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Shipment of fools

CNET News.com's Mike Yamamoto writes that despite some improvements since last year, Internet shopping remains a work in progress where clicking on the final "buy" button at most sites remains the e-tail equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

'Tis the season to complain about online shopping.

Despite recent claims of improved customer service online, clicking on the final "buy" button at most sites remains the e-tail equivalent of a Hail Mary pass: You pray that your order will go through as intended, but it hardly ever does.

And even on those rare occasions when you successfully navigate a merchant's tortured Web site, your purchase must survive another gauntlet in the process of mail delivery. Whether it be dot-com incompetence or brick-and-mortar red tape, the lack of interest in getting a purchased product into the customer's hands is appalling and inexcusable--especially when the same problems recur year after year, during the holiday season no less.

Which brings us to my latest rant. I recently ordered some printer paper for a digital camera at a site called TheNerds.net (don't laugh). That process went smoothly enough, but the problems began when trying to track the order.

The Nerds had indicated that they had plenty of my item in stock and promised to ship it right away, but the status of my order was listed "in process" for several days. Only after I phoned to check with a customer rep did the status magically change to "shipped." The order was placed Oct. 16 but didn't ship until seven days later.

Dubious of the Nerds' commitment to my shopping happiness, I decided to check the delivery status as well. Silly me, I thought this information might be available in my account summary; instead, I had to write down the order number, enter it on a different page, get the corresponding Federal Express tracking number and then find it on FedEx.com. Other e-tailers take care of this entire process with one click.

Then the real problems began. As it turns out, when it comes to customer sadism, the Nerds don't have anything on FedEx.

The FedEx site documented the usual shipment details, tracking all the stops the package would make across the country. After several days, I was relieved to see that my order had found its way from Miami to the San Francisco depot another week later.

But on Oct. 29, the scheduled day of arrival at my house, nary a white truck was to be seen. Back I went to the FedEx site, which indicated that my shipment was indeed being delivered--back to Sacramento. I finally phoned FedEx's customer service, which confirmed my worst suspicion: The delivery was being returned to Miami.

The reason? "Incorrect address," said a rather snippy customer rep named Christopher.

This was particularly maddening because Federal Express has pulled this kind of stunt before. A few months ago, I waited at home all day for an important delivery that never showed up. The FedEx site claimed falsely that an attempt was made to deliver the package but that no one was home--something that a local FedEx dispatcher said "happens all the time."

Determined to find out if my latest package was truly misaddressed, I asked Snippy Christopher to check. "We don't have that information in our system," he replied. "The only way to find out is to have someone physically look at the package."

I called the FedEx station in San Francisco and spoke with a manager who confirmed what Snippy had said: Federal Express does not keep records on such previous addresses.

"What if there is a lawsuit over an important delivery that isn't made?" I asked. "Would Federal Express have any way of defending itself if the shipping party actually misaddressed a package and blamed it on you?"

"No, I guess not," the manager said.

Finally, I contacted Federal Express headquarters in Tennessee, which claimed that the company does indeed keep such records. A representative there said he has no idea why so many employees I spoke with--four, at last count--insisted that no such data existed.

As if to prove this point, the company retraced my errant delivery and confirmed what I had suspected all along: It never was misaddressed.

"In fact it did not have an incorrect address," said Jesse Bunn, manager of media relations for Federal Express in Memphis. "It was our mistake. We thought for some reason or other that it had a bad address."

Ho, ho, ho
The moral of this story is that, in this shopping season or any other, don't expect any of your gifts to arrive in time for the holidays. And don't rush to blame the struggling dot-coms for lousy service, either--the culprit may just as easily be a stalwart of the Old Economy.

In fact, one very small dot-com provided me with the best shopping experience I've had in years. A specialty gift shop called FancifulFinds.com, run out of Duluth, Ga., has a no-nonsense Web site that allows customers to track their delivery status with one click. But I didn't even need to do that, because the store sent me four unsolicited e-mails at every step of the process--including a notice after the delivery had been made, to be sure it arrived at the right destination.

And here's the best part: FancifulFinds voluntarily reduced my shipping charge because of the "small size of the item ordered." Now that's what I call customer service.

The goal stated on FancifulFinds' Web site says it all. "Our focus is to build a solid relationship with our customers. To accomplish this, we will always strive to exceed your expectations, in every way."

They certainly did in my case. But I won't hold my breath for the likes of FedEx and the Nerds to do the same.