In Defense of Online Shopping (Delia Ephron, Listen Up)

Delia EphronDelia Ephron did not have a merry Christmas shopping experience.

Ephron, the screenwriter and novelist best known for such hit films as You've Got Mail and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, penned an op-ed in the New York Times earlier this week recounting the debacle that ensued when she ordered gifts from J. Crew's website.

Ephron explains how the order, which was shipped to her sister in Los Angeles, had a litany of problems. The cards accompanying the gifts were buried in the box, and one was missing; none of the gifts was wrapped, even though she had ordered and paid for gift-wrapping; there was an extra pair of shoes in the box that she hadn't ordered; and worst of all, the package included a sweater that she'd also ordered on the site but was supposed to ship to another recipient in the same city.

What Ephron describes is nothing less than a catastrophic failure on the part of J. Crew, and we were glad to see her take advantage of her high profile to take the retailer to task -- the threat of this kind of bad publicity keeps companies honest in their customer-service dealings. But perhaps recognizing that a simple rant against J. Crew wasn't quite enough to merit inclusion in the paper of record, Ephron set her sights higher, turning the incident into a wide-ranging indictment of online shopping itself.

Where She Got It Wrong

Titling her op-ed "The Hell of Online Shopping," she argues that "ordering Christmas presents on the Web, regardless of the dubious ease, has obliterated the idea that there should be some grace to a present, some beauty, and that the receiver should experience it." She recounts her own experiences receiving unwrapped gifts accompanied by computer-printed cards, bemoaning this "intimacy replaced by expedience."

We can certainly understand why Ephron's experience with J. Crew would sour her on e-commerce, and we agree that a UPS box and a printed-out card are poor substitutes for gift wrap and a hand-signed card. But the idea that these are necessary or typical parts of the online shopping experience is simply untrue.

For starters, having one bad transaction on one retail site during retail's busiest season doesn't invalidate the incredible convenience and comparatively low prices you get with most online purchases. She refers to the "dubious ease" of the online experience, but the fact is that online shopping is considerably more convenient than in-store shopping, particularly during the holiday season. Having to drive to the mall, find parking, wander around from store to store looking for the desired item and then spend 10 minutes hunting for your car in the parking lot seems a lot more like "hell" than shopping from your couch while watching football with your family on Thanksgiving.

As for the charge that online retail does away with the intimacy of gift-giving, we'd point out that there's no rule that says you have to select the gift wrap option and have it shipped directly to the recipient. Ephron concludes her op-ed by insisting that she'll be hand-wrapping her presents and shipping them herself next year, but seems not to realize that you can just as easily do that with a gift you ordered online (a point made by one sympathetic response to the op-ed published by the Times). Sure, sometimes that means paying twice for shipping, but usually you can find a way to get free shipping from the retailer. Plus, the money you're saving by wrapping it yourself makes up some of the difference.

Ordering your goods online instead of buying in the store doesn't automatically mean you need to surrender everything that makes gift-giving a personal experience. And having one miserable experience with an online purchase doesn't invalidate all the ways the internet has made shopping easier and cheaper.

We think J. Crew CEO Millard Drexler put it best in his response to the piece: "We certainly acknowledge that what is warranted in this situation is a sincere apology -- but not a generalized defamation of an efficient and valuable way of shopping today."

Give online shopping another chance, Delia. We promise you'll like it.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
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