Promises, Promises

My mother did not believe that it was appropriate to give a woman a household appliance for Christmas or her birthday, and everyone in our family was well-advised to bear that in mind. If my father had given her a vacuum cleaner as a gift, she would have hit him over the head with it.

My wife feels differently, and is perfectly happy to receive anything that makes cooking or cleaning easier or more pleasant. When I asked her last December what she wanted for Christmas, I was not particularly surprised that she asked for a new George Foreman grill.

I had given her one several years ago, because it is usually just the two of us for dinner these days, and she had thought it would often be more convenient than using the range or the gas grill. She liked it, but recently had become concerned that the nonstick coating was wearing off, so she wanted to replace it.

That’s all well and good, but any man will tell you that the lessons he learned from his mother stay with him all his life, and it was still hard for me to give her such a gift for Christmas. For that reason, or simply because it was a busy time of year, I put the whole thing off until a few days before the holiday.

At that point I gave it some thought, and came up with an idea. I would try to find something fancier and more expensive than her old grill, which would make me feel a little better about giving such a utilitarian gift. I didn’t even know if such a thing existed, but that’s why God invented Google.

It turns out there are a number of them, and I found one I thought would be perfect. It was made by one of the old-line American appliance companies, and according to their website, it would be available at my local authorized dealer for $150.

That was also perfect, because I much prefer buying from a local independent, and I already knew this store. Unfortunately, when I called it the owner told me he had never heard of this appliance. He said that it might take him a little time to track it down, but he promised to call me back.

Like most owner-operators I’ve known, he was good to his word and actually called me that night at home. “I’ve called everybody I deal with at the company, and nobody knows anything about this product. It’s not in stock at any of the warehouses, either.” I remarked that it seemed odd, since there is a picture of it on the website. “I know, I’m looking right at it, but the bottom line is that I have no way to get it for you for Christmas.”

I appreciated his effort, but the exercise had cost me a day I could ill afford to lose. The next morning, December 22nd, I went back to Google and picked out another machine, this one made by a younger American company that specializes in high-end countertop appliances. There were three national retailers who carried it, one of them a major upscale department store and the other two boutique kitchen and bath chains. Each of them discounted the suggested price of $450 to $200.

None of them had the machine in stock at their nearest stores, but the department store offered free shipping with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve. I took that deal, my order was accepted, and I patted myself on the back for a job well done.

Later that evening, however, I received an email from the department store saying that my order had been cancelled. There was no explanation, only a customer service phone number I could call during business hours if I had any questions.

Indeed I did have a few, so I called first thing the next morning. A recording told me that the wait would be at least 35 minutes. Maybe they had cancelled other people’s orders as well, or perhaps they simply hadn’t anticipated a high call volume on December 23rd. In any event, I didn’t have the time to listen to that much elevator music.

At that point I figured that it was not meant to be, and I had other things to worry about (like running a small business). Periodically throughout the day it would occur to me that I didn’t have much to give my wife for Christmas, and had vague notions about some sort of late night shopping trip.

A shopping mall at Christmas is pretty much my idea of hell, and on the few occasions I have found myself in that scenario it has ended with me walking around in a daze, willing to buy anything at any price if it would just get me out of there alive. To avoid that trip, I even found myself toying with the lame idea of printing out a photocopy of the grilling machine, putting it in a box and wrapping it up.

I do have a bit of a stubborn streak, though, so at the end of the workday I went back to the websites of the kitchen and bath retailers. One of them claimed that anything on the site could still be delivered on Christmas Eve, anywhere in the country, if the customer paid for overnight shipping.

All things considered that seemed like a more sensible option than the mall, so once again I placed an order for the grill. While I was filling out the credit card information, an ad popped up on my computer from the department store where I had placed the first order, trying to sell me the same product.

I’m not sure whether I found that ad more annoying or ironic, but there was something unusual about it. The price of the machine was $90 higher than it had been the day before. If I were a cynical person, I would suspect that the store had somehow figured out a way to process orders for the grill at $300 but not $200.

Apparently the kitchen and bath retailer suffered from no such dilemma, because the product arrived promptly the next morning. I was very relieved, but the whole experience gave me a lot to think about.

All of the companies mentioned in my little narrative were brick and mortar businesses, yet, with the exception of one phone call, every scene was conducted online. E-commerce and conventional retail are not two separate operations anymore, but simply two components in the whole process of reselling products. As of last November, even Amazon has a physical store.

For that reason, the same values that apply to a store also apply to a website. We tend to think of e-business in terms of website efficiency and attractiveness, how easy it is to navigate and how well it merchandizes products, but that is like rating your store according to cleanliness and lighting. Of course those things are important, but there is something more fundamental.

Whether you are an appliance manufacturer, a department store, or an art materials retailer, you offer customers a certain transaction, either online or in person. Should a customer accept your offer, you have then made a contract that you had best fulfill.

By the way, my wife loves the new grill. I’m not sure how my mother feels about it.

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