Web Savvy

SAN FRANCISCO (03/21/2000) - Instant gratification is the way of the Web. Not only can you get just about anything online--an e-mail account, a home loan, the answer to a pressing question about the Taft administration--but you can get it in minutes. There is, however, one vast exception to the Web's no-wait policy: Online shopping can often be painfully slow.

Sure, you can dump items willy-nilly into a virtual shopping cart and pay for them in a flash. But then you'll usually end up biding your time for at least a few days before your purchases arrive: The UPS's cheap-but-leisurely ground service is the Web's shipping method of choice. And even grocery sites such as Peapod Inc. usually require overnight notice to make a delivery. So when I'm in a tearing rush (which is frequently), I'm much more inclined to browse the mall than to browse the Web.

Web shopping may never be faster than retail, at least not until some start-up figures out how to zap physical objects across the Internet (an e-commerce breakthrough prophesied by Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Still, I am happy to report that there are some signs of an emerging effort among Web merchants to offer their customers semi-instant gratification: delivery of products in a matter of minutes or hours, rather than days.

Speed the Chow

Picture this: You develop a sudden craving for Fritos at work, so you toggle from your spreadsheet for a moment to buy a bagful on the Web. An improbable snacking scenario? A shopping site called Kozmo.com aims to make it a reality.

And judging from my experiences so far, it...well...delivers.

Kozmo.com's tagline--"We'll be right over"--isn't hype: The company's policy is to make deliveries in under an hour, anytime from 10 a.m. until 1 a.m in most cities it serves. Besides junk food (and a few healthful treats), it stocks videos (for rent or sale), CDs, books, video games, magazines, medicinal supplies, and other items. Service is currently available in Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

In a highly scientific experiment, I visited the Kozmo site to order two pints of Ben & Jerry's (Cherry Garcia and Doonesberry) and a video (Mel Brooks's immortal classic Young Frankenstein). A scant 40 minutes later, a Lycra-clad Kozmo courier arrived with the goods. Subsequent orders have arrived just as rapidly, including one I placed during an industrial-strength New England snowstorm.

And Kozmo.com's free-delivery policy is the real deal--its prices aren't set artificially high to compensate. You can get an emergency copy of Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban, for instance, and pay almost exactly what Amazon.com charges for a copy sent via the U.S. Postal System. My only premium is the couple of bucks I slip the courier for each delivery (which I do just to be on the safe side, since I can find no mention of tipping etiquette in Kozmo's ordering FAQ).

Kozmo's cool, no doubt. But some aspects of the service need work: The selection is spotty (in Boston, at least, you can't get a Pepsi or a Hershey bar), and the search engine can be a hassle to figure out. Magazines are sometimes weeks out-of-date--I can read those copies at my doctor's office, for free. And although the company intends to expand to 20 cities by the end of the year, service focuses on a handful of densely populated urban areas. PC World's Boston office is covered; my home, 8 miles away in suburbia, is not.

Kozmo's Kompetition

Even if kozmo.com doesn't wend its way to your neighborhood anytime soon, another super-quick shopping service might. A copycat outfit called Urbanfetch (www.urbanfetch.com) offers a similar range of products (but a niftier array of electronics items), 24-hour service, and a strict no-tipping policy. It's already up and running in New York, with plans to expand both domestically and internationally by year's end.

Sameday.com has a different approach to speedy service: If you place your order by 2 p.m., it promises to deliver toys, power tools, sporting goods, jewelry, and other items by 8 p.m. the same day. Shipping costs a maximum of $7, no matter how many items you order. Starting with Southern California, Sameday.com aims to serve 40 percent of U.S. households by the end of the year and to buddy up with established Web stores that want to offer same-day delivery from their own sites.

You begin to see a future in which the Web brings us nearly everything almost instantly. And while we're glued to our keyboards, today's bustling malls could start to resemble ghost towns--quaint relics of an age in which people left their homes to buy stuff.

Contact PC World Senior Editor Harry McCracken at websavvy@pcworld.com.

FYI

Three-quarters of Internet users research their travel plans on the Web. But a scant 16 percent have actually booked a flight online.

Source: Gartner Group

On the Net...

Search Engine Sleeper: Who has the biggest, quickest index on the Web? Nope, not Yahoo or AltaVista. A site called Fast Search (www.alltheweb.com) claims to be the winner, with more than 300 million pages cataloged on superfast servers.

And based on its lickety-split, exhaustive responses to my search queries, I believe it... Well-Armed Octopus: Information junkies will be intrigued by Octopus.com, a new site that lets you drag and drop snippets of information from numerous sources (including PCWorld.com) into customized personal pages.

The beta version I tried was still a bit rough around the edges, but promising... E-Mail for YoYos: If you sign up for YoYoMail (www.yoyomail.com), you'll get an in-box full of animated ads--and a nickel for each one you watch.

In theory, the big bucks come when you collect commissions on friends who join up. My take: Friends don't ask friends to stare at spam.

GImme Five

Sites for Disgruntled Consumers

Have a gripe with a company you've done business with? Don't stew, take action.

The following sites offer complaint forms, tips on resolving disputes, and public forums for your beefs.

1. Federal Trade Commission Consumer Protection (www.ftc.gov/ftc/consumer.htm):

Uncle Sam's consumer portal offers a host of primers on solving problems, plus an online complaint form.

2. ECaveat (www.ecaveat.com): This site forwards grievance letters to merchants and spotlights those that take action.

3. Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org): Check with the BBB for company reports, consumer tips, and information on local chapters.

4. Consumer World's Consumer Agencies and Organizations (www.consumerworld.org/pages/agencies.htm): Dozens of links to watchdog groups, both governmental and private.

5. UGetHeard.com (www.ugetheard.com): Speak out on corporate America's reprobates--and good citizens--at this ECaveat competitor.

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