Archives for November 2010

From retail to e-tail?

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Julie Howell Julie Howell | 14:03 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

'Tis the season to be jolly - so why does the prospect of doing our Christmas shopping fill many of us with dread?

I can give you just two scenarios where I find it acceptable to be jostled by a large crowd of people. One is the commute to work (tolerated out of necessity). The other is gigs, where close contact with fellow fans is part of the experience.

One situation where I don’t wish to be jostled, shoved or required to stand in a queue for more than three minutes is when I’m Christmas shopping.

As a general rule, I prefer to shop in shops, where I can pick things up and pause for a moment to imagine how ownership of this pair of shoes/lipstick/low calorie breakfast cereal will transform my life and make me a better person.

But let’s be realistic. Life is hectic, the web is fast, and there are more products available online today than you could ever hope to find in the high street. They’re frequently cheaper, too.

Figures just released by IMRG (Interactive Marketing in Retail Group) and Cagemini suggest that the online gifts sector this year grew by 76% in October compared to September, a surge which they say indicates of the start of the Christmas buying period and which is trumping sales on the high street. In other words, online shopping has caught on, big time.

Some people benefit from ‘e-tail’ more than others. I’m slightly hesitant to say that it’s a great alternative to shopping on the high street if you have a disability (I myself have MS), because I strongly feel that everyone should be able to shop in the high street if they want to.

Browsing online is all very well if you’re buying wrapping paper or cards, but sometimes you want to touch the thing you’re buying before you make your purchase. Having a disability shouldn’t stop you from being able to do that. Either way, I guess it’s great to at least have the choice.

If you attempted to buy something online 10 years ago and found the experience frustrating, slow and ultimately disappointing, it really is worth giving it another go today.

It's as if retailers have spent the past 15 years listening to what customers want and developing online stores that take all the hassle out of online shopping. Which, indeed, they have. I recently worked in an agency that designed websites for well know high street stores. You would be amazed to see the amount of effort retailers make to discover the most compelling way to design a website to maximise the possibility that you will make a purchase online. I must say, I welcome this new focus on the customer experience.

A decade ago, I was one of those disgruntled consumers whose dream of online shopping was all but destroyed by poor customer service and slow delivery. Today, I can count the number of bad experiences that I’ve had this year on the fingers of one hand.

The technology of the web has also made online shopping far more satisfying for me. Nowhere is this more obvious than in fashion retailing. You can tell so little from a low resolution image of a dress. But visit many of the top fashion retail sites today and you’ll find catwalk videos and the option to zoom in close to examine clothes in more detail. This gives me greater confidence that I will buy something that will both suit and fit me.

Add to the mix the advent of the social web. I now rarely buy a new or expensive product (such as a holiday or TV) without first checking the online reviews to see what people who have already bought the item think of it. Far from being deterred by bad reviews I use them to get a balanced view which quickly leads to a purchasing decision that I feel more confident about.

There is no doubt that the web has caused a shopping revolution, and it’s getting better all the time. I hope we never lose our high streets and shopping malls, but when the prospect of hauling purchases around shops heaving with grumpy shoppers is too much to contemplate it’s comforting to know an alternative is just a few clicks away.

On the money: making charity easier

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Helen Purves Helen Purves | 13:58 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010

In the olden days, before PayPal was invented (well, before the millennium anyway) donating to charity either meant putting money in a collecting box or, after 1980, ringing into the occasional telethon.

Then there were the ubiquitous raffle tickets, often by post, with the prizes that nobody ever appeared to actually win.

More enthusiastic people would attempt to get themselves sponsored - generally for hardcore sporting activities like marathons, sponsored swims or the perennial national favourite, the baked bean bath. In those days, sponsorship would involve a tatty bit of paper circulating friends and family, with hastily scrawled pledges to donate.

Except people are finding new ways to donate - and the internet has proved to be an extremely important tool. Whether it's for organising the troops, spreading the word or providing an easy way to donate, the internet's there to provide a helping hand.

A great example is this year's Children in Need, which has changed a great deal from its telethon days in the 80s. As well as being able to donate in a few clicks with PayPal and via the Red Button on your TV remote, there are also a host of online auctions to raise cash.

This year, the Children in Need message is being spread in a plethora of ways: you can add Pudsey ears to your profile pictures, or become a fan on Facebook (you'd be in good company - over 60,000 people have already done so) or play games on the Children in Need website.

The BBC supports the charity by adding banners to the top of nearly all of its websites (you might have spotted this already) so the millions of people who visit the mammoth BBC website will know how they can get involved.

Of course, Children in Need aren't the only people to engage with this kind of cross-promotion: and it makes sense for charities to spread the word through these ready-made channels. After all, telethons are expensive - but anyone can set up a PayPal or JustGiving account, and the world is full of website designers with a cause.

One such cause is the annual global moustache-growing attempt Movember (in aid of men’s health), which has seen a phenomenal rise to fame which has been strongly aided and abetted by its immense popularity on the internet. Movember's first year (2004) there were 432 participants: this year over a million people have signed up. Back in 2004, the cause was spread by word of mouth - but this year, moustache fanatics can have their own profile pages, spread the word through Facebook, upload video diaries, check out iPhone apps and even buy commemorative moustache combs.

In fact, most charities are starting to harness the power of the web. After all, we pay for everything else online - groceries, clothes, bills, furniture - why should charity be an exception? Charities like Cancer Research can help people set up their own pages where they can blog about their fundraising attempts, tally up the donations and post pictures and more. You can become part of fundraising groups and start some healthy competition amongst your peers to see how much you can raise - or, depending on how you look at it, to help you all see the bigger picture.

But of course if you're feeling old-school, the baked beans await. After all, it's all for a good cause - and as ever, every little counts.

E-books - what's the story?

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Guy Clapperton Guy Clapperton | 13:41 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010

To look at all the hype you'd think that the traditional book or magazine is dead.  E-reading is where it's going, looking at stuff online either live or downloaded, and those cosy evenings by the fireside with a book that we all think we can remember are history.

This is of course all rot, e-books will no more replace books than talking books did. TV didn't replace radio, theatre didn't die when radio was invented – I could go on.

You might want an e-reader for all sorts of reasons. A book (or several) you don't think you're going to read more than once. A business book, a manual – books to which you're not going to form any real attachment, so it doesn't matter that they're stored electronically. Or so I thought until I actually read a couple.

Setting up is really easy. Charge your choice of reader and either download some books to your computer and synchronise, or if your reader has WiFi or 3G then download them straight to the reader from a book site such as Amazon.

If you want to buy an e-reader then there are a few things to bear in mind. First, do you want back-lighting? Having a book that lights up in the dark so you can read it without putting the light on and disturbing your partner (hint: this doesn't work as the light from the e-book reader is just as glary as the light from your reading lamp) sounds appealing but some of the manufacturers think you'll suffer from eye strain. I used such a reader (the Apple iPad as it happens) to read two average-length books and didn't suffer unduly.

The iPad, along with the Samsung Galaxy and other tablet devices, is of course much more than an e-book, it's a cut-down computer. These devices costs a load more than an e-reader, which will typically have a few games, the reader and possibly it'll allow you to put some music onto it.

Generally these don't have the back lighting but they use something called e-ink; this is a bit like an LCD display and generally it's supposed to be less taxing on the eyes than a backlit screen although when I read Philip Norman's chunky tome on the life of John Lennon on one it didn't feel markedly different from the iPad experience. Amazon, Sony and Kobo supply comparative products.

Whizzy bits

There are bells, there are whistles - Apple's own eBook reader, iBooks, is built into both iPhones and iPads and makes a swishing noise whilst animating the pages as you turn them. Amazon's Kindle is available as a piece of hardware but you can also get it as software for some phones and tablet computers, so you can still buy the books. The hardware version doesn't have a backlight, there's no swishing sound or animating pages but once I was into the books I really didn't notice.

This is the thing about reading from an e-book reader; once you're into the content you don't think about it being a tatty paperback or a piece of state of the art electronics, you're just reading a good book.

Good books

It's all about reading something good in the end. Before researching this article I'd actually read "Claudius the God" on an e-book and can't honestly remember which one it was; I just remember the book, which is as it should be.

Luckily there are a lot of free books out there for download. Many out of copyright classics are available without charge; in fact at Project Gutenberg ( you can find 33,000 free reads either for your computer or an e-reader if you want.

Of course there are limitations. You can't scrawl notes on an eBook, they don't all fit neatly into your pocket, although several models are lightweight for holiday they are not good on the beach if you get sand in the works.

As an alternative to standard books if you have storage space problems, as a means of getting books to which you're not going to be massively attached, though, they might just be the ticket for you.

Please don't feed the trolls

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Rhodri Marsden Rhodri Marsden | 13:24 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

The internet is a bountiful paradise of information, entertainment, social opportunity and footage of kittens being cute.

But alongside this outpouring of human creativity is substantial proof of human cruelty and human frailty, too. We can all get things wrong, leap to conclusions, get offended and get angry, but the way the net encourages us to express all this publicly tends to magnify bad feeling. Offloading our thoughts about politics, sport, or soufflé making is inevitably followed by someone telling us where we can stick our soufflé ideas. And we instinctively fire back with choice words of our own.

But what is it about the internet that makes everyone so cross? If I was walking down a street and a stranger started criticising my hat, self-preservation would force me to ignore them and keep walking. I might even take off my hat. But online, I'd square up to that person and get dragged into an interminable slanging match – over a hat, for goodness sake – that only served to entrench the opinions of both parties.

We almost feel compelled to be unpleasant. Intense, long-running debates are endemic; on Wikipedia, for example, there have been huge disagreements about the correct spelling of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, and under the entry for "hummus" there are about nine nations (including Israel, Turkey and Lebanon) whose citizens are all claiming that their nation invented it.

Sometimes online spats are down to tribalism; tight-knit online communities will see factions, in-jokes and cliquey language, with derision heaped upon newcomers and petty issues blown out of proportion. Sometimes people are combative purely for the sake of it – so-called "trolling". But the biggest factor is anonymity.

Now, online anonymity is a useful thing (online privacy campaigners would say it's essential) but you can mete out whatever abuse you like from behind the safety of an alias like "Spaghetti Hoop" without fearing real-life repercussions. I know I'm guilty; I've got an alter-ego named Geoff who expresses himself in colourful language whenever I come across something on the internet that annoys me. You could say I'm a coward for lurking behind Geoff, but the people he's arguing with are equally anonymous and equally angry.

Two years ago there was an American politician called Tim Couch who got so worked up about this issue that he filed a bill proposing to make it illegal to post an anonymous comment online. He meant well; his campaign came hot on the heels of some well-publicised cases of online bullying. But aside from being an attack on free speech, the idea was unworkable, because there's no way that websites can truly establish that people are who they say they are.

While some news organisations, weary of the anonymous or pseudonymous bile that's projected daily, have shut down their online comment facilities (Sky News closed their discussion boards last week), others are moving to systems that link your comments to your Facebook or your Twitter profiles, unmasking at least some of the anonymity and making people think twice before getting nasty.

Some websites, by contrast, thrive on bad feeling. After all, bad feeling guarantees page views, and page views means advertising revenue. One alarming example is the website, It looks like a social networking site, but its purpose is to invite friends to anonymously point out your faults. They call it "constructive criticism", but as someone who makes an effort to avoid knowing what people actually think about me, I call it a recipe for misery.

You know on Amazon where there's a product page and then a load of reviews underneath? Well, it's like that. Except the thing people are reviewing is your personality. You might wonder why anyone would go looking for themselves on such sites at all, but they do. In their thousands. The internet has forced our egos into a very unusual place.

Sadly, spats and finger-pointing are never going to go away; it's part of the cut and thrust of the internet, and the best we can do is develop a thick skin and turn the other cheek. Or maybe just don't air our views at all. For example, I get comments on my blog from people calling me an idiot. But my dad doesn't have a blog. As a result no-one calls him an idiot. So who's the idiot?

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