Shop by Computer, Buy From a Store

`Tis the season for two confessions:

1) I do not like shopping malls. Their sights, sounds, and smells are less an enticement than an assault. I feel as though I'm storming a Normandy beach with a shopping bag.

2) If I have to shop, I do it on-line. In fact, I kind of enjoy comparing prices and specifications via computer. It's the coming of virtual shopping and the ``electronic mall.''

CompuServe runs the granddaddy of virtual shopping services. Always a favorite, its ``Electronic Mall'' is growing rapidly. Keith Arnold, the mall's general manager, expects visits to nearly double this year and sales to rise 40 percent compared with 1993.

Aware of this trend, competitors are either beefing up or creating their own services. Last week, America Online, Apple Computer, and MCI Communications announced coming electronic malls. It's an infant industry with huge potential. But like all infants, it comes with challenges that aren't immediately obvious.

This summer, for example, after my wife and I bought a house, we needed all those homeowner things, like a refrigerator. Not knowing beans about refrigerators, I logged onto CompuServe and popped into one of my favorite services: Consumer Reports. Then I went back into CompuServe and logged onto another favorite place: Shoppers Advantage. It's a discount club that allows people to search its database of more than 250,000 products. The discounts are deep enough that just a couple of Shoppers Advantage purchases usually save members more than the service's $39 annual membership fee.

But as these would-be Sears of cyberspace are finding out, people like me are far more likely to visit electronic malls than to buy from them. By one estimate, fewer than 200,000 people have ever bought anything on-line. Instead, I use the electronic information to get the equivalent deal locally.

For the refrigerator, Gretchen and I headed to a nearby appliance dealer. We wanted to see the refrigerator, touch it, slide out the vegetable drawer. Once we did, the choice was clear. Customers at virtual malls never get that chance.

The local store wanted $40 more for our model than Shoppers Advantage (with delivery). But they readily matched the club's price as soon as we showed the computer printout. I bought from the store, knowing that someone local would back the product if ever there was a problem.

A few months later, I tried the technique again for a vacuum cleaner. Consumer Reports praised a Eureka model, and Shoppers Advantage was charging $111 (delivered). But I learned that Skip, our local vacuum salesman, could order it for $99.

That wasn't all. Skip pooh-poohed the Eureka, showing me point by point why a Hoover was built better. It required far fewer repairs, he said. (Consumer Reports rated only the cleaning power of the models, not their repair history.)

So I bought the Hoover. But because only the deluxe model was available, I ended up paying nearly twice as much for it as I planned. I couldn't help feeling I had been given a real sales job.

That weekend, I pulled out the Hoover for its maiden carpet tour. The machine worked well. I was so impressed, I forgot to look where I was sweeping and sucked up a stereo-speaker cord. The cord broke. It also damaged the underside of the Hoover.

The following Monday, I returned the machine to Skip, who repaired the problem in 15 minutes and didn't charge me a thing. That got me to thinking. Had that happened with a vacuum cleaner bought on-line, the repair would have taken far longer - and probably cost something too.

So this Christmas, my motto is: Shop virtually, buy locally, and don't let that 20th reprise of ``Jingle Bell Rock'' get you down.

* Mall-lovers may lodge their protests via CompuServe (70541,3654), America Online (LBELSIE), or the Internet (laurentb

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