Digital Slob

Curt Brandao

Web shopping is
getting more popular,
but nothing is really free

By now, most of us have eaten enough leftover turkey to build up a Tryptophan tolerance, and as our bird-induced grogginess ebbs, we're regaining consciousness enough to realize it is now almost December, which can only mean one thing: Santa, the Grim Reaper for credit cards, is on his way.

But despite all the advances in the Digital Age, whether we shop using automobiles or autofill forms on our Web browsers depends, primarily, on whether we prefer being fleeced standing up or sitting down.

As for resolute Respectable People, their holiday path to the mall is hardwired at the genetic level, like the upstream trek of a salmon. Digital Slobs, however, are not so aggressive in the real world. In fact, inside crowded malls, the only differences between Slobs and lost 4-year-olds are our girth and the lack of empathy our blubbering generates from Good Samaritans.

It's easy to understand why we'd prefer this affliction remain cloaked behind an encrypted firewall. But don't expect Internet shopping to do for your checking account what it does for your agoraphobia.

Oh, sure, at first click there would seem to be enough low-priced Mini-Car Racers, George Foreman Grills and digital cable descramblers online to keep everyone on your list happy. But just calculate all the shipping and handling, and you'll realize that, with the same money, you could charter a Leer Jet to personally inspect every Wal-Mart special in America.

You can try to get the best online deal through price-comparison Web sites like or, but from my experience, there's no magic portal. Even costs $4.99 a month. How insane is that?

That's like saying you get free rent for $1,100 a month. Congress should pass a law stating that no site with the word "free" in its domain name can charge a monthly fee. But for now, there's no free lunch, not even at (I tried). We're just a bunch of rats with revolving credit in a maze.

But no matter how agile Slobs are on the Information Superhighway, Main Street retailers can always lure us out of the Matrix with "loss leaders," items they sell below cost just to redirect Internet traffic into their offline showrooms.

We know we're being played, of course. There's something about buying your brother a DVD player for $11.95 that just goes against nature. Sure, when he tries to use it, it'll probably smoke and screech like an Amtrak train that jumped the tracks, but it's the thought that counts.

All this aside, Web shopping is getting more popular. Forrester Research Inc. estimates that online sales will reach $12.2 billion this year, up from $8.4 billion in 2002. That sounds impressive, until you realize that three lace thongs, two sequin bras and one silk charmeuse gown from costs about $2.1 billion (I know it sounds steep, but I think that includes gift-wrapping).

But whether you fight the good holiday fight on broadband or Broadway, the most important thing is not what you buy, or how you buy it, but who you're buying it for. If you can master this deft emotional pivot during the next few weeks, you can be sure your holiday spirit arrives on time.

Unless, of course, you don't order it by Dec. 15. After that, you have to use Federal Express for guaranteed delivery and that's, like, $25 extra.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Curt Brandao is the Star-Bulletin's production editor. Reach him at:


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