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September 05, 2010

The Retail Experience Continues to Lag Online Convenience

The last few months in the Gray household have been ones of change. We moved out of our condo at the end of July, squeezed for space with our rambunctious two year old twins, and threatened further by the promised arrival of baby number three. As discussed previously, we tapped Redfin to help us with our home search, and finally found a fantastic place. Since then, baby number three, Braden, has arrived, ahead of schedule, and you also saw the news of my VP of Marketing role at my6sense. So change is in the air, indeed.

The arrival of Braden and move to the new home set other things in motion. We needed to get a larger car to hold three car seats at once, and we have a home that needs furniture. Unfortunately, one still can't download either, and the acquisition of both car and furniture has required venturing into the world of retail. The two different ways we went about getting both have remarkable difference in terms of fulfillment and speed, and unsurprisingly, the one that starts with the Web has the happier ending.

My wife and I have a list of "to do" items on our fridge to get our home into good shape. On the top of that list was furniture for the living room, family room, dining room and eventually, patio furniture, in some distant future. In early August, I set off to a department store to pick out sofas, love seats or anything we could sit in that would fit well with our home. That Friday, after my initial reconnaissance, my wife and I returned, and made our picks.

Despite the furniture being on the showroom floor, including the right configurations and colors, this did not indicate the items were available at their warehouse. We were promised an update in days, and shipping as soon as the following week.

The next Monday, I checked in and found that of the eight items, three were available, four more would arrive in the warehouse by August 27th, and one more by September 9th. On August 28th, I called, and found those items had not in fact arrived, but were delayed through September 3rd. So our rooms remain empty.

Today, I called to set up a delivery date. Surprise! The items are further delayed until September 27th, and the one laggard was now September 15th. This means the items are at least a month delayed from the previous date, and all we can do is wait. Something tells me that had I just purchased the same or similar items from Amazon.com or another online retailer, the Earth would have been moved to make my date, and they would be aggressively updating me if changes happened. Not so with tired old department store.

Luckily, this fate did not befall us when looking for a car. Needing to trade in our Toyota Rav-4 and purchase a larger car (or ... minivan), I heard an ad for AutoTrader.com that was made for folks just like me. A new program at tradein.autotrader.com lets you enter the right information on the car you need to trade in, and they will deliver a guaranteed price. While on the site, you can also say what car you are looking for and get people to call you with an offer. Sure enough, it was a slam dunk.

On Thursday night, I put in the data for our Rav-4 and got a guaranteed quote. On Friday afternoon, I got calls back from local car salesmen with offers that matched my needs. On Saturday, my wife and I went in and not only traded in our old car, but bought a new one. We took it home and the car is already in our driveway.

The contrast in these two experiences could not be more clear. The first, which does not operate on Web speed or simplicity, is dragging along with fingerpointing and excuses. The second, which let the Web do much of the hardwork of negotiation, discovery and introductions, made things happen overnight that could have taken weeks or months in years past.

I've long held to the belief that I should be doing as much of my shopping online as I can, or leveraging the Web wherever possible. Time and again, I find myself getting annoyed when the rest of the physical world doesn't work on my timelines, to my real-time expectations and efficiency. Online does. The best Web sites in the world with top notch customer service make things happen, and those dinosaurs that act as if the Web is just a marketing brochure aren't going to keep their edge for too much longer. I've had it with incompetent retail laggards - and can't endorse AutoTrader.com enough. It flat out works.