Shopping on the Net has its advantages...as Grahame Morrison reports
It's 6.30pm on a Saturday and you've just remembered that your great-aunt Flo mother spouse partner has a birthday on Tuesday. You also know that your Monday timetable, with an after-school meeting, means you stand more chance of winning the National Lottery than you do of organising any flowers for delivery after theweekend.
You could, of course, telephone a florist who is a member of a delivery group such as Interflora, but that means choosing your flowers without seeing what the arrangement looks like. (It may also mean you have to tell a stranger that you'd like the message to read "Love you to death my super little Cuddle-Bunny", from a crowded staffroom, guaranteed to go quiet at the wrong moment.) Now technology provides an alternative solution. Thanks to the Interflora website, it doesn't matter if Cuddle-Bunny is the other side of town or the other side of the world, you can arrange for your floral tribute to be delivered normally within 24 hours of your choosing it from the full-colour images on the Interflora website.
Shopping online is growing almost as fast as the Internet itself: 3.3 million UK users made an online purchase during the past six months of 1998. So what are they buying?
Books are the most popular sale. On good book-selling websites such as Amazon, you can find publications on any subject - from Aardvark anatomy to zymurgy - and the bigger sites can also be a great source of difficult-to-get-hold-of titles on obscure subjects. You can search easily for books by subject, title or author, and then pay by credit card. Many US-based sites also enable you to get books before they are officially released in the UK, as well as titles not published in Britain.
Other popular Net sales include computer hardware and software, records, jewellery, clothing, and what many are predicting to be the next major development - holidays and travel arrangements.
Given that anything that can be sold off the page can also be sold off the Net, holidays are an obvious development. On the better websites, short video clips showing the resort or hotel facilities will provide a better idea of the destination than still photography ever could. You can hunt for last-minute bargains, and - armed with a fully-charged credit card - book your summer break during lunch hour. (The Disneyland Paris website is an excellent example and even includes video footage of the rides, proving once again there is nothing Mickey Mouse about Disney.) Is there anything that cannot be sold via the Internet? Probably not. You may not be able to buy a car, for example, but I used the Internet to narrow my choice before I set out to kick a few tyres. I was able to compare specifications, check finance details, get an idea of used car prices, and obtain directions to local car showrooms - all in advance of taking a test drive and buying the vehicle.
Mention Internet shopping and someone else will mention Internet fraud. Everyone, it seems, knows a person whose credit card was used to pay off a bill the size of Mexico's national debt because the card's rightful owner had used it to buy a case of beer from Tesco's website.
But the card's number almost certainly wasn't lifted en route to Tesco's website because it's a secure site: a credit card number can be obtained in a variety of other ways - including an overheard telephone purchase or credit card carbon copies. Providing you trade with well known companies, via secure websites, you and your credit card should be as safe as if you were in your local high street.
Grahame Morrison is a freelance journalist who writes regularly about Internet matters. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org