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E-shoppers: Time to get real

E-commerce has rapidly altered the course of society in fundamental ways that even the staunchest supporters failed to predict.

E-commerce, the simple concept of buying goods online, has rapidly altered the course of society in fundamental ways that even the staunchest supporters failed to predict.

It has turned us into nincompoops.

Three years into the e-commerce revolution, one fact has become patently clear: People have become absolute dingbats when it comes to online shopping. Never has the world witnessed such a mass uprising of petty whiners and shrill bargain hunters.

A week barely goes by without a bevy of complaints that offered selective, unpublicized discounts on certain products or that dropped offline for a few hours. Angry emails flood message boards within minutes of the problem. Subsequent news articles are published worldwide.

Think for a moment. Before consumers began shopping online, would you have written a letter to an editor stating: "Attention. Safeway is NOT giving out samples of Red Baron pizza. They have some Dixie cups on display, but they are all empty. THIS DECEPTION MUST END!!! Also, they aren't selling Reggie bars anymore."

You also never saw headlines that read: "Stairway to Nowhere: Three Kids Halt Escalator at Mervyn's in El Cerrito. Sheets, Towels, Boy Scout Uniforms Inaccessible for Hours. Is Weinstock's the Next Victim?"

Misadventures like this were chalked up to fate. Store managers didn't have to explain why they didn't stock teriyaki Slim Jims. Spencer's novelty shop is out of 7-Up can lamps? C'est la vie.

But not anymore. The impatience and intransigence of the e-shopper has forced merchants to meet reliability standards normally reserved for probes to Venus.

A great example of inane e-commerce is happening right now. The New Internet Computer Company, conceived by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, has started to sell PCs that come with a Linux OS and no hard drive.

According to the company's site, the NICs cost $328 with a monitor. Yet the company is also auctioning off the first 10 NICs--complete with a certificate of authenticity signed by Ellison himself--on

Bids have exceeded $900, far more than the standard price. Although some bidders might believe these machines could become collectors' items, there really isn't a market for antique office supplies.

Two years ago, some Apple fans tried to get onto an episode of Antiques Roadshow with an original Macintosh autographed by company CEO Steve Jobs. The show rejected the submission since a value for the box couldn't be ascertained.

What's behind it all? Part of the problem lies with the e-tailers. They rose to power on the promise that they could offer a wider variety of products, deliver them fast, and charge less than brick-and-mortar stores.

Many e-merchants proudly exclaimed they were passionate about the online toy business. But the passion for selling Kerplunk often burns quickly. Deep down, these retailers wanted to make money, and consumers made them pay through their virtual noses for it.

But such technological promise also psychologically twisted consumers' expectations. Because computers can perform many functions quicker than can humans, they assumed a server would be more efficient than a salesman at Thom McCann's, complete with the piano keyboard tie.

Consumers also somehow equated the remarkable rise in the Dow with the promised efficiencies of e-commerce. Programmers, electronics executives and venture capitalists had created a marvelously wealthy and efficient world. Surely, if these professionals promised that companies could sell diet soda online for cost and still make a profit, they had to be right.

Unfortunately, expectations proved unfounded. We remain mired in a physical world where getting a good discount on tires remains largely an act of research and luck. Back to waiting in line.

What's worse, however, is that the long-term victim will likely prove to be civilization itself. Shopping has long been the basis of human society--a principal engine for human interaction and the exchange of ideas.

Wealthy kingdoms emerged in Mali in the first millennium through the salt trade. Chinese dynasties derived power through spices and luxury goods. Who built the basilicas and elegant mansions of Renaissance Venice? Men who trafficked in exotic imports. eBay comes closest to providing that modern-day bizarre bazaar experience, but it still lacks the sounds and smells of the store.

Jane Jacobs, author of "The Life and Death of American Cities," has demonstrated how urban centers decayed when merchants vanished. Face-to-face interaction survived urban renewal, but e-merchants may be tougher competitors.

The path to oblivion is being paved with discounts. Clip your coupons now.

Michael Kanellos' uncle owns a grocery store.