Have you noticed how all the best online deals seem to be for Americans only? I can understand when it's a contest for a trip to L.A. and a walk-on role in the next Batman movie as offered on www.emipromo.com/onstar/.
They're pushing the OnStar car navigation system, and they want to reach "legal residents of the United States who are licensed drivers." Fair enough. But now some offers that I really care about are being blocked by the world's longest unguarded border. Things like online booking for really cheap airfares.
Consider, for example, Orbitz LLC, the much ballyhooed joint venture of the major U.S. airlines. Even though these carriers serve Canadian cities, you probably won't be booking any cheap seats on them through Orbitz. Instead, you get the charming but useless message "We're sorry, we are unable to process your request because the FROM city is outside the U.S." At least they noticed! Orbitz was launched last June and by now you would think they could have done something for their (potential) Northern customers. When quizzed on this, an Orbitz representative told me that, "Yes, we do plan to serve the Canadian market in the future, however, we haven't announced a timeline at this point." In other words, we're not a high priority. Or maybe they feel that, in fairness, if they served Canada they would also have to do Portugal and the Channel Islands and Yap.
Actually my interest in Orbitz is pretty low since there are reasonable alternatives, such as the American Express Internet travel site (www.itn.net) that does cover travel from Canada. But that's if you want to pay the posted fare. There's an additional tier of "super-discount" travel sites like www.hotwire.com. Hotwire combines pretty unbeatable prices with a certain aura of mystery. You don't find out which airline you are flying, and exactly what time you're leaving, until after you pay for your ticket. They recently had some killer fares like New York to Calgary return for US$426.That same trip on the American Express site rang in at around US$540.
Another snag to cross-border e-commerce is that darned credit card. First, there's that nagging feeling of unease that we all feel every time we type in our number. Who's sitting on the other end? Will they print it out and leave it around carelessly? Worse, will some evil Russian hackers compromise the site and hold my credit card number for ransom? A growing number of e-commerce merchants are now demanding that you use a credit card with a billing address in the U.S. of A. They enforce this policy by rejecting any address that doesn't have a valid U.S. zip code. That five-digit (or nine, in the expanded form) number is becoming the key to real online bargains.
At least one Canadian company, Borderfree (www.borderfree.com) is trying to challenge the tyranny of the zip code by offering a cross-border shopping service. They started out some time ago with a "Universal Shopping Basket" approach but discontinued that service on September 7, 2001. Instead, they now partner with a handful of U.S. retailers (e.g. Crate & Barrel, BoatersWorld, Ritz Camera) to offer a guaranteed price in Canadian funds. You simply go to the merchant's regular e-commerce site, click "Canadian checkout" and your actual cost, including shipping, duty and all taxes, is displayed. Borderfree handles all the details, included processing merchandise returns if necessary. I recently entered an order for a camera worth US$149.95 and it asked me for $241.42 (Canadian). Given our sinking dollar, and the fact that this is an all-inclusive price, it's not such a bad deal. Of course, if you want to shop from a store that's not on this service (and that's 99.9 per ent of all online shopping right now) you're still out of luck.
The trend to recognizing that we actually exist here in the frozen north has even spread to online contest sites like contests.about.com. They thoughtfully flag those that are open to Canadians with a cute little Maple Leaf. (There are no contests there marked with the Fleur de Lys, because, as the fine print says, "Quebec's gaming laws are very complex.") If you dig around a bit, you may even find a running contest, open to all non-Quebecois Canadians aged 13 and over, for the thing that Santa forgot to bring you this year (a Microsoft Xbox.) In fact, I'll save you the trouble, go check out promo.cashnetsweeps.com/xbox/. Just don't enter against me too often!
Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary, and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.