Jane Wakefield: Dreaming of an e-Christmas

Is the e-Christmas sleigh really on its way to Britain? Endless reports promise so, but Jane Wakefield has her doubts

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except the click of the mouse.

The traditional Christmas poem by Clement Clarke Moore may need some updating this Christmas if the horde of e-merchants queuing up to take our festive pennies off us get their way. We are, they would have us believe, on the way to the ultimate Web Christmas when you can sit your children down in front of the PC, give them a virtual stocking and allow them to fill their sacks themselves.

While the endless surveys about e-commerce suggest the UK could be gearing up for its first e-Christmas, I am not convinced our shopping patterns have radically changed as a result of the Net.

The easyEverything cyber cafes set up by the ever-grinning and ebullient Greek entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou were conceived as a kind of cyber Argos store. But it turns out the majority of surfers are using it not to shop but to read and send email. While the cafes are proving popular -- I walked past one at ten o' clock the other night and it was packed (leaving me wondering, "Do these people not have pubs to go to?") -- only five percent are using it to shop online.

With around 10 million Brits connected to the Net -- of which around seven million have access at home -- the wired population is an enthusiastic and eager new market. But when it comes to shopping, it is still CDs and books that capture the majority of market share. This could all be changing -- sites dedicated to women, like handbag.com and charlottestreet, are boosting the online buying experience and sites like boo.com are doing their best to come up with new techniques to persuade us that online buying can be fun.

Boo.com has had teething problems, finding the technology needed to create zoom and 360 degree views of its sportswear was crashing the site. Other sites are finding they are just not exciting enough, with a survey published Wednesday showing that surfers have an attention span smaller than the average goldfish. With only six minutes to grab eyeballs, some e-merchants are finding people clicking off their sites faster than a rugby player downs a pint of Special Brew.

I have to confess I am one of the legions of online window shoppers. I will fill my basket with hundreds of pounds worth of exciting stuff, only to get to the credit card bit and think, "Nah, maybe tomorrow." And while the surveys would have us believe it is fear of fraud that keeps us one click away from an empty wallet, I think the real reason could be a whole lot more mundane.

For me it is lack of pressure. Without a grinning assistant to see me leaving the shop empty-handed there is no pressure on me to buy. Take me to a tacky market stall in the East End and a cockney with the gift of the gab and you will have me buying really horrible velour tracksuits in seconds.

There is a lot to be said for the personal touch and I think the same theory could apply to Christmas shopping. While e-Christmas enthusiasts harp on about the quickness of the Net, maybe it is just too damn efficient and impersonal. While it could come in handy for the bargain book for that aged aunt you never see, a lot of people would feel they were cheating to buy prezzies for their nearest and dearest without any suffering. At heart, the great British public are masochists and prefer pressing through the crowds in Oxford Street, to find shops empty of the presents they want and get their wallets stolen on the way to the cancelled tube. What joy!

I, personally, am a lost cause. Too disorganised to get down the shops, too disorganised to shop online, it will be prezzies from the 24-hour garage at four minutes to midnight on Christmas Eve again. A "Driving hits of the Eighties" CD, a pot noodle and a packet of charcoal briquettes should do nicely.

There is one Web site which I intend to spend a lot of money on, although it won't be here until the New Year unfortunately. Urbanfetch was conceived in Manhattan to provide those busy New Yorkers with packets of Skittles at any time of day or night. It has proved so popular, it is coming to London. With free delivery and no tipping allowed, the company will bring you ice cream, crisps and sweets anywhere in the capital. Now that's what I call service.

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