figure 6-20). Before doing so, however, be sure to check the Bank Rate Monitor at http://www.bankrate.com/brm/rate/auto_home.asp, to make sure you're getting a good deal. This site compares the interest rates for auto loans at banks in individual states.
Figure 6-20. Applying for a car loan online
Now that we've got the financing, all we need to do is find the actual car. Again, from Infoseek's Automotive channel, enter Volkswagen and your Zip Code under the "Buy a car online" heading. (Yes, we're heading back to an auto store.) You're taken directly to Auto-By-Tel's FasTrak page, where you select the make of Volkswagen you wish to buy, and its condition (new or used). Choose how soon you plan to buy the car, and click Continue. Fill in a form with the features and colors you want in the car, along with your name, address, and phone number. Auto-By-Tel promises you'll be contacted by a dealer within 24 hours "with a low, no-hassle, no-haggle, up-front price quote." Since there are no obligations or fees for filling out the form, there's very little risk to the consumer. You'll then visit the dealership that returns the quote and purchase the car.
There are other web-based options. Do you want an unusual or complex combination of options? Do you hate haggling? If so, Auto-By-Tel is probably a good choice. You may want to compare the price online with one you can get at a dealer. At the very least, you can get a quote online, take it to a dealer, and ask him to match it. Use the Web as a tool to make the right choice, not just as a conduit to a purchase.
After all, Auto-By-Tel isn't the only way to go, and their dealers may not have the car you're looking for, particularly if you want an older, used model.Used cars
What if we decide the new Beetle really is too much? Maybe we should look for a used Beetle.
The Web is a fantastic place to research used cars. Informational resources like the Kelley Blue Book (http://www.kbb.com ) and Edmund's Automobile Buyer's Guide (http://www.edmunds.com) make it easy to find used cars online. Once you've settled on a model, check out fan pages and/or newsgroups for classified listings. If you decide to buy from an individual seller, be sure to check that person out, using the methods we discuss later.
The web sites listed in Resource Catalog provide model searches, financing, or both.Car rentals
Is buying too much of a commitment? You can also rent a car via the Internet, again according to the store paradigm. Hertz, Avis, and other car rental agencies both provide online reservations and discounts, while Microsoft's Expedia, mentioned earlier, includes car rental reservations in its Travel Agent wizard. Once you've logged into Expedia, click the Car Wizard link and start filling in your pertinent information (see Figure 6-21).
Figure 6-21. Reserving a car via Expedia
Expedia searches its database and returns a list of rental cars at the airport of your choice. Click the link next to the car of your choice, and Expedia provides more details about that car (location of the rental agency, hours of operation, etc.); the following page allows you to request further specifications, including bicycle rack, mobile phone, ski rack, or car seat. You'll also be able to enter any frequent traveler plan numbers if you wish. Finally, enter your credit card information, and the car will be waiting for you at the airport.
Take a look at the sites in Chapter 15 for a more complete listing of rental car services on the World Wide Web.
Finding a Home
Finding a home is a complex process, and the Web can be a good place to start. Most people have some basic criteria: price range, number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, specific amenities, distance from in-laws, etc. Various house and apartment search facilities can narrow down listings according to these needs. Some also help you look for current mortgage rates, calculate your monthly payments, and assess your credit rating.Researching a neighborhood
First, follow the convention paradigm and use the Web as a tool to figure out where you want to live. If you're really unclear about where you're going, look at Money magazine's online Best Places Finder (http://pathfinder.com/money/bestplaces/ ). You can plug in answers to 63 questions, and the engine will return the best place for you to live. The International Salary Calculator (http://www2.homefair.com/calc/salcalc.html ) helps you compare the cost of living in hundreds of cities, while the Moving Cost Calculator (http://homefair.com/late96/movecalc/movecalcin.html ) will help you estimate the cost of moving between U.S. cities.
Most people, however, will already know which city they're moving to; they'll need to choose a neighborhood. Many local publications publish a guide similar to Money's. Check the web sites for local newspapers and magazines, or post a few questions to local newsgroups. You might also try a search on the name of a particular town. Looking up "San Anselmo" led me to the page in Figure 6-22.
Figure 6-22. Learning about San Anselmo, California
Scrolling down this page takes us to a link to a site about Marin County, where San Anselmo is located. From there, we can learn about the county's various communities, schools, and services.
Such locally-created sites are often largely promotional, however. You'll want to check web sites of watchdog groups or newspapers for statistics on crime, taxes, education, and pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency sponsors a web site (http://www.epa.gov) that has a convenient Zip Code search. Enter a Zip Code, and find out about concerns in that area: pollution, hazardous waste sites and other regulatory information, environmental conditions and trends in that county and its watershed, and computer-generated maps of regulated sites.Finding and buying a home
Once you've chosen a neighborhood, switch to the want-ads paradigm and start looking for actual houses. There is a wealth of real estate agencies and newspaper listings available on the Web; most search engines and start pages support a real estate channel that should start you off. Many of the sites feature pictures of the properties, and they're a good source for a ballpark sense of housing prices. Of course, the most current listings for homes and apartments will probably still be in your local Sunday newspaper.
Once you've found a property that looks promising, use one of the map tools on the Web (see Chapter 12) to get directions to it and a sense of a neighborhood. You may also want to look at public transportation routes and schedules nearby. If you have a portable or handheld computer with a mobile phone link, you might be able to save yourself hours otherwise spent lost, looking in the wrong neighborhood.
Another smart use of the Web is to compare mortgage rates, and perhaps even to apply online. Most of the real estate channels will have a section on finding and applying for a mortgage. Most mortgage sites switch back to the store paradigm. HomePath, from Fannie Mae (http://www.homepath.com), has good sections for people who know very little about buying a house, with calculators to help you compare renting with owning, to see how much house you can afford, to learn how to shop for a lender, to see what it means to close on a loan, and to get information on when to refinance. You'll also find a glossary of mortgage and finance terms. Once you feel comfortable in the mortgage world, take a look at the Mortgage Mart (http://www.mortgagemart.com), Infoseek's Homeshark Rate Shopper (http://rateshop.homeshark.com/scripts/crateshop.dll?center=infoseek), or Microsurf's Mortgage Quotes (http://www.mortgagequotes.com) to compare rates and monthly payments. Many sites allow you to begin the qualification process online or over the phone. For more information on mortgages and how they may be linked with other accounts, see Chapter 7.
Obviously, you can buy just about anything you want over the Internet. Most catalog retailers have web sites (i.e., J. Crew and L.L. Bean), and even some department stores are joining the online fray. Check the Resource Catalog for shopping sites that display some distinguishing feature: they provide links to the best or most popular shopping sites, have added security features, provide otherwise difficult to obtain merchandise, or are simply well organized and easy to search.
Certain sites provide specialized services. Wedding registries put the store paradigm to good use, since people shopping for wedding gifts don't need to examine the items in question and are merely choosing but just want to choose from a list. Such registries are additionally convenient when they can be accessed via the Web. And auctions, which we've mentioned throughout the chapter, are an important means of bringing buyer and seller together online.
While you might think that registering for a wedding would be fun--you are, after all, shopping with other people's money--most couples seem to come to blows over how many towels they need. Many wedding sites promise online registries, which, one would think, would at least allow the arguments to occur in the privacy of your own home. View pictures and descriptions online, fill out a form, hit Submit, and be done with the selections. Even better, wedding guests could order the merchandise online from anywhere they might be.
Unfortunately, only a few retailers offer such complete services. TheGift.com (http://www.thegift.com) does a remarkably good job with an easy-to-navigate layout and a number of retailers. It's easy for guests to find a registry and order online. Couples or customers may also register or order via phone, fax, or mail. The Wedding Network (http://www.weddingnetwork.com ) provides a similar service but is very difficult to navigate and requires a complex registration process. Other major national retailers, including Macy's (http://www.macysbridal.com), J.C. Penny's (http://www.jcpenney.com/giftreg/index.htm), and Service Merchandise (http://www.servicemerchandise.com), allow guests to shop your registry online once you've registered by phone or in person. Crate & Barrel, the Mecca for the about-to-be-wed, promises an online registry in the near future.
Online auction sites let sellers put all sorts of small items up for sale. Don't expect a virtual Sotheby's full of priceless paintings; most auction sites provide a far broader range of items. You'll find everything from software packages to comic books to jewelry.
Why do people shop the online auctions? First, you'll find a broad range of collectibles and antiques for sale at such sites. Prices are frequently somewhat lower than you might otherwise pay, though you'll want to be careful not to get caught up in a bidding war. Finally, buyers can learn a little bit about the people selling products at the auction sites. The site archives information about the people who sell their products there, and you can click a link to a seller's feedback page to see how many items they've sold, and what previous buyers have had to say about the transactions.
To bid on items at most sites, you'll need to register and choose a username. The site then sends you a password you can use to bid on items. The site sends you mail to confirm your bid, and also emails you if that bid has been topped by another user. If you win an auction, both you and the seller receive each other's name and email address. At that point, it's up to you to complete the transaction from that point. Keep in mind that sellers can place feedback about buyers as well, so don't renege on an auction you've won. See Chapter 15 for a list of auction sites on the Web.
Buying from Individuals
One of the best things about the Internet is the way it connects individuals. This principle holds equally true when it comes to making purchases. If you're looking for the kind of merchandise that could formerly only be found at a swap meet, yard sale, or flea market, the Internet is an invaluable resource. This is where the convention paradigm really comes into play: you'll want to learn a lot about both the item you're buying and the person from whom you're buying it. Baseball cards, Beanie Babies, handmade crafts, and all sorts of collectibles can be found in abundance in cyberspace. We'll use Beanie Babies throughout the following examples, since they're a particularly hot item being traded on the Internet right now (see Figure 6-23). The paradigm holds true for any collectible or small item being sold on a person-to-person basis.
Figure 6-23. Listings of Beanie Babies for sale at the Ty, Inc. web site
Why might you want to buy from a person rather than from a reputable institution? After all, it's much easier for some guy to rip you off and skip virtual town than for, say, J. Peterman. There are, however, several reasons why you might. First, it's easier to find esoteric items for sale from an individual seller. The shop on the corner may not stock Hopi jewelry or Garcia the Retired Beanie Baby, but you can almost certainly find sellers online. Second, individual sellers are likely to have better prices than baseball card shops or antiques dealers. Finally, some individuals--mostly collectors--may be interested in trading goods, so that you could get what you want without any money changing hands (see Figure 6-24).
Figure 6-24. Initiating a Beanie Baby trade
Finding people selling what you're looking for is easier than you might think. Check out the want ad style forums we've discussed.
Usenet is a good place to start. Try newsgroups dedicated to the product you're interested in--say, rec.collecting.sport.baseball--or *.forsale newsgroups. Web pages are another good source. Free classified advertising sites (see the Resource Catalog for a complete list) are filled to brimming with wares for sale. Manufacturer's web pages sometimes have guestbooks where sellers or traders gather to communicate. Similarly, the web page for a club may have a guestbook related to products for sale; automotive clubs, for example, frequently have a section listing cars and parts for sale. Web rings on a certain topic are frequently a good place to find hobbyists selling their wares. Finally, online auctions (again, see the Resource Catalog) provide nicely organized listings, and a seller feedback system allows buyers to know a little bit more about who they're buying from.Researching sellers
Even if you aren't using an intermediary, like an auction web site, it is possible to learn something about the background and business practices of a seemingly anonymous seller on the Internet. If you found this person at an auction site, check their feedback page. Are the comments generally good? Even if you didn't find this person through such a structured forum, there may be feedback about them on the Net. Ask for online references via email. References may be provided in the form of a listing at a Good Traders sight, an auction feedback page, or email addresses of people with whom they've traded.
When the seller gives you a reference, don't assume they must be honest because they provided it. Follow up with a brief, polite inquiry to that address, as in Figure 6-25.
Figure 6-25. Checking a reference
If the person at that address doesn't reply, doesn't have a working mailbox, or doesn't have anything good to say, you might not want to go through with the transaction. Or, you may want to suggest performing the trade in a safer manner: if you were trading two Beanie Babies, for example, you might ask someone with poor references to send her item first; you'll send yours upon its arrival.
A sneakier method of checking up on someone is to search for the seller's name or email address at Deja.com. You may then view comments other people have made about them or posts they've made themselves.
You could also check to see whether the person has a feedback rating at one of the Internet auction sites, such as eBay or Up4Sale. Many traders also sell their wares. Check for a rating by searching for an email address, as described at the site.
Many interest groups maintain web pages with lists of reputable Internet traders. Such so-called "good trader's lists" provide a list of the names and email addresses of people who have participated honorably or (dishonorably) in online transactions (see Figure 6-26). Don't consider such a reference an ironclad guarantee, although it certainly imparts a measure of security.
Figure 6-26. This good trader's list indicates the number of references
These lists can also be a good resource for learning about the culture of whatever community you're dealing with--research you definitely want to undertake before engaging in a monetary transaction. Otherwise, you could end up with a MIP TBB Quacks on your hands, when you were looking for a non-mint wingless Quackers. To avoid such a pitfall, take a look at Beanie Mom's web site (http://www.beaniemom.com) or any of the myriad web sites on the topic.
One of the best things about the Web is the low cost of entry. Anyone with access to a computer can make information available to millions of other people. Consequently, the Internet is a great means for selling things.
How should you go about it? There are a number of different methods available, depending on the audience you're trying to reach and the amount of money you wish to spend. Some things you might want to think about:
- Are you trying to reach people within a specific geographic area?
- Is it more important to reach a group of people with similar interests?
- How are you pricing your item? Is it in high demand?
Depending on your answers to these questions, you may want to list your item in a classified ad on the Web or post a message to a Usenet newsgroup. You may want to create a web page describing the item or items you have for sale, submit it to search engines, and then enter the page as part of a web ring. Or, you may want to put the item up for auction.
Things to Remember When Selling Online
Once again, you'll want to follow the rules in order to sell items successfully. Be sure to learn about the community you're trading within, and remember the following:
- Be honest--all you've got is your reputation.
- Don't ignore email--if you make someone an offer, and then ignore their requests, they may blackball you.
- Don't take a personal check. Ask for a money order to ensure that you receive payment. If you do decide to accept a check, tell the buyer that you'll need to wait for the check to clear before you send the merchandise.
- Spell out the details. Make sure that the buyer knows how much the item will cost, method of payment you'll accept, how you'll be shipping the item, and when the item should reach its destination.
- If you'll be trading items with someone else, check that person's references before agreeing to the trade.
Selling merchandise via classified ads on the Web or via a Usenet newsgroup is easy and quick. These methods are similar in that you post a brief message describing your item to the appropriate location. While your listing probably won't turn up on any search engines or be available for more than 30 to 60 days, the ease of use and ability to tailor the ad to your specifics make this an excellent means of selling small or single items.Usenet
Posting a for-sale message to a newsgroup is fairly simple. First, decide to which groups you wish to post. That way, you can cross-post your message to each of the appropriate groups at the same time. Deja.com (http://www.deja.com) is a good place to start. From the Deja.com home page, enter a few words describing the item you wish to sell in the Find box. Then, set the archive setting to complete, select the Forums radio box, and click Find.
Figure 6-27. Finding newsgroups on which to sell overpriced collectibles
Notice that the results in Figure 6-27 provide a number of collecting and dolls-related sites. One site, however, is more general: nc.charlotte.forsale, a general for-sale group for Charlotte, N.C. It would be good to cross-post our listing to sites listing general merchandise for sale as well as to the more specific toy or collectibles sites. Scroll down the page to the Interest Finder: click the "Search Again" checkbox, and enter the word "forsale." The list (Figure 6-28) is much longer this time.
Figure 6-28. Various newsgroups listing items for sale
Some groups, like alt.forsale, are appropriate to our needs. Others, like dfw.forsale, probably aren't unless we live in Texas, since "dfw" is an abbreviation denoting a group dedicated to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. You'll probably want to check out groups pertaining to your local area, as well; see Chapter 2 for more information on finding newsgroups. Continue to narrow down your search until you've decided which groups would be right for your item. And be sure to read a selection of messages from a group before you post to it! You don't want to end up with a mailbox full of flames because, for example, a certain collecting group frowns on people selling merchandise.
Once you have your list of groups, click the Post button from Deja.com, or from your own newsreader. You might want to send a message similar to the one in Figure 6-29.
Figure 6-29. A drinking problem would be less embarrassing
A few things to keep in mind about selling items via Usenet:
- Only post to appropriate newsgroups, and don't do so more than once a week.
- Don't include your phone number unless you want all sorts of people calling you, all the time. Keep in mind that many newsgroups are now being archived, and information you give out this way may be preserved for years to come. You may need to turn off your usual signature feature if it includes too much information.
- You may want to use an email address specifically for this purpose, both to stay organized and maintain your privacy. See Chapter 3 for more information.
- Request payment in the form of a money order, so that you don't need to worry about receiving a bad check. If you do agree to take a check, wait until it clears before sending the merchandise.
A number of pages sponsoring free classified advertising have sprung up on the Web. Web-based classifieds are national and some are better organized than your average newsgroup; otherwise, advantages and disadvantages of using them are very similar to placing a listing on a Usenet newsgroup. Most require some form of registration. Additionally, the web-based forms that you must fill out to submit an entry hold your hand through the process, as shown in Figure 6-30.
Figure 6-30. Submitting a classified ad to Classifieds2000
The sites listed in the Resource Catalog all provide World Wide Web-based classified ad listings. You'll also want to check to see whether your local newspaper lists classifieds online.
Auctions on the Web are a great way to sell merchandise. In general, listing an item is free; some auctions take a percentage commission if you sell the merchandise, while others rely on advertising to make money. Some auction pages focus only on computer equipment or collectibles, while others are more specialized. Auctions are also buyer friendly, since most support a rating system for users to post feedback about sellers.
Let's take a look at a sample auction. We'll place our listing at Up4Sale (http://www.up4sale.com), which allows sellers to list items for free. Skip the New Visitors link and click the Auction Your Item button on the top of the page.
On the next screen, you'll need to decide how to auction your item. Choose between a standard auction, where bidding starts at the minimum you specify, and you sell to the highest bidder, or a reserve auction, where you don't have to sell your item unless a specified reserve price is met. For our example, we'll start a standard auction (see Figure 6-31).
Figure 6-31. Starting an auction
Register and fill out the form (see Figure 6-32). When answering questions about the minimum bid, payment method, and shipping options, be sure to think carefully. Don't list a minimum bid lower that the amount you're willing to sell for. Once you've posted the listing, you've made a good-faith promise to sell the item for the highest bid. Payment method and shipping are important, as well. A prepaid money order is the safest way to receive payment, and you don't want to choose a shipping method that will be inconvenient or expensive. At the same time, services such as Federal Express, which provide superior tracking, may be a better choice for small, expensive items.
Figure 6-32. Preparing to make a killing
Fill in all the details and click the Submit button. You have three choices for the posting duration: 3, 7, or 14 days. If you decline standard email notification of new bids, you'll receive notification only at the end of the auction, instead of every time someone bids on your item. (When the posting duration is up, you'll receive an email message telling you who the high bidder was and how to reach that person.) You'll be able to review and change everything you've written. Click the Post this item! button to start the bidding.
Figure 6-33. The heady thrills of capitalism
Once you've posted your first item, you can use the Power Post link; the form you fill out skips the detailed instructions shown in Figure 6-33. See the Resource Catalog for other online auction sites.
If you're selling more than one item, or you have a continuous supply of items to sell, it may be a good idea to create a web page as a storefront on the Internet (see Figure 6-34). Your page can remain available on the Web for as long as you wish; it is indexable by search engines and you can customize and present the information as you see fit. (See Chapter 9 for information on how to create a web page and where to post it.)
Figure 6-34. A well-designed site for bichon frises
The drawback to using a web page to sell your wares is that it may be difficult to direct users to it. To increase visitors, try the following methods:
- Submit the page to search engines (see Chapter 9 to learn how to submit your web pages to search engines).
- Periodically submit classified ads and/or post to newsgroups with a pointer to your page.
- Find web pages with bulletin boards or guest books and place a pointer to your page there.
- Join a web ring.
A web ring is a collection of web sites that focus on a single theme (see Figure 6-35). Each site features a banner at the bottom that provides links to other sites in the ring. Web rings focus on a wide variety of topics, from the Australia and New Zealand Fishing web ring to Zero God's Ring of Hell. Many people with wares to sell will join a web ring, so that people interested in that topic will be directed to their pages
Figure 6-35. Joining the Small Dog web ring
If you'd like to advertise your site using a web ring, the first step is to find a ring you'd like to join. Take a look at RingWorld: The WebRing Directory (http://www.webring.org/ringworld/ ) or at Yahoo!'s listing (http://www.yahoo.com/Computers_and_Internet/Internet/World_Wide_Web/Searching_the_Web/Indices_to_Web_Documents/Rings/) to find a ring you'd like to join, like the Small Dog ring, shown in Figure 6-35. Frequently, the banner that appears at the bottom of pages on the ring will provide a link for people who want to join.
After you submit the form, you'll need to add the ring information to your page. In this case, the ring administrator requires only a link to the Small Dog web ring page and a link to the next site in the ring. However, you may also copy and paste the entire Small Dog banner, shown in Figure 6-36, onto your page.
Figure 6-36. The Small Dog banner
Be sure to follow the directions. You'll need to change some of the HTML code within the banner so that it reflects the particulars of your site (see Figure 6-37).
Figure 6-37. Getting in the club
To join a web ring, you'll need a site ID and password. The site ID and password are used to update your information on the web ring. For more information on creating and editing web pages, see Chapter 9.
There's no single way to do business on the Web. Shopping sites range from relatively predictable online versions of printed catalogs to shopping robots to online auctions. What you can buy ranges from the mundane things I've discussed (books, cars, houses, pets) to the exotic (rare books, musical instruments, antiques, you name it). The only thing that's a given is that more paradigms will appear. This is only a sample and there are bound to be even more paradigms in the future.
1. Particularly since the relevant credit card information directs the billing to O'Reilly & Associates and one-click ordering might have resulted in the entirely accidental delivery of a five-pound box of chocolate truffles to my office.
2. Take the words of these book buyers with a grain of salt. There have been numerous accounts of authors posing as readers and uploading glowing reviews of their own works. More importantly, in 1999, it was revealed that Amazon was selling spots on their book recommendations list.
3. I didn't say it was a good example.
4. Why smashing words together and misspelling them is considered a sound marketing ploy is beyond me. Why would anyone prefer to buy anything from a hurried illiterate?
5. A web ring is a group of web sites about the same topic hooked together through a set of circular links. We'll discuss web rings further in "Web Pages," later in this chapter.
6. Okay: Quacks and Quackers are Beanie Babies. Quackers is a full-sized retired Beanie, which means that it's out of production; the wingless model was one of the first ones made and is consequently very valuable. "Mint" refers to mint-condition. Most mint-condition Beanie Babies are MWMT, which means "mint with mint tags," which means that the Beanie is perfect and still has unmarred manufacturer's tags attached to it. Quacks, a miniature version of Quackers, is a Teenie Beanie Baby (or TBB) from a McDonald's Happy Meal promotion. "MIP" refers to "mint, in plastic," which refers to the fact that Teenie Beanie Babies are delivered to the consumer in closed plastic bags. So you can see that a TBB MIP Quacks and a non-mint wingless Quackers are two very different things, and that I've had way too much free time on my hands for the last six months.
7. Since Deja.com only allows you to cross-post to four newsgroups at a time, it probably isn't the way to go; you probably want to post to as many appropriate groups as you can find.
Back to: The Whole Internet: The Next Generation
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