• United States

Rejecting shopping accounts

Dec 15, 20033 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsRegulation

‘Tis the season to be shopping (and shopping and shopping). More relevant to the scope of this column is the data point that more of this shopping is being done online. I expect that even more would be if some online retailers were not quite so greedy.

Depending on whose guessing you want to believe, online holiday-related sales will be 26% to 42% greater than last year. If these predictions turn out to be accurate, online holiday sales will total as much as $17 billion; this is still a rather small part of overall holiday sales in the U.S. The highest estimate I’ve seen in the press is that online sales will amount to only 7.7% of overall sales.

One estimate I saw projected that online holiday sales would exceed catalogue holiday sales in the next year or two. A nice rate of growth but not one I would expect to continue for all that long – too many people (not including me) seem to find the crush at the shopping malls an intrinsic part of the gift-giving process.

As you might expect, news of online holiday sales growth has managed to further excite local tax collectors over the missed revenue opportunity. Headway has been made on the taxing front. Quite a few states are well along in simplifying their tax structures so they will be ready when the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Act – a bill being discussed in Congress – or something like it passes in the next year or two. I fully expect to pay sales taxes on most online purchases next year, although the often-glacial processes in Washington, D.C., might keep it from happening for another year. (I do not know how one can have glaciers in a place that gets so hot in August, but they seem to be prevalent.)

I’ve done a lot of online shopping this year, and most of the experience has been quite good. Most online retailers have Web sites where it’s easy to find things, check stock, enter shipping and credit card information, and move onto the next site. But I ran into two other classes of sites where it is clear the vendors don’t know what they are doing.

A few sites seem to have been designed by the developer of Dungeons and Dragons – things are almost impossible to find and even if you manage to find what you want you cannot figure out how to check out. The most annoying problem is sites that insist on forging a life-long bond with you. You cannot just buy something, you have to set up an account complete with password. As far as I can tell, they just want to have a way to spam you later. Needless to say, sites like that did not get my business. If they had just let me buy the stuff they would have. Maybe next year I’ll get simplicity along with the taxes.

Disclaimer: Simplicity is not a feature of any organization, like Harvard, which is more than 350 years old – so the above plea is mine, not the university’s.