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Jenny Viscarolasaga with Gracie, a puppy acquired over the Internet.
Jenny Viscarolasaga with Gracie, a puppy acquired over the Internet. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)

Shopping's social value fading for those online

Even though Jenny Viscarolasaga describes herself as ``quite social and chatty," human contact is often not part of the equation when she goes shopping.

In the past couple of months, Viscarolasaga has gone online to buy a rug, a pair of boots, porch furniture, computer software -- and even a dog.

``That's the way of the world," said Viscarolasaga, 35, of Waltham. ``There's modernization happening all over the place."

Or, in the blunt words of another online shopper, Melissa Baern of Melrose: ``Not having two seconds of a cashier's `Have a nice day,' that's fine with me. I didn't have to slog through the malls to get there."

Barbra Streisand notwithstanding, people who need people seem to be a dwindling population. Online sales are soaring. The Internet, once a forbidding terra incognita, is now a routine destination for millions of shoppers. New research shows that customers now make more than three times as many purchases online as they did five years ago; Americans are projected to spend more than $200 billion online this year, double the amount spent three years ago.

The bottom line is that the once-social experience of shopping is steadily being transformed into a solitary exercise of point-and-click.

The trend is reflected in the experience of Denise Karlin of Brookline, who buys clothes, food, books, Art Deco memorabilia, and even the occasional computer online, and also makes plane and hotel reservations online. ``It's become such a part of my being," said Karlin, 48, who is assistant general counsel at the state Department of Early Education and Care.

Nor does she miss mingling with other customers or conferring with salespeople at a bricks-and-mortar store.

``As far as human interaction goes, it's getting less and less in most establishments anyway," said Karlin, noting that many grocery stores encourage shoppers to use self-checkout lanes. ``You have to fend for yourself. Unless it's a really high-end store, I find the human interaction is not something I necessarily miss."

Of course, for people who never enjoyed going to stores in the first place, high end or not, online shopping furnishes a handy escape route.

``The picking through things, going through a rack of clothes, there's 18 different pairs of black shoes, which one do I really like," groaned Jill DeCoursey, 48, of Seekonk. ``If I can look at that same potential set of options sitting in my family room with my computer in my lap, I find it easier to deal with. They're not all in my face at the same time."

Many others apparently feel as DeCoursey does. A just-released study conducted by Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge projects that online sales this year will increase 20 percent from last year , to more than $211 billion. (The study was done for Shop.org, a division of the National Retail Federation. ) That would represent a doubling of online sales in just the past three years, as traditional bricks-and-mortar stores and travel agencies have solidified their online presence to compete with Internet-only retailers.

Analysts say one key reason consumers are buying more online is the emergence of broadband Internet connections that allow them to glide around the Internet more quickly. The number of US residents with broadband connections soared 40 percent, to 84 million, from March 2005 to March 2006, according to a report issued in May by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

And online customers are making more purchases, tripling their transactions from an average of 11 a year in 2001 to 35 last year, according to the University of Southern California Annenberg School's Center for the Digital Future. The center's study tracking the buying habits of Internet consumers across five years found that they spent an average of $113.34 per month online in 2005, $43 a month more than in 2001.

What it all adds up to is a new look to the American way of shopping, according to David Greenfield, director of the Center for Internet Behavior in West Hartford, Conn. ``If you viewed shopping as a social experience, it's a loss," said Greenfield. ``If you viewed it as a functional thing, it's not."

But has the ability to buy products with a few keystrokes given rise to an epidemic of compulsive shopping that will plunge Americans deeper into debt? Specialists say that while common sense suggests that such a problem is brewing, the issue still awaits a comprehensive study. ``There's no specific data on that," said Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of the Impulse Control Disorder Clinic at Stanford University, who helped conduct a major study of the general subject of compulsive shopping in 2001.

However, Aboujaoude added, ``Compulsive shopping is an impulse - control condition. Anything that makes access easier makes the impulse easier to act upon. You would certainly expect with the ease of online shopping that this problem is becoming more prevalent and more serious."

Of a dozen online shoppers interviewed by the Globe, none said they had succumbed to compulsive shopping, though several acknowledged they had bought things they didn't need on occasion, and needed to beware of that trap. A more common response came from Baern, a 40-year-old development officer for a nonprofit organization, who said she spends less money on clothing and furnishings because when she shops online she is focused on her goal. ``I rarely do the kind of browsing-shopping that I used to do, where you go from store to store seeing what's available," she said.

Beyond matters of dollars and cents, the typical American household continues to struggle against a time famine to which online shopping can seem a tempting solution. ``It fits into today's lifestyles for people," says Jacqueline Conard, who teaches marketing strategy at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management . ``They're very busy, so when they have time, they can shop, whether that's 11 o'clock at night, when the kids are in bed, or at 5 o'clock in the morning, before everyone else is awake."

But there are other factors at play. Gas prices have risen to stratospheric levels in the past year, diminishing the appeal of a trip to the store (and possibly making online delivery charges easier to swallow). Brand awareness for online retailers like amazon.com now approximates the household-name status of chains like Sears and Wal-Mart. And bricks-and-mortar stores have their own robust online operations, so it is possible for online consumers to shop where they have always shopped -- virtually.

However, even some online shoppers draw the line at some products. Many buyers prefer to buy their clothes in person so they can be sure the clothing fits; others are unwilling to buy food online. ``I'm really picky about my produce," said DeCoursey. ``I'm not sure I would let someone else pick my peppers."

When it comes to nonperishable goods, though, shoppers say that virtually anything can be found on the Internet. When Conard, who lives in Nashville, needed a christening outfit for her son, she scoured websites across Europe before buying one from a site based in Salt Lake City. Karlin, in need of a poodle skirt for her 9-year-old godchild to wear in a community theater production, found one on a Texas-based website. Glenn Chase, 46, of Chelsea, buys car parts and prescriptions online. DeCoursey has bought a model railroad kit for her husband and a trash compactor online. Greenfield recently went online to buy a car.

And when Rick Hamilton, 56, lost 3,000 books in a fire at his Edgartown house, he went online to begin replacing them. ``Amazon is still a little cumbersome at times; their search engine turns up a lot of irrelevant items," he says. But in general, he says, online shopping is ``very quick, it saves time and money, and it's fuel-efficient."

Which is not to say it's a sure thing, as Jenny Viscarolasaga, a public relations consultant, learned when she and her husband, Efrain, picked up their puppy, Gracie. Described by the online seller as a ``Lab[rador] mix," and featured in a picture that proved to be more than a bit outdated, the pooch turned out to be primarily a Great Dane. It will grow as large as 100 pounds, not the 60 pounds or so they were expecting.

But the experience has not soured Viscarolasaga on the dog -- or, it seems, on online shopping. ``We still love her," she said in an e-mail, adding: ``We have come to accept that we will have a very large dog."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.


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