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VIII.6 Nov./Dec. 2001
Page: 15
Digital Citation

Whiteboard: online shopping

Elizabeth Buie

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I should have just called the 800 number. (That was the advice of my spouse.) But how 20th-Century retro that would have been when there was the URL of Super Retailer Online (let's just call them SRO), right next to the phone number. What had caught my attention was a special kind of wrench, such a special product that no other retailer carried it; and when I checked, even the local Super Retailer store did not have one— phone/internet order only.

back to top  DAY 1

Shopper enjoys navigation adventure: Drawn by some probably ill-advised spirit of adventure, I log on to SRO's Web site. The site offers lots of twisty little passages to follow, including the occasional dwarf with axe, but I do eventually manage to find the wrench and proceed to order it.

Control as needed: Now this is such a great wrench that I really think I have to own two of them. And how convenient, how clever of the site designers: Right next to the order line is a text box labeled quantity with a one in it. It looks editable, and it is. I change the quantity to two and click the submit order button.

Feedback: My order as shown: A Special Wrench, quantity one. Dagnabit, I bet I didn't really set the quantity to two, or maybe I missed something. I cancel the order, return to the order form, carefully enter quantity, make my list, check it twice, and submit. Hmmm, still just quantity one on my order summary. Not to be defeated by some crummy html code (I used to be a programmer, you know), I return to the order form with a fiendishly clever scheme in mind. (I've done this sort of thing before.) I order one wrench, and then I return and again order one wrench. Sure enough, my order summary now shows A Special Wrench, quantity two. Success of human over machine, carbon over silicon! I continue with the order processing with an obviously appropriate button.

Disappointment—strike one: Oops, SRO is sorry to inform me that the item is out of stock. Fine, backorder it. Sorry again, this is not an item that can be backordered. Fine again, just leave it in my cart and I'll order it again another time. Oops again, no carts on this site. Well, that's a 20th-Century retro metaphor anyhow. I can get along without it if that's what it takes to be modern. Would I like to be informed by e-mail when my wrench was back in stock? Sure, thanks, good-bye—out of sight, out of mind.

back to top  DAY 13

Timely information: A couple of weeks later my e-mail inbox has a message from SRO advising me that the coveted wrench is back in stock and offering a link to the site—SRO home, though, and not the wrench. But by this time I'm pretty familiar with those twisty little passages, and I find my wrench like a true caver. And I know the trick for ordering two. Submit, confirm order, continue.

Disappointment—strike two: Oops, SRO is sorry to inform me that the item is again out of stock. But this time they include a very thoughtful message that some items sell out very quickly and it is a good idea to order right away after a back-in-stock advisory, and would I like such an e-mail advisory. Sure, how much can it hurt, and good-bye.

back to top  DAY 22

Success: Another wrench-in-stock advisory appears in my inbox. This time I know to order straightaway. I get to the site, find the wrench, do the trick for ordering two, check the order summary, submit, run quickly through an ordinary sort of shipping address and credit card payment form, get (and print) an order confirmation, and that night sleep the peaceful sleep of the victorious.

back to top  DAY 24

Well, not exactly: Two days later an e-mail message informs me that my order has a problem and will be cancelled unless I take action immediately. Dutifully I go to my account at SRO and check for the cause. (I really do want my wrenches.) It seems some address information I had entered does not match the credit card company's records and that I have to confer with them to resolve the problem. Sorry, SRO cannot help.

Human intervention: I call my credit card hotline to compare the address they have with the billing address on my order summary. Hmmm, no difference we can detect. But still, no problem. My order summary has an SRO hotline number to call in the unlikely event of the online system not working perfectly. So I call and get the hotline for Super Retailer Online. All this is retro technology, but I get to talk with a really nice guy in Nebraska, same age as my daughter. We have ample time for a pleasant chat while his computer is looking up my order. We can't find any mismatch between the addresses in question, but this very nice young man declares that he will just put the order through manually. Never send a machine to do a man's/woman's job. Thank you, and goodnight.

back to top  DAY 26

Well, not exactly again (or disappointment—strike three): Two days later my inbox has my order status information. I'm really going to get my wrenches at last, I say to myself as I click the message open. (There is only one other thing in life that is like this moment in the e-shopping experience, but that is a whole other story.) But instead...Sorry, you never resolved the address problem, and your order has been cancelled. Dagnabit again. Well, I really want my wrenches, so I go to redo the order. But not this time. The very special wrench has gone out of stock again (shipped to someone else, I suppose). Do I want to be informed when the item is back in stock? Sure, why not. Hope to hear from you soon.

back to top  DAY 27

User misconception equals user malfunction: It's back in stock. I order two. (I'm really good at this now.) And I have a new strategy! I use a different credit card, sure that I could not have the address mismatch on two cards. It's late at night, and the order confirmation arrives almost immediately. Well, not exactly a confirmation. There is a problem with the credit card again. I do not actually read the error message. I don't need to read the message, since I have seen the problem before, and I am quite sure from experience that if there is an error it is surely the site that is messing up and not moi. I know just what to do, and I have the SRO hotline scratched into the gray plastic shell of my PC monitor. I call. A very nice woman—still in Nebraska—answers, and is very apologetic. She explains that they know there are problems with the SRO Web site, but that they have only been doing this for two years and they keep working to improve. Notwithstanding the fact that two years ago most CTOs of DotComs were in junior high school, she is very pleasant and goes right to work. She knows a secret way to override the computer system and fix my problem by hand.

Overriding the system: There is no way to tell the SRO system to just go ahead and ship. No doubt this was a design decision to prevent, well, people telling the system to just go ahead and ship. However, the workers on the ground have devised a way. First, add to an order a large item requiring installation. (In my case, a trash compactor.) Installations must be arranged for and performed by local contractors rather than SRO staff. Since the system does not support making these arrangements, the order (in toto, not just the installable item) is kicked out for manual handling. Second, with control in human hands, approve the order for shipping, but cancel the installable item. Voila! Another victory of carbon over silicon!

Completing the transaction: I give her my home phone just in case. This is a good thing because an hour later I get the call that the credit card is not going through. Now remember I had not really read the error message and was convinced that for this site, the obvious user error was not likely to be the cause. But in fact, I had switched to a credit card that I had inadvertently let slip on payments (pesky new day job keeps me very preoccupied) and which is actually suspended. Dagnabit, again. I could have avoided the manual stuff if I had read that error message. But then I would not have had the chance to chat with the pleasant service representative and to learn about her truly ingenious way of defeating the system. So I provide my last credit card. I stay on the line until the transaction is complete. Order on the way. Most excellent! My attitude continues to improve.

back to top  DAY 28

Well, still not exactly: The order confirmation is in my inbox with a handy link to the SRO site where I can see my account details. I go there. (Today's special product offering is my special wrench.) I access my account. Oops. Access denied. Wrong password. Do you want a hint? It must be that customer service changed my password. With experience I get better intuition about what to do—the hotline right away. No problem, they will change the password to something that they will e-mail to me. They can't do it right away because the supervisor is out to lunch, but as soon as she returns, like in an hour or so... When I finally access my account I see...success...but more success than I want. Shipped: Special Wrench, 2. Shipped: Trash Compactor 1, Carrier tracking number and tracking Web site provided, thank you.

Back to the human system: So, to the hot line again, and I am happy to find another chatty Nebraskan. But this is daytime and I have a more senior service representative. Here's what happened, I explain, including the part about the technique for outwitting the system. I wonder if the technique is standard or if I had been dealing with the dreaded rogue service rep. My daytime service rep explains that, while the system is what they always do, and the rep who set up the order did the right thing, she must have done it incorrectly. Anyhow, this rep will correct the situation and e-mail me the result. Thanks, nice chatting, g'day.

Beyond recall: I never get the e-mail. Just as well, as it could only have been an apology. When I actually go to check the carrier tracking system, I find my shipment, including my new trash compactor, already two stops down the line and currently in Ohio. This is good to know, in a way, I guess. I consider contacting the carrier to stop delivery of the one unwanted item. Although wrench and compactor are listed separately on the tracking site, however, they have the same tracking number—probably, I surmise, because the whole order is in a single box. So I have no sure way to stop one item and not the other. I consider leaving a note for the carrier to take back the bigger box, but fear that this might be misunderstood and everything returned. I really do want my two very special wrenches. I decide to wait and see.

back to top  DAY 30

Long running transaction: E-business is not just about showing a catalog and taking an order. It's also about fulfillment and follow-up. I'm a designer and have a professional as well as practical interest in these things. So I am delighted to get an e-mail from SRO explaining in great detail exactly how to arrange with a local contractor to install my really great new trash compactor as well as how to provide feedback on the contractor's performance for SRO quality assurance. Customer satisfaction is everything!

back to top  DAY 32

The arrival: Monday, after work at the pesky new day job, which distracted me from paying that credit card, which got suspended, which had me experience the manual override technique, which gave me the material for this story—a single box is on my doorstep. The subsequent out-of-the-box experience is most excellent. My two wrenches are included along with my new trash compactor and also a letter explaining in great detail exactly how to arrange with a local contractor to install my really great new trash compactor as well as how to provide feedback on the contractor's performance for SRO quality assurance. Customer satisfaction is everything! Also, it appears that shipping charges may have been waived. The very nice SRO hotline people told me they would do that, as a sort of compensation for the inconvenience, but for a reason I can't exactly identify I was not so sure it would turn out that way. Oh, and when I say appears, I mean that the costs on the invoice were written in all alphabetical characters and not digits—some kind of secret code, I imagine—but the shipping cost lines were blank.

back to top  DAY 40

Denouement: I call SRO to explain my predicament. We will fix it right away! (As a midwest native and current east coast urban dweller, I miss the easy friendliness of the heartland.) The carrier will call to arrange a pickup. Thank you, and have a good day. Back to the pesky day job.

back to top  DAY 46

Conclusion: Home from work, and a note from the carrier declaring the second unsuccessful attempt to make a pickup. Second? Hmmm, when was the first? And what about the carrier's call to make arrangements? But this is, um, "easily" enough resolved. A call to the carrier reveals that SRO took the initiative to surprise and delight me by arranging the pickup rather than having the carrier bother me. Customer satisfaction is everything!

back to top  DAY 47

Finish (almost): A mutually agreeable pickup plan negotiated, the repacked box with trash compactor disappears from my front step. No note from the carrier, but if everything could be known for sure, why would such a thing as faith exist?

back to top  CURRENT

Coda: One lingering doubt remains: I don't really know if or how much I might have been charged for all this on the various credit cards involved. In all the confusion, I sort of lost count myself, and I don't remember which cards figured in which part of the story. I'm studying all my billing statements as they come in. However, it's my own fault for not keeping better records, and I accept blame for the need to tie up this last little loose end.

back to top  Author

George Casaday manages the User Interface Engineering group at deNovis in Lexington, MA. In the past he has been a neurobiologist and a software developer, which leads him to take a psychological and engineering approach to design of human-computer interaction. In his spare time he teaches HCI at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and studies chess.

Whiteboard Column Editor
Elizabeth Buie
Senior Principal Engineer
Computer Sciences Corporation
15245 Shady Grove Road
Rockville, MD 20850
fax: +1-301-921-2069

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©2001 ACM  1072-5220/01/1100  $5.00

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