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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Christmas Shopping 2002
How was xmas online for you?
Is e-tail about to put real world shopping to shame, with far reaching consequences? Peter Cochrane reckons this past Christmas was a turning point, for him and thousands of others...

Christmas 2002 was a watershed in my consumer life. It was the year when I purchased more gifts and spent more money (far more money) online than in physical stores. And I suspect I am not alone in this because the UK saw its first 1bn of online sales in one month, while the US saw the first $1bn of online sales in a single week.

With over 45 per cent of households online in both countries it looks like Joe Public have overcome their Internet security fears and taken the plunge into the e-world. According to the latest figures, 1.3 per cent of all US retail purchases are now made online and in the UK this figure is 4 per cent.

And looking at the shopping experience, the relative inconvenience and service levels of the two countries, I can easily understand why. The positive selling attitude, modern mall facilities, parking and road transport of the US makes physical shopping a pleasure, while the converse is the case in the UK and much of the EU. Poor facilities, poor infrastructure and high prices are major retail impediments.

I have been making online purchases from the very outset of the commercial Internet and I have seen online shops progress from the truly awful to the truly brilliant. But what I really like is the availability of goods and services, the high quality service, the price and delivery - all invariably better than any off-line alternative.

This year the situation was amplified by my efforts to simultaneously buy a computer, a digital camera, two 120MB hard drives, and sundries from a well-known high street chain. I had all the items I wished to purchase in front of me but I was told I could not buy the computer. How come? It turned out that the chosen computer was the last of the line and the display model was the only one left. No matter what I said the manager would not let it go. This was to be a cash, pick it up and take it away right now purchase, a no hassle deal. But it didn't matter. The manager was quite positive - in a negative direction. "We can order one for you sir, yada, yada..." but he didn't really want to help me.

My wife will be the first to say I was not on the front row when patience was handed out, and I suddenly felt myself snap. If I can't have the computer then I really don't want this camera with the extra memory card, the two 120MB hard drives, and other sundries, no matter what. So I walked out of the store having purchased nothing. The manager actually let a 2,000-plus sale slip through his hands. It all beggared belief - well, my belief anyway.

The next day I eventually found the computer I was looking for in another store and I made a purchase without incident. However, they didn't have the camera or hard drives I needed. So they were ordered online at around 15:00 hours on that day - 23 December. I received confirmation of the order within minutes by email and a confirmation of shipping at around 17:00 the same day. To my amazement, the entire order arrived intact by 13:00 on 24 December. This was phenomenal, no nonsense, please the customer service. And it was far cheaper too!

So far I have purchased flowers, books, toys, tools, CDs, DVDs, computer hardware and software, plus an assortment of services online. On every occasion I have been well served and pleased with the outcome. To date my credit card number and details have only been hijacked twice but on both occasions that was via conventional retail transactions and not the internet. For me, security has never been an issue in the sense that the internet has never posed anything remotely like the risk presented by the old world of coin, paper, cheque and card.

Being in the midst of the dot-com revolution I can confirm the e-world has not gone away nor, it seems, slowed down, despite being unfashionable. It has just continually and quietly expanded since the much publicised dot-com bust.

While the UK is around eighth place in the broadband league behind Korea, Singapore, Japan, Scandinavia, the US, Canada and Germany, around 45 per cent of UK households are online, and huge numbers of people with internet access in their offices. So strangely the UK seems to be developing a bit of a lead in terms of online sales.

Against all the odds, UK business has also established a lead in terms of business-to-business transaction rates which are also ahead of the field. Could it just be that the adversity of poor service and infrastructure is biting back in the form of the online alternatives? For me the answer has to be Yes, and my guess is that 90 per cent of my Christmas 2003 purchases will be online, while that of the UK will exceed 10 per cent.

When we started the dot-com boom the gurus said it would change everything. They were right but probably more right than even they could have guessed.

This column was typed on my laptop in my home office after an excellent Boxing Day walk and picnic with my family at Sutton-Hoo, a famous Anglo Saxon burial ground (see: www.archaeology.co.uk/timeline/saxon/suttonhoo/suttonhoo.htm) and dispatched to silicon.com over a high-speed link.