Back-to-school daze

Although it’s been more than a few years since The Cybercritic’s school days, I still get nostalgic every summer and feel compelled to load up on school supplies before fall. But since The Cybercritic is more of a teacher these days than a student (well, at least I try to educate on the intricacies of Web shopping), I decide to check out sites that sell teaching supplies and aids.

  1. The first stop is CARSON-DELLOSA PUBLISHING (www.carsondellosa.com), which greets me with a flood of cute cartoon children peering out over the home page’s top navigation bar. Even more intriguing is a headline in the middle of the page: “New Shop On-Line,” with options to “search all products” or “view product categories” just below it. I click on the latter and am taken to a bare-bones page with simple text links to subcategories such as “Books,” “Incentives,” and “Spanish/Multilingual.”

    Wishing I had mastered a second language as a kid, I click on “Spanish/Mulitlingual.” Yet another stark page with text links to additional subcategories. Hmmm, without any sort of guidance from pictures or descriptions, The Cybercritic isn’t sure what to choose: “Books,” “Classroom Essentials,” “Classroom Management,” “Decorative,” “Hands-On Learning,” or “Incentives.” I pick “Hands-On Learning,” hoping that it will return products that will make learning another language fun.

    Bingo! Literally — one of the three Spanish-language products that pop up on the screen is a bingo game anyway. The product page presents pedestrian headline copy: “Español básico Basic Spanish: BINGO | Hands-On Learning,” a product number, the price, what’s included with the game, and a description that spells out the item benefit, although it doesn’t make up for the multiple drill-downs to get there.

    Happily, Carson-Dellosa offers associated products along the right column of the product page — in this case eight other bingo games with themes such as addition, colorful shapes, and money.

    Before adding the game to my cart, I check out Carson-Dellosa’s privacy and online ordering policies, links to which are just below the “add to cart” button. Both are standard, although The Cybercritic finds it slightly off-putting that tax-exempt organizations must contact the customer service department and those placing an order with a purchase order must fax in orders. Even more off-putting, the online ordering policy recommends visiting your local school supply store for the fastest service.

    On that dubious note, I add the game to my cart, hoping to find out just how long the shipment will take to arrive. When I try to check out, though, I get a message that Carson-Dellosa accepts only orders with a subtotal of $10 or more; the Spanish bingo game is only $9.99.

  2. CLASSROOM DIRECT (www.classroomdirect.com) is my next destination. The home page has a significantly more adult, less cutesy feel. There’s only one cartoon: a cute caterpillar with glasses at the top of the page touting free shipping for online orders of more than $49. Next to the little critter, the company’s tagline reads: “your deep discount educational superstore.”

    The navigation bars on the top and the left give me ample choices of where to go. Feeling somewhat playful, I select “Games.” Classroom Direct makes use of the category landing pages by displaying pictures and prices of what I can only assume are five of its best-sellers. And one of my favorite childhood games, Connect Four, appears at the top of the page. The description of the game on the category page isn’t the most thrilling I’ve read, so I click on “Learn More.” I’m directed to the product page, which has the exact same description. The only additional thing I learn is that the product is in stock. What’s more, the $19.99 price tag doesn’t seem like much of a discount (later research would find that the game is available at Amazon.com for $12.00 less!) but I add it to my cart anyway.

    Back on the games landing page, I search for more products other than the five featured items. Eventually I notice that on the left-side navigation bar, game subcategories have replaced the original product categories. Ahh, there are now more than a dozen types of games to choose from. Classroom Direct could make the change more noticeable by retaining the major categories on the side nav bar and listing the subcategories with a drop-down or fly-out menu.

    I choose “Bilingual,” but it takes me to a page with no results. Tsk, tsk. Why offer the link if there are no products to fit the bill? Next I click on “Classic” and am redirected to a page with four items. The Escapades Game sounds like fun, so I click the image for more information. The copy tells me it “contains over 300 indoor and outdoor games, activities and adventures. Divided by category in a recipe — like box of fun.” So is it a game or a box containing suggestions for games?

    Instead of adding it to my cart, I opt to e-mail the product to myself to ponder the purchase. I fill out the form and hit “Send Email,” but get an error message. So much for that. I backtrack and head to the shopping cart, fill out my mailing and billing addresses (noting that I can pay by credit card, online check, or Classroom Direct account), choose my shipping method, and head to my next destination.

  3. The home page of FORTEACHERSONLY (www.forteachersonly.com) exudes energy, in part because many links are animated with moving text or alternating pictures. Bright primary colors reinforce that this site is geared toward primary-school teachers.

    Although links above the fold — “Specials,” “Bargain Bin,” “Awards” — do their job, I’m more intrigued by the message below the first screen, such as “order online & save 5%.” Below the fold is also where the site lists its top five sellers, which on the day I visit include Reward Bands and Presidential Rulers.

    Clicking on the Reward Bands link takes me to a page with a 10-word description, the price ($3.95 for 30), the stock availability, an enlarged picture, links to related product categories, and links to other products bought by people who’d purchased the bands. Embossed with messages such as “excellent!,” “always special,” and “great behavior,” the bands appeal to The Cybercritic’s thirst for positive reinforcement, so into my cart they go.

    Back on the home page, a graphic of pencils laid out with sharpened points lead to a declaration that ForTeachersOnly has the country’s largest selection of pencil designs. But when I click the link I’m taken to a landing page with links to nearly two dozen product categories. Granted, “Pencils” is the top link on the page, but annoyingly the remaining links aren’t in alphabetical order.

    Once I click on “Pencils” I am bombarded by 34 more links to different kinds of pencils and designs. I select “Pop-A-Point,” a pencil that’s sectioned in 10 pieces; when the lead becomes dull you pop off the section, and move it to the bottom, revealing a new sharpened point.

    More than 50 Pop-A-Point products on six screens come up and I’m left to either scroll through the results or do an onsite search. If there’s one thing The Cybercritic loathes, it’s scrolling through endless pages of products. I do a search for “Art Pop-A-Point” and get three results, two of which aren’t art related and one that is. I select the Modern Art Pop-A-Point and head to the checkout.

    But then I’m notified that the total cost of the items in my cart does not meet the minimum order of $20. Again, fair enough, but I’m a little shopped out at this point and not interested in beefing up my order. So no reward bands at this time, but keep striving for excellence: You never know when I’ll visit your site for a pop quiz.

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