'Teleshopping' inches forward
Now that Christmas shopping is over, it's time to hunt for those post-holiday bargains - in other words, jostle for parking spaces, dodge the cavalcade of consumers, and pause indefinitely at sales counters.
Why not browse for goods from the comfort of your living room, instead?
The idea of ''teleshopping'' - buying goods electronically through a TV set or a home computer - has been touted by futurists since the mid-1960s as the coming revolution in retailing.
It still is - coming.
Eventually, probably by the mid-1990s, as much as 10 percent of the $1 trillion a year in general-merchandise retail shopping in the United States may be done electronically from your sofa. But today the technology that will bring this about is only beginning to penetrate the home.
''People thought that once the idea of teleshopping was publicized it would spread like fire,'' says John Wolfe, assistant editor of a newsletter about electronic services. ''It just hasn't.''
Part of the problem lies in the technology itself. The vehicle for bringing shopping into the home now exists: cable TV, home computers, and videotex(a two-way information service delivered through the television). But each still has some flaws that limit the types of goods that can be blinked over a screen.
Consider home computers. By plugging into one of several electronic buying services, the computer owner can purchase, with a simple entry of a credit card number, goods ranging from cameras to chocolates. But the services usually offer text and no graphics, which allows little in the way of window shopping. Two-way cable systems give browsers nice pictures, but they can't thumb through the list of goods at will. The items are flashed periodically on certain channels.
With videotex, goods are pitched with both texts and graphics, but the pictures are of poor quality.
''The technological capability is not in place to make home shopping take off yet,'' says Susan Engel, a principal with Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc. of Chicago , the management consulting firm . ''For it to be the most effective, you have to have pictorial capability that is lifelike.''
Then there are the social adjustments to be made. Many people like to get out of the house to shop. Silicon shopping will require fundamental shifts in consumer behavior, analysts agree.
Interest is beginning to build, however. Close to a dozen home-shopping programs are now delivered over cable television. These feature mainly product demonstrations. The shopper places the order by phone. Items being sold range from appliances to Levi jeans.
Another handful of electronic sales services are being channeled to home-computer owners. Comp-U-Store and CompuServe are two of the large ones. After years of testing, videotex made its commercial debut in late October, when Knight-Ridder launched its Viewtron service in Florida. By the end of 1984, several other videotex ventures are expected to move beyond the experimental stage. Most will allow subscribers to bank, play games, send electronic messages , and call up news reports, as well as shop. This will be done over their TV sets, which will be equipped with special decoders and computer hookups. (Knight-Ridder's Viewtron costs $600 for the computer hookup, $12 a month for a service charge, and an additional fee to transmit information over phone lines.)
Another indication that home-electronics shopping is gaining a toehold is the number of big retailers tiptoeing into the field. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Dayton-Hudson Corporation, and J. C. Penney Company are among the large firms which have participated in videotex experiments. Yet most remain cautious.
Who will want to shop from his living room chair? The first wave of teleshopping services is being aimed partly at the well-heeled and ''technology-smart.'' But studies have indicated that the elderly, among other convenience-minded groups, could eventually be big teleshoppers.
Also coming into clearer focus are the types of goods that people will be buying from home. At first, these will be mainly hard goods, such as TV sets, stereos, toaster ovens, and computer wares. With these items, consumers often know exactly what brand they want.
Ultimately, though, some experts believe that as much as 80 percent of all general merchandise conceivably could be sold electronically.
The days of big home shopping sales - perhaps 8 to 10 percent of the general merchandise market - are still believed to be 10 years away. In other words, teleshopping is not going to relegate the venerable department stores to that great inventory in the sky.
''Even under the most grandiose scenario, not more than 10 percent of all general merchandise will be sold electronically,'' predicts Thomas Rauh, a retailing expert at Touche Ross & Co., the big accounting firm. ''We're not predicting the demise of the department store.''