Finding signs of improvement

A print review of a Website is by its nature unfair. By the time the review hits readers’ desks, the Website in question may have changed-hopefully for the better.

And so the Cybercritic decided to revisit some of the sites reviewed in last year’s article “The Best and Worst of the Web” (April 1, 1998). In that feature, the Cybercritic singled out the best and worst online catalogers in nine categories. This time around the Cybercritic visited only those sites deemed the worst in each category, hoping for signs of improvement.

Office supplier Quill Corp. (www.quillcorp.com) wins “the most improved site” hands down. Last year the Cybercritic carped about its difficult ordering system. This time around, ordering proved a snap-just click the items desired and fill out the order form. The form does have one drawback, though: It requires you to fill out separate billing and shipping addresses, even if those addresses are the same.

What’s more, a sentence on the instruction page is a bit off-putting: “If you are ordering for personal use or your home office, we recommend Staples.com [Quill’s parent company] as your best alternative.” But the site makes up for that unfriendliness by offering free delivery within the 48 contiguous states for all orders of at least $45, and by its page of links for refill products, such as computer ribbons and cartridges.

Food cataloger Swiss Colony (www.swisscolony.com) improved as well. The Cybercritic didn’t suffer a repeat of last year’s ordering program malfunctions, and the site also lets you place an order now for shipment at a later date (which might explain why Swiss Colony was selling Christmas petits fours in April). And the free gift of a 2-lb. selection of nuts with any first-time order is greatly appreciated.

Business-to-business medical supplies Website Moore Medical (www.mooremedical.com) remedied its most glaring ailment of last year: It now sells far more than 17 SKUs. The directory offers 30 product categories, broken up into subcategories, and you can search by product as well-bravo! What’s more, to order, you no longer need to cut and paste from the product page to the order form; it now offers shopping cart technology (which the Cybercritic feels should be standard with online ordering).

Moore Medical could still stand to boost its graphics a bit-even a photo of catheters and crutches on its home page would help. And while the Cybercritic understands the need for a $100 minimum order requirement on a b-to-b site, Moore should inform shoppers of the requirement before they reach the checkout page.

Among the gardening Websites, Hortico Nurseries (www.hortico.big wave.ca) last year incurred the Cybercritic’s wrath by not including pictures of its plants-a huge drawback for such an esthetic product. A year later, photos are available-of at least some products. On a page listing 10 varieties of roses, three included product shots. You can’t click on the shots to see a larger, more detailed picture of the plants, though, and the text descriptions of the plants hardly compensate for the lack of visuals. Here’s one such description, in its entirety: “Warm, rosy red; pointed form; compact & bushy; to 2′ (Cocker, 1985).”

But every thorn has its rose, and the Hortico search engine is a find: It allows you to search by keyword (say, “red”) and by the degree of fragrance desired. Nice touch!

The addition of a search engine, period, is a welcome improvement to Flea Market Books (www.fleamarket books.com), a purveyor of used books. Last year shoppers were required to wade through listings of books by category; now they can input the name of an author, title, or publisher to see if a particular volume is available. Still, the engine could benefit from fine-tuning. When the author “Watson, Sally” was entered, what came up were all available books written by either a “Watson” or a “Sally.” More disturbing, the home page offers no inkling of the availability of a search engine.

Given that the Web audience is their natural constituency, online computer catalogers survived last year’s survey almost unscathed. Cyberian Outpost (www.outpost.com) was deemed the “worst” computer marketer merely because none of the product pages included the staff-written product reviews heralded on the home page. The company solved that problem by dropping its claim of staff reviews, but no matter-the product pages viewed offer lengthy, detailed descriptions anyway.

Cyberian Outpost also wins kudos for its well-organized index. Products are categorized by manufacturer and by product type, with numerous subcategories. The category for “home” software, for instance, features six subcategories, including Movies, Personal Finance, and Religion.

Why won’t they listen? Alas, several of last year’s most disappointing sites paid no heed to the Cybercritic’s well-meant criticisms. Fashion First (www.fashfirst.com), which sells easy-to-don apparel for nursing home patients and the elderly, still displays horribly low-resolution images and still features a complex ordering process that requires shoppers to jot down the SKU number of the items they want and then click to the order engine, select the appropriate product category, and scroll down a list of all the available items until they find the ones they want.

Appointments (www.appoint ments.com), which last year sold children’s designer apparel, now sells toys, wedding gifts, baby gifts, and other knickknacks. On the plus side, it sells three times the 20 products it offered last year. On the minus side, the merchandise selection is a mishmash with little rhyme, reason, or common sensibility. Worse yet, given that its line of merchandise is gifts, the order form doesn’t allow you to combine products to be sent to different addresses within one order. For each shipping address, the shopper has to fill out a separate order.

Online music store CD Europe (www.cdeurope.com) earns the dubious honor of being the most frustrating site. Sure, it still offers a vast selection of rare and imported CDs, but it also still provides virtually no editorial about its wares-this in a day and age when numerous online catalogers let shoppers download snippets of songs, not to mention take advantage of the Web’s virtually unlimited space to provide a listings of the tracks on the discs. The home page provides a link about track listings; clicking on it results in a page asking users to submit track listings for CDs in exchange for a discount off their next purchase. How big a discount? For each CD’s worth of listings, a whopping 10 cents.

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