What Do I Need?
Where Do I Find a Store?
How Do I Find a Product?
How do I get Help?
How Do I Order?
When will I get my Package?
What about Returns?
Where Can I Go to Solve Problems?
I Find a Product in the Online Shop?
Why are some brands available at a store,
but not others?
Why doesn't this store offer a paper catalog?
Why does the store offer all these lists of product categories, anyway?
What lies behind the store's search mechanism?
How can I search for a product if I don't know a brand name?
So what kind of searches do stores offer?
I got too many results. How can I narrow down my search?
I got no results from my search, but I am sure they have this product. How can I
have better luck locating it?
What if I completely fail to discover the product using the search?
Once I find a product at a store, how much will I be able to learn about
How can the store offer these discounts?
Why are some brands available at a
store, but not others?
Most likely, the store has negotiated to be an authorized reseller only for certain
Or the store has an arrangement with a wholesaler who supplies products only from those
manufacturers, at least in that product category.
Perhaps the store is concentrating on some other product category, and just puts up
products with these brand names, as a gesture, to suggest that the store has a wider range
of products than it really does.
Or maybe the owner believes that these brands offer the best products for customers,
considering quality, availability, or price.
If you want a particular brand, you could go directly to the manufacturers site.
But, depending on what products they sell, you may find that the manufacturers
prices are far above those in the stores (to make their dealers look good), or the
manufacturer may just refuse to sell on the Web, in order not to undermine relationships
with dealers and resellers.
Best to go to another store in the product category, and try there. (In our chapter
about the product category, skim the list of sample products to see if you spot the brand
Why doesn't this store offer a
Sometimes a store does offer a paper catalog. But companies who created their stores
just for the Internet may never have published a catalog, and they may refuse to print one
because a) it is so expensive and b) it is really a different business and c) they like
trees, and resolutely limit their use of paper.
Companies that began life as mail-order catalogs still offer you a chance to get on
their mailing list.
And so do some retail stores who have sent out catalogs for years.
And a few companies put the equivalent of a paper catalog up on their site, so you can
download it and read or print it using Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft Word. Interesting ploy:
they shift the printing cost to you.
Why does the store offer all these
lists of product categories, anyway?
The lists should help you find a product by category when you dont have a
particular product name, brand, or phrase to enter in a search box.
These lists resemble a table of contents in a book, where you turn to a chapter that
seems to cover what you want, then look at the headings to find one that seems most
relevant. Searches are more like using the index.
Most sites offer a list of product categories on the welcome page. You click a
category, such as telephones, and get a list of subcategories, such as 2.4 GHz cell
phones, 900 MHz cell phones, 25-channel cell phones, old-fashioned analog phones, pagers,
beepers, and phones for the hearing impaired.
When you spot a subcategory you like, you click that and get, perhaps, a list of
You are drilling down, down, down into the stores inventory. Eventually, when you
click a sub-, sub-, sub-category, you get to a list of actual products, and when you click
one of those, you arrive, at last, at a description of a particular product.
This hierarchy may be well designed or not. Bad designs force you to click, click,
click, going down as many as ten levels to get to a particular product. Good designs put a
lot of choices right at the top, so you dont have to go down so many staircases.
Crummy designers think of their approach as logical, because they start with only one
or two categories, and divide those up gradually, the way we were supposed to do outlining
in school. The result is just as tedious as making an outline. Their hierarchy starts out
very narrow and gets much, much deeper.
Good design, on the other hand, starts with a wide horizon at the top, with dozens or
even a hundred categories spread out across the page, with shallow information under each
category. Thats faster, because you dont have to dig as deep.
Looking through categories in this way is sometimes called browsing, to distinguish the
process from looking something up in the database directly, which is called searching.
What lies behind the store's
A database with a record for each product usually lies behind the search.
In the database, each record has a bunch of fields, like the columns in a table, for
information such as the product name, price, manufacturer, description, and image. Like a
shoe box full of index cards, the database keeps track of all the information on the
stores inventory, but because the database is electronic, it can look through all
those records very quickly and come back to you with an onscreen report showing all the
records that contain whatever word you typed into the search box.
Most people couldnt care less what lies behind the search box. But if you
personally are curious about the way these work, consider three kinds of database, which
run the vast majority of these searches.
The small sites may have whats called a flat-file database, which
is like your address book. Every record has the same slots to fill in, like a form. There
is only one file, and, usually, that file does not contain many records.
Bigger sites use a relational database, which has different tables for
different information. So theres a table for product descriptions, and another for
the manufacturers addresses. The information from each table is put together on the
fly and served up to you on the screen as a single page, or part of a page. The advantage
to the company is that they have to update information such as the company address only
once, because it lives in only one table. (By contrast, in a flat file, you have to put
the company address on every record that refers to one of their products, meaning that if
you want to update that information everywhere, you have to go to every relevant record,
erase the old address, and type in the new one, or something like that.) The relational
advantage is that with a lot of products you get quick responses.
Fanciest of these databases are transaction systems, created to accept,
record, and report on transactions actual purchasesso quickly that the data is
recorded almost instantaneously (laughingly called "real time"). Examples
include airline reservation systems and online stockbroker systems. When you say where you
want to go, on what day and time, the airline system paws through hundreds of thousands of
flights to come up with the closest matches, usually in less than a minute. Try doing that
with index cards in a shoe box!
How can I search for a product
if I don't know a brand name?
Use a unique keyword.
Keywords are very important wordsthat is, words that most people would associate
with this particular product. These words act as keys to the database, opening it up to
show you a particular product, or a set of products, all of which are associated with that
You can type in a keyword you think describes the product you are looking for, and the
database comes back with a bunch of products that the store staff has described with that
word. For instance, for a frying pan, the store folks might decide that keywords include pan,
frying, cooking, fry, fries, stovetop, cast iron, the manufacturers name, steak,
hash browns, omelets, scrambled eggs, pancakes, and griddle cakes. That way, if
you type in pancakes, you get a list of products, one of which is the frying pan,
because in the Keyword field on its record, the word pancakes appears.
To limit the number of products you turn up, think of a keyword that applies to your
kind of product but no other. For instance, pancakes will bring up frying pans,
skillets, and warmers, but not steamer baskets, microwave ovens, and ice-cream makers. Not
too bad, in a big database.
Of course, you may think of a word that is so unusual that the store staff didnt
think of it either when they entered keywords for the product. Time to back off, and enter
a more general term, such as pan.
So what kind of searches do
The sophistication of searches varies from store to store.
Simple stores offer simple searches by keywords such as the product name, the
manufacturer, or, least helpful, their own number for the product (as if you had any idea
what that might be). You type in one word or one phrase, and you get whatever products
have that text in their descriptions.
Bigger stores have so many products that they let you ignore whole bunches of
them, narrowing your search down. Instead of asking the system to search through every
field on every record for "ball," you can use the advanced search, and point out
that this word should show up only in the title of a book, and that this word is not an
author or publisher. Or, in a CD store, you can specify the type of music, and specify
that the word you type in is part of a title, not the name of an artist, a group, or a
label. Tips like these help the database ignore the other fields, and just look in the
Title field, which speeds up the search enormously.
Advanced searches let you specify what field to look in, and whether or not a word or
phrase MUST appear there, while another word or phrase CANNOT appear, and so on. From the
designers point of view, these constraints let the system filter out irrelevant
information, resulting in a faster search and a more focused report. In a variation of
this advanced search, you go to a department and, once there, you can search for items
within that department. Good aspect: Because no other departments records are
examined, the search goes faster. Downside: You wont discover a product that happens
to belong to a different department. For instance, if you go to the Electronics department
looking for a hair dryer, the search may come up empty, because the store figures that a
hair dryer belongs in the Personal Care department.
The best databases offer many different ways you can limit your search, telling the
database what field to look in, what text to insist on, and what to ignore.
Of course, creating a database that has all those fields takes more work than a simple
product list. But, when shopping online, you can judge a store by its search.
I got too many results. How
can I narrow down my search?
First look for an advanced search.
The best stores advertise their more sophisticated search mechanisms, but mediocre
stores, for some reason, hide this functionality or dont even offer it.
Advanced searches let you say things like "Find me books about Washington, but not
the president, the county, or the state" or "The book I am after must have the
word Architecture in the title, and Addison-Wesley as the publisher, and
publication date after 1997."
No advanced search? Then get more specific.
The challenge you face is that each stores database acts a little differently, so
what forces one database to be more precise may result in another database widening its
arms to include 20,000 records or more.
If you tried just one word from the CD title, type in the whole title of the CD, or the
entire name of the product. If the database is the kind that imagines an and between
each word you type, it interprets what you type as "To qualify, a record must have
this word AND that word AND the next word, all of them." If the database thinks this
way, you will get records only for that particular CD.
Unfortunately, this approach may simply get you more results than before, if the
database interprets your criteria as meaning, "Find me any products whose records
include any of these words." Thats OR-ing.
In other words, the database imagines you have put the word or between every
word you typed, and it has surfaced any products whose records include this word OR that
word OR the other.
OK, if that seems to have happened, you must get tough. Put quotes around your whole
phrase. Some databases understand that to mean that the whole phrase must appear in a
record before it qualifies to appear in the report you see on the screen.
And finally, if that fails, go back to a single word. But make that word the most
unusual, the most relevant to the product. Non-technical note: to improve database
performance, consider prayer.
I got no results from my
search, but I am sure they have this product. How can I have better luck locating
If the database comes back to you with some lame expression like "No matches were
found," you may be tempted to say that you werent looking for a box of matches.
But the database is just being stupid.
To help it find a record you are positive is there, try the following:
If you are entering the name of a singer, author, or artist, try the complete
name forward and backward: Jonathan Price, or Price, Jonathan, with and then
without a middle name. (Some databases drop middle names, others know about them; some
databases think of last name, first name, while others expect the name to be complete, and
in order, a combination of first-name-and-last-name-all-in-one.)
To cast a wider net, use a more general term. If you tried Hunan for a
cookbook, try Chinese instead.
Remember that some human being had to look at the product and come up with
keywords describing it. Think of a busy person who doesnt care very much about this
product. Think of someone who puts in only the most obvious terms. Then try one of those
What if I completely fail to
discover the product using the search?
Well, maybe the store just doesnt have it! (This is the most common situation.)
Stores often look as if they carry a wide range of products but turn out to focus on 10
categories, or a hundred. Inevitably, they ignore something. You may have stumbled on that
If you think they really have the product somewhere, or might carry it soon, email
them. Many stores are set up to call their wholesalers to see if a product is available.
They should get back to you within 24 hours with the news that they can supply it, if
they can. Otherwise, you should get a letter thanking you warmly for your interest and
support, and admitting sheepishly that they dont carry the product.
Once I find a product at a store,
how much will I be able to learn about the product?
Product descriptions vary enormously from store to store. Sometimes you get no more
than the product name, their code number, and the price. (Generally, this spartan approach
is adopted only by stores that distinguish themselves from other stores by price alone.)
Ideally, a product description should include all of the following:
An overview of the product, in brief
Photos, small and large
Features and benefits
Requirements, such as what operating system and how much memory you need to run
a piece of software; also, compatibility issues ("This plug will not work in
Samples, such as a chapter from a book, or partial tracks from a music CD, to
play on your computer
Suggestions of similar products that other customers have bought
Constraints, such as the limitations on discount air tickets (can be used only
on Tuesday, and so on)
Warranty (yes, the complete warranty for this particular product)
Shipping costs for delivery of this product in a week, a few days, overnight
Tip: If you are interested in a fairly common item, like a hair dryer or CD
system, and you want to get some unbiased advice about these products, go to the Consumer
Reports site, at http://www.consumerreports.org/
for detailed reports on their testing. They give you tables comparing products.
Unfortunately, you have to pay for some articles, but particularly if youre going to
pay big bucks for a product, their fee is probably worth paying, to be sure you get what
you really need.
How can the store offer these
Depending on the industry, the wholesale price of a brand-new item is 20% to 55% off
the retail price, so virtual stores can easily offer you 15% to 50% off retail, and still
make a slight profit on each sale.
But you may wonder: How can they manage to offer discounts that go way below those
offered by physical stores?
Stores that live entirely online, with no retail showrooms, no paper catalogs, and (in
some cases) no warehouses can offer major discounts because their overhead is less than
The lightest virtual stores accept orders electronically, relay those orders
electronically to a supplier, and the supplier ships the products out, for a small fee.
A few stores charge you exactly what they pay, making not even one used dime on each
transaction, because they hope to sell advertising on their sites, on the theory that
extremely low prices will bring people through, exposing them to the banner ads as they
buy other products.
Next up the scale are stores that must have a physical warehouse. For instance,
Amazon.com and eToys have found they can ship more efficiently if they handle warehousing
themselves, rather than counting on a big wholesaler. But suddenly these companies
discover they must hire workers to run the forklifts, pour Styrofoam pellets into boxes,
label the packages, and hand them over to the delivery services. So the discounts at these
stores, while dramatic, are a little less than at the rock-bottom locations. And so it
When a store supports retail storefronts and paper catalogs, as well as their online
operation, the amount they can discount goes way down. But you should still get products
for a little less than you would if you walked into the showrooms. Most of these stores
also feature overstocks, discontinued items, and remainders, at even deeper discounts.
You will almost always get a product for a lower price online than you could in a
retail store, so that, even including your shipping charges, you are ahead of the game.
But remember that the amount you save is only part of the incentive for shopping
online. When you take into account the convenience, time-saving, and information available
online, you may well find yourself ordering products even when you are only saving a buck
or two over retail.