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Saturday 19 March 2005

Why I Do Not Buy Much Online

I am a proper man of the early 21st century, and one who is, financially speaking, more than fairly fortunate. I sit in front of a computer nearly all of the time I’m at home and conscious, and I have a number of gadgets that allow me to sit effectively sit in front of a computer with an Internet connection when I’m anywhere else.

Further, I live not in the middle of nowhere, exactly, but on the edge of nowhere, or at least somewhere along the Nowhere Pike. There’s an excellent old-fashioned hardware store near here, meaning that I’m in an excellent position when I need random nuts and bolts, or plumbing fittings, or welding supplies, or other things that are hard or annoying to buy at Home Depot etc. Less-utilitarian things, though — or things that are utilitarian in a different way, like a new disk for my computer — are not available nearby.

All of this places me squarely in the demographic of People Who Tend To Buy Things Online.

And yet nearly everyone I know seems to buy far more online than I do. Why is this?

There are a number of reasons, but as I just stumbled on a perfect example of one of them, I’m going to talk about that, namely: It’s Still Amateur Hour online.

I want to buy a pen. Specifically, I want to buy a Waterman Carène fountain pen.

I’m a fan of fountain pens in general; at the moment, my regular pen is a left-handed Pelikano P450 that I bought at a German post office some time ago. The Pelikano is a pen targeted at the German elementary-school set when they’re learning to write. There are special grippy things near the nib that help the tykes learn how to hold the pen: I use the left-handed version even though I’m not left-handed because this results in the nib being turned in a different direction which I think helps make my handwriting more interesting, if not more legible.

My hands are considerably larger than a German schoolchild’s, though, and this pen isn’t very fancy, either. If there were a larger, swanker version of the Pelikano, I’d be all over it.

Unfortunately, the adult-fountain-pen market seems to involve only two types of pens: pens meant to impress others (i.e. big and flashy), and pens meant to convey how hyper-rational you are (i.e. hexagonal and bare metal). Neither of these appeal to me. The Carène, though — most models, anyway; you can buy the thing encrusted with diamonds if that’s your thing — strikes me as being nicely-balanced between the two. It’s neither too fancy nor too plain. So I set out to buy one.

And here I get to the point. One of the first pages I came across in my search was this one. It’s a Carène in blue, which is an nice and unusual color: I generally don’t like gold on pens. It looks like there’s something different going on with the finish there, too, so I click on the ‘Click to enlarge’ link under the product image.

And I get a pop-up window with the same picture in it. On close inspection, it’s not precisely the same image; the image on the main page is 300 x 365 pixels; the ‘enlarged’ view is 320 x 389: over 13% bigger! Of course, since the pen only occupies a small portion of the frame, that’s an even smaller increase than it sounds like.

This is really one of those situations where a picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s a little Flash movie showing the small and ‘large’ versions:

It looks interestingly like something out of an SCTV 3-D movie, but it’s not really helpful to a prospective purchaser.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Shopping On The Internets! Convenience! Selection! You can buy a perfectly good pen for $1.50; this one costs a hundred times as much, largely for aesthetic reasons. It’s being sold by a merchant that specializes in ‘luxury’ goods, i.e. things that are distinguished from functionally identical other things primarily by subtle aesthetic improvements. But you can’t get much of a look at it, because they can’t be arsed to put a giant picture on there. There’s a separate link! People buying $150 pens are not, by and large, going to be connecting over dialup connections (and, if they are, they’re likely to understand that they click on the ‘larger image’ link at their peril)! Give us a damned big image!

But no. (Very slightly larger images, both of ‘em, are available through this link direct to the Ashford site rather than through Shop.com pressents Ashford.com, Powered By Altura.com. Altura.com innediately redirects to http://admin-amos.catalogcity.com/amos/cc/main/altura_home/ccsyn/251 — which inspires so much confidence anyway.)

It’s a small thing, and I’m sure that there are larger pictures of the pen available online, and in any case when buying a product online that’s so much an artifact (as opposed to a device), one should ideally have had some real-world exposure to the thing.

And I am well aware that the end result of this is that my purchase of a $150 pen is made a tiny bit less convenient than it otherwise might be. The world’s tiniest violin is playing: click here for a 13% less-tiny violin.

But, regardless of the triviality of this particular case, why on earth should this experience be so lousy? Why should it be so hard to buy something? If you go to buy this thing in person, the pen store has special lighting black velvet to make the thing look its very best, and to allow you to see it as well as your eyes will allow. The online pen store, on the other hand, works against you from the very start because they haven’t given much thought to what it is they’re doing.

Posted by tino at 22:16 19.03.05
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I’ve had experiences with sites where the “enlarged” picture was actually the same size as the normal picture. Somehow, though, your example seems much more ridiculous.

I do most of my writing with a fountain pen, as well. As non-flashy pens go, I like the Levenger True Writer. They’re only about $50, and I’ve had mine for five years and it’s still going strong. They tend to look more fake-luxurious than your example, with this odd colored mottling on the body of the pen, but they are (relatively) cheap and well-made. I don’t think the website offers larger versions of their pictures, though.

Posted by: hypowren at March 20, 2005 10:43 PM

Hiya Tino, The truth is, we online retailers can be bothered. I for one care very much what people think when viewing product images on our website and understand that a detailed image makes every bit of difference when making the decision to buy online. I would be happy to personally send you any high-resolution images for product on ashford.com that you may be interested in purchasing (even new shots on black velvet). The example you provided above is regrettable. Unfortunately, due to the massive influx of new product to our website, some items do get by us from time to time. Just as you want larger images, we want them too! We are currently implementing new larger image sizing and additional functionality to improve all our customer’s online shopping experiences. Until our rollout date, you may email me directly with any image requests you have regarding our products. Also, our customer service call center would be happy to answer any additional questions you have. p.s. nice violin pic dave -photographer-ashford.com

Posted by: dave p at April 4, 2005 02:44 PM