The Hell of Online Shopping

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Published in the New York Times Op-Ed

 

A FEW days ago, I got an e-mail from my sister Amy in Los Angeles saying she and her husband had received boxes from J. Crew. Christmas presents from me, she assumed, since I had ordered them online and told her to expect them.

 

But for whom, she asked? The cards were buried deep in the packaging, and one of them was missing. Nothing was gift-wrapped, either (although I had requested and paid for it). The boxes contained two pairs of shoes (although I had ordered only one pair), a man’s pullover and a sparkly pink woman’s sweater. The sweater was for a friend who also lives in Los Angeles, but somehow ended up being sent to Amy’s husband.

 

I called J. Crew to complain, and what followed was tedious and time-consuming, as all Internet dramas are, involving a review of numerous e-mails — “your order has been received,” “your order has been shipped” — in this case to the wrong place and in the wrong ways, some of which I might have prevented if I’d been vigilant tracking the flurry of e-mails.

 

The customer-service representative, consulting records, assured me that the box for my friend had been delivered. It had been left at the front door, she said, and gave me the address, which turned out to be not my sister and her husband’s house but my friend’s office, a gigantic building in Beverly Hills. “Left outside the front door? Are you sure?”

 

“Yes,” she said, and, as an apology, she would send me a $50 gift card. I e-mailed my friend. Had she received a box from J. Crew? “No,” she said.

 

My sister offered to gift-wrap and deliver my friend’s present. This was especially kind because traffic in Los Angeles is awful, as bad as New York’s during the holidays, which is one reason I order on the Web. But rather than make life easier, Web shopping only complicates it in new, more frustrating ways.

 

My husband, in charge of buying for all the children in our life, announced one evening that he had bought all his presents. To be done with Christmas shopping was so exciting that you’d think he’d used up some calories to do it, when in fact he’d never left his desk. The next morning he got an e-mail from Hammacher Schlemmer saying the item was out of stock and would ship after Jan. 1. So he had to phone and cancel the order. He then had to Web-shop all over again.

 

When I ordered the presents on the J. Crew Web site and checked a box for the gift-wrapping, I received a message back that J. Crew did not wrap shoes, my sister’s present. As Amy and I were sorting things out, I wondered why in the world I thought it was O.K. to send a Christmas present that wasn’t gift-wrapped.

 

It seems to me — a fact I had completely forgotten — that a Christmas present should be wrapped in pretty paper, maybe with some Santas dancing across it, maybe something glossy and glamorous. Shouldn’t the tag be handwritten? Shouldn’t the ribbon be made of paper that curls when you whip it across a scissor blade? A present should beckon you. Who wants a Christmas tree with a bunch of U.P.S. boxes under it?

 

Last week a U.P.S. box arrived. I opened it, and inside, unwrapped, was a slate cheese board and a gift card that said, in computer script, “Merry Christmas Julia and Jerry, love Anna.”

 

Anna is my niece. Jerry is my husband. I assume that I am Julia.

 

Precious holiday giving cannot be entrusted to a Web site. A gift shouldn’t be something you open by accident — hello, what is this? — ripping open the cardboard outer box with a knife, and then having your present fall out naked.

 

Ordering Christmas presents on the Web, regardless of the dubious ease, has obliterated the idea that there should be some grace to a present, some beauty, and that the receiver should experience it. Instead it’s become as mundane and problematic as all our Web purchases, which in my family include paper towels and toilet paper.

 

All this joy of Internet shopping was accompanied by our phone ringing several times a day: a computer voice from Virgin America insisting that my husband owes $70 — a $50 credit-card fee and $20 interest for not paying it. My husband has never had a Virgin America credit card. But to “proceed,” as in clear the problem up, the electronic voice asked him to identify himself by giving the number of the credit card that he does not possess. The telephone, which used to symbolize “reach out and touch someone” — remember that tear-jerking TV ad? — has become a disembodied voice reaching out to drive us crazy.

 

But I digress. Or do I? It all seems related. Intimacy replaced by expedience.

 

So this is my New Year’s resolution: I am never ordering another Christmas present on the Web again. Next year I am wrapping all my gifts myself and standing in line at the local post office for an hour or two to mail them. It’s the least I can do for the people I love.

 

 

published in the New York Times

 

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