The numbers and dollar figures concerning the growth of online shopping over the last year are astounding, but during the holiday season, those numbers are even more remarkable.
Consider these. Analysts have reported that e-commerce did some $275 million in business over this year's four-day Thanksgiving weekend alone. These same analysts are predicting the number of regular holiday shoppers will triple the number from 1998. And overall, online shoppers may well spend more than $10 billion this holiday season.
Convenience is the primary reason most people shop online, but to this growing group of consumers, "convenience" doesn't have one meaning or definition.
"When people say convenience, they mean a number of things," explained Mary Wolfinbarger, a professor of marketing at California State University, Long Beach and an avid online shopper herself. "They mean the stores are always open. They mean the kids don't have to come along. They also mean they can shop in their underwear, which they have literally said to us."
Wolfinbarger is a CRITO (Center for Research on Information Technology in Organizations) research fellow and, with Mary Gilly of UC Irvine, is currently involved in a pair of studies on e-commerce, including research of consumer perceptions of web site quality. She reports shopping ranks seventh on the list of primary uses of the Internet. But, that ranking probably climbs during the holidays.
"During the holiday season, the number of gifts you have to buy and the number of shopping trips you need to make is magnified," Wolfinbarger said. "The Internet is a reasonable solution to how you are going to get a lot of shopping done in a relatively brief amount of time without facing crowds. That's what made the 1998 holiday season such a breakthrough season for e-commerce."
Still, there are consumers who feel that using a computer, the Internet and some delivery service is not the way to shop for friends and loved ones. A number of those same people are concerned that online shopping just isn't safe or dependable as they worry about the theft of their credit card numbers and late or untimely deliveries of their online-ordered goods.
Wolfinbarger, who has also studied gift giving behaviors for 10 years, understands their concerns to a degree but, for the most part, disagrees.
"Right now, the perception of problems with online shopping is much worse than the reality," she pointed out. "Most online businesses have secure systems that prevent the theft of credit card numbers, and if you choose companies known for customer service, they will do a good job telling you when something will be delivered, and then delivering it on time."
For those worried about online shopping, Wolfinbarger offers some tips on what to look for to ensure a positive and risk-free e-commerce experience.
First, going with a company or brand name that you know is generally a safe bet. "Working with a reputable firm means they are more likely to do better on privacy issues and security issues," she said.
When dealing with any web site, a telephone number should always be listed so that if customers have any concerns or questions, they can call and speak with a live person. Some sites allow real time questions and answers while shopping online as well.
Wolfinbarger's confidence in online shopping is not unfounded. In addition to her research, she says she orders some $500 to $1,000 worth of goods over the Internet each month. She did mention a problem once or twice with delivery of goods, but shipping and delivery of products purchased online has been little different than ordering from a store catalogue.
"Another thing I have done is send an e-mail to the company before I've ordered, usually just to ask a question about the goods," she said. "This gives me a way of gauging the business. If the business gets back to me quickly, I make an inference that they are on top of these things and know what they are doing. If they don't return my e-mail or send an insufficient response, I'm not going to have as much confidence in them."
As far as Wolfinbarger is concerned, there is no question that shopping online is quicker, easier and can be done at any time from the comfort of one's own home. Still, she acknowledged it is not for everyone.
"Shopping online suits my way of doing things. I'm impatient. I want exactly what I want. I like the fun of having it arrive on my doorstep, and if I decide I don't like it, I just box it up and send it back," she pointed out. "It just suits my lifestyle."
For others who are slower to assimilate, Wolfinbarger said there is a sequence of behavior that takes place when people go online. First, they use e-mail. Then, they learn to navigate the net. Then, when they get comfortable navigating around the net, they use the Internet for information, including information on products, even though they don't buy online.
"It is almost like an escalation into the actual purchase. A lot of things have to happen before they do it for the first time, but eventually, they make that first transaction. After that, they can spread their wings a little more," Wolfinbarger described. "It's like putting your toe in the water. It turns out the water is warm enough, so you go in a little bit farther.
"For the most part, people are careful and tentative in unfamiliar territory, including when it comes to shopping online," she added. "During the holidays, however, people often find themselves running out of time to do their shopping. That's when they jump online, find something to buy, push the button that says 'Express Checkout,' and say to themselves 'Wow! That felt good.'"
Public Affairs Offices/Campus News