Caveat Emptor
My troubles with Barnes and Noble and Buy.com
by Blake Linton Wilfong -- The Wondersmith!

Looks innocent enough, doesn't it? That's what I thought when I tried to order Dictionary of American Portraits from Barnes and Noble's website, the succinctly named bn.com, on October 13, 1999. True, 3-5 weeks is a long wait, but I decided I could live with it, especially since Barnes and Noble had thoughtfully e-mailed me a $10 gift certificate to further sweeten their low online price. Today, December 16, 1999, I still don't have the book and it looks like I'm as far now as I originally thought I was from receiving it. (Notice that, although I picked up this screenshot today, 12/16/99, the page on Barnes and Noble's website still estimates 3-5 weeks, as it did when I placed my order.)

I checked on my order periodically and saw that it remained "in process", as shown below:

No sign of trouble, right? The five weeks came and went; no change. I figured B&N was probably running a little late (like everyone else in the world) and I'd give them some leeway. But by December 13--exactly two full months after the date of my order--I decided to call their customer service line to ask for a status report. On the upside, it's a toll-free call, and they only kept me on hold for a few minutes before I got to speak with a real live human.

She expressed considerable alarm that the book had taken so long to ship, and said that as far as she could tell, it should have been ready in November, or maybe even October. It appeared to have fallen through the cracks. She said she would "flag it" so that someone would take a look at my order first thing in the morning. (I had called at night.) If there would be any problem in fulfilling my order immediately, I'd be notified "tomorrow". This customer service representative was friendly and apologetic.

Okay, but I still hadn't heard anything by December 16, so I called again. This time I was told that the "retailers" had been unable to supply the book for me, so it had been placed on "special order" or "back order"--take your pick, the customer service representative used both terms--and it would take "3-5 weeks" to fulfill my order. "I ordered it over two months ago; you mean another 3-5 weeks?" I asked. Yup. And not just 3-5 weeks after the first 3-5 weeks; apparently, after the "retailers" had first failed to supply the book (from the inventory in Barnes and Noble's network of retail stores, I surmise), the order had indeed languished in limbo; it would take another 3-5 weeks after my December 13 call to obtain the book from the publisher. Argh! I asked why I had not been notified when it became apparent that the order would not be filled in the original timeframe; they could have informed me by e-mail or an update to the order status page, or both. (In retrospect, I should also have asked why it takes so long to discover this in the first place; can it be that Barnes and Noble still has no centralized inventory tracking system in this day and age?) The customer service representative had no explanation, but, apparently short of patience and temper, volunteered to cancel my order. I declined; after all, I want that book!

Oh well, the beautiful thing about running a website is that when something like this happens, you can use it for material. I'll update this page to let you know when (or whether) I ever receive the book--which, luckily, due to other unforeseen delays in my schedule, I still don't happen to need immediately.

Meanwhile I'll relate a similar experience I had with Buy.com. I ordered the delightful James Horner movie soundtrack "The Spitfire Grill" from them on September 15, along with a videotape of the movie "Creator". "Creator" shipped soon thereafter, and "The Spitfire Grill" was backordered as the site had warned me it would be. I waited until well past the timeframe when the website had estimated that the CD should ship before finally calling Buy.com's customer service department around October 28. The customer representative told me that the order had not been completed because the manufacturer had discontinued the product. Uh-oh! I asked why I had not been notified of this development; he claimed that Buy.com's e-mails are sent out in bulk and thus are sometimes rejected by Internet Service Providers' spam filters. This is possible but improbable since I have always received Buy.com's e-mailed order confirmations. In any case, I asked why my order status Web page had not been updated to reflect the situation; it still showed the order being processed and the CD on back order. For this he apologized, saying that Buy.com's website was new and such features had yet to be added. Argh! He canceled my order, assured me that my credit card would not be charged for the CD, and apologized again.

I immediately checked the Borders.com site and found that the CD was still in stock there. I had it in my hands within a few days. In fact, the sordid affair actually saved me money. Buy.com, admirably, only charged a pro-rated portion of the shipping fee for the one item they sent me, and I used another promotional gift certificate to obtain the "Spitfire Grill" soundtrack very inexpensively from Borders.com. But things could have ended differently; the CD might easily have sold out at Borders.com (and elsewhere) during the delay between Buy.com's determination that it had been discontinued and my own discovery of this fact.

To be fair, I should add that both Barnes and Noble and Buy.com have correctly and speedily filled other orders for me. The moral of the story isn't to avoid online shopping, but to keep your eyes open when doing it. Though online stores may sport enticing facades of lovely Web pages delivered at blinding speeds by powerful computers, fallible humans are still ultimately responsible for filling orders. Pay close attention to the man behind the curtain, and don't let him forget about you.

Update 1/14/2000

All's well that ends well. I received my copy of Dictionary of American Portraits today--three months after placing my order, but in plenty of time for my intended use. I'm lucky I ordered it when I did; the Barnes and Noble website now lists the book as a special order item for $80. But as difficult as it is to obtain royalty-free images of famous people, Dictionary of American Portraits would be a bargain at twice the price.

 
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