the cybercritic

As you might imagine, the Cybercritic is a highly sought-after speaker on the Internet marketing circuit. And with Web selling — and online marketing conferences, seminars, and sessions — here to stay, my presentation tools and I have been working overtime. So gearing up for this season’s round of panels, speeches, and the like, I decide it’s time to get equipped with new equipment so that I can continue to deliver to presentations that pack a powerful and professional punch.

The slate-gray and brick-red palette of the home page has all the excitement of an office supplies warehouse. But since that’s what we’re here for I can’t quibble about esthetics. Besides, the company’s logo, with the scissors cutting a piece of paper and its tagline, “Cut out the middleman,” leads me to believe I’ll be getting a good deal.

The home page consists of a well-organized index. I click on “Presentation & Audiovisual” and am transported to the land of cameras and easels and boards, oh my. From there I click on “Presentation supplies & accessories.” Just for kicks I take a look at gavels. There’s only one, and I don’t need it, but it is a nice-looking walnut model with a sounding block, whatever that is. The Cybercritic momentarily drifts into an “order in the court” daydream before snapping to. I select a Sony conference microphone for $146.70. Once I put it in my shopping cart, the site doesn’t make it easy to go back to the products — where’s the “continue shopping” button? I’m not done here yet, guys!

I have to hit the “back” button a few times to return to the product selection, and then I move on to the public address systems. Let the Cybercritic be heard! Of the two items featured, the Apollo portable clip-on address system costs $436.05, while the Apollo Portable Wireless public address system costs $353.73. (What is it with these odd pricing amounts?!) The technical specs and the copy blocks for the two items are exactly the same — there’s nothing to persuade me to spring for the extra $82 for the clip-on model.

Finally I decide that I need to invest in a projector. has 21 models to choose from. I click on a multimedia projector from 3M. Looks like a nice model — and it should be for $6,533.37. Maybe a basic slide projector is all I need. Here’s a model from Lumens for $647.28. That’s more like it. But wait, does anyone use overhead slide projectors anymore? Certainly the Cybercritic needs to be a bit more high-tech when presenting on Internet topics, so I settle on a multimedia projector, but a slightly lower-scale model priced at $2,273.93.

Before I can complete my order, makes me create an account, which is annoying but probably pretty standard in this market. Also annoying is the lack of information about the company. I had to dig pretty deep into the customer service section just to find that the marketer was based in Albany, NY.

On the plus side, does keep the items in my shopping cart when I leave the site (which I do several times during this expedition). And orders of more than $75 are shipped “freight free” (free unless the items can’t be shipped via UPS), also probably standard, but a nice touch nonetheless.

I expect to be overwhelmed entering the cyberdoors of some of the office supplies superstores in my search for business presentations. But I am pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of Under both the “Office Supplies” and the “Technology” categories from the home page there’s a link for “AV Supplies and Equipment.” From there I find a subhead for “Business Presentation Tools and Supplies.”

I decide on a tabletop lectern in mahogany for $120.51. (By now I am used to the weird pricing in this category.) I try to put it in my shopping cart, but Office Depot makes me give up my zip code first: A “Just Looking?” prompt comes up that says, “You don’t have to log in to browse, but we do need your ZIP Code so that we can verify inventory availability in your area.”

Now it’s time to find a laser pointer. The best — or at least, the most expensive — model is the Apollo wireless presentation remote with laser pointer for $89.95. It’s designed to be used with most multimedia projectors, which works with the Cybercritic’s previous purchase. But it looks a bit like a small TV remote control, whereas the Cybercritic had a more old-fashioned stick pointer in mind. I opt for the Apollo Executive Metal Laser Pointer in Gold/Silver for $32.49. This model’s red laser dot “can be projected over 1,500 feet,” and batteries are included.

Feeling a little “old school” with my pointer, I check out easels. I select the Boone 3-Leg Heavy-Duty Easel with Dry-Erase Board for $222.61. Might be a little too low-tech to take on the road, but the Cybercritic will have fun with it in the office.

Deciding that’s enough for today, I proceed to checkout. Delray Beach, FL-based Office Depot, which operates a chain of stores and a catalog, as well as the Viking Office Products title, appears to have the niceties of e-commerce down pat. I proceed without incident — and with free shipping and handling.

Remembering a print catalog of business presentation materials called Visual Horizons from several years ago, the Cybercritic is hopeful about ordering from the company online. I find the site — I think; the home page is for a media storage concern called StoreSmart Express as well as for something called Visual Horizons. But the tagline for Visual Horizons, “For those who Create, Deliver or Publish presentations in Powerpoint Slides or Print,” assures me that it is the same firm.

I am momentarily distracted by a link on the home page that reads, “News! New Hollywood movie connection for Visual Horizons.” Clicking it takes me to an article — dated December 2002 — about how Frank Abagnale, the real-life con man who was the subject of the movie Catch Me If You Can, has been a loyal client for 25 years. (Apparently the reformed Abagnale is a star on the secure-document speaking circuit. Who knew?) That this so-called news is a year and a half old makes me wonder if Visual Horizons is frozen in time — or more to the point, out of business, with only this out-of-date Web presence to mark its existence.

So I return to the home page and hit the “Browse Products” link on the left. From there I click on a link that says “Flip-chart easel binders.” Nothing really I’m interested in here, until I come to the briefcase presentation system, which enables you to turn your laptop into a little theater. The photo seems to show a businessman putting on a high-tech puppet show. Intrigued, I hit the “click here for more information” link, which, slowly, takes me to a catalog page PDF. No link to a shopping cart…hmmm. I have to go back to the home page to find an “Order Here” link. Aha! You can e-mail your order, but the transaction is not encrypted. So you really have to print and fax an order form (or, heaven forbid, mail it) or call the company to order.

Considering Visual Horizons’ rather high-tech niche and target audience, is there any reason for the company not to be e-commerce enabled? Nope. I wasn’t far off the mark in thinking that the company had an out-of-date presence.

The Cybercritic

Every year, The Cybercritic vows not to set foot in a store from the day before Thanksgiving through the day after Christmas. I’ve never been able to keep that vow, but this year I came closer than ever.

First stop: Godiva. Each holiday season, the upscale chocolatier offers an ornament-size stuffed animal clutching a box of four bonbons. It’s become a tradition in The Cybercritic’s family for me to buy it every year for a certain relative. Now that I no longer work near a Godiva shop, I figured I’d order it online.

The Godiva Website is beautiful, in its design and its simplicity. I couldn’t remember if this year’s stuffed toy was a reindeer or a teddy bear, so I typed “holiday” in the search engine, and a page of results appeared. Below photos of six featured items was a comprehensive list of seasonal items, including the Holiday Santa Bear. I called up the product page, then clicked to enlarge the photo. I was quite impressed by the quality of the picture in the pop-up window. Then I clicked the link for shipping info — and was not impressed by the S&H charges. The bear cost $20, and shipping was another $6.95. Add on the sales tax, and we’re talking nearly $30! There’s one Cybercritic tradition that has come to a crashing halt. (I did, however, appreciate the irony that the chocolates included with the Santa bear are kosher.)

Another beautiful Website belongs to Sephora. Since a certain high-maintenance relative had requested makeup brushes as a gift, I went to the Website, typed “makeup brush” in the search engine, and received 416 matches in response. Back to the search engine; this time I entered “makeup brush set” and received only 66 matches, a number of which (a pressed powder compact, blusher) weren’t makeup brush sets at all.

Thumbnail photos of the products appeared on the pages of matches, but the site gave me the option of hiding the images. By deleting the images I could view more matches per page. If I’d had to scroll through seven pages of products with pictures instead of three pages without photos, I would most likely have ditched Sephora and headed to another site.

I found a set of five brushes in a pouch. S&H wasn’t outrageous, and gift wrapping was free. Checkout was simple. My print catalog had a promo code good for a sample of eye cream, so I input that. But I did run into a problem entering the catalog source code. Yes, a 10-digit number appeared on the back of the catalog, but there was no indication that it was the source code. And the space on the site allotted for the code didn’t accommodate 10 digits.

My package arrived in time, and not only did I receive the free eye cream, but another product sample was tucked into the pouch with the brushes. No need for a makeover here.

Dealing with Daedalus Books was another story. The cataloger sells books and music at cut-rate prices, so I wasn’t expecting state-of-the-art features on its site. I was, however, expecting to be able to process my order without having my computer crash. Alas, my expectation was unmet — on three separate days. To make sure the problem wasn’t with my computer, I tried a co-worker’s machine. The site crashed her computer too.

So much for Daedalus. On to SmarterKids. This online-only purveyor of toys does a lot of things right. The selection is vast, the prices are great, and the site enables you to shop by age group, brand, character, or theme. It even offers a section of products for youngsters with physical, learning, or mental disabilities. Stock status appears beside the product description, so you don’t have to drill down and down only to find that the item won’t be available until the next holiday season.

And to encourage repeat visits, SmarterKids lets doting parents build a “personalized store” for their progeny. You answer questionnaires to calculate the child’s linguistic ability, motor skills, and whatnot in comparison to his age. Then the site makes suggestions based on his skill level and learning style. You can update your responses as frequently as you like. What a brilliant way to lure parents back every month or so to check the relative maturity of their tots — and to buy their darlings the necessary accoutrements for continued intellectual and emotional growth.

My one beef is with SmarterKids’ package tracking function. A week after I received an e-mail notification that the gifts I’d ordered had been sent, I logged on to see if I could determine when they’d arrive. All that the tracking page could tell me was that yes, the package had been shipped. Gee, thanks.

What struck The Cybercritic the most about holiday shopping online was how unmemorable it was — and I mean this in a good way. I bought from numerous other sites as well and have no horror stories. E-commerce is no longer a novelty, with all the suspicions and allowances that go with being new and untried. It is now just another shopping option.

It’s still not an alternative, however, as my experiences with Godiva and Daedalus show. Then, too, some of the gifts were for Hanukkah, which came so early this year that I found myself racing to the stores just to be sure I had gifts in time. Online shopping may be becoming increasingly efficient; The Cybercritic’s time-management skills are not.

The Cybercritic

This month The Cybercritic shops for beauty supplies like a pro by visiting three b-to-b salon sites.

May 15, 4:30 pm, Explorer 5.0

The Cameo Beauty Supplies Website reminds The Cybercritic of Frenchy, the beauty-school dropout from the musical Grease. But after a few minutes on the site, I wish I had bagged high school for a career in cosmetology.

Clips, curlers, haircolor, and brushes! The Cybercritic is impressed with Cameo’s breadth of salon products, including spa and skincare potions, towels, waxing gear, hairstyling equipment and accessories, furniture, and appointment books. And while the product photos are a little grainy, the site design is clean, with white space that makes what looks like a 14-point type even more readable.

Products are neatly organized by category in a sidebar to the left of the home page — a feature consistent on most pages throughout the site. And once I click on a category — say, Manicure — up pops a long list of subcategories that includes Nail Gels, Files, and Kits. The product selection is also organized by manufacturer, which simplifies shopping for salons that purchase supplies only from select vendors. A navigation bar at the top of the page allows shoppers to search for products, check their accounts, and view their shopping carts.

But the copy is minimal. For example, the description of the Andre Wash & Cut Kid Size Cape ($3.89) reads in its entirety: “Vinyl cape in fun, multi-colored print; Kid size 28″ × 36″; Velcro closure.” Unfortunately, the photo is too fuzzy for me to determine what the “fun, multi-colored” print actually is — are those alien larvae or dragonflies?

On the ordering side, Cameo offers volume discounts: 5% off orders of $75-$195, 10% off orders of $195.01-$395, and so on. The site accepts payment via Visa, MasterCard, or check — giving customers an option to enter the check number during the checkout process.

Cameo falls short on privacy matters, with no mention of the company’s policy or information-collection practices anywhere. Well, if that scares off salon professionals, at least the home page gives an option to request the latest Cameo catalog.

Overall rating: 6.5
Brand identification: 10
Fun quotient: 7
Graphics: 5
Copy: 3
Depth/assortment: 10
Navigation: 9
Ease of ordering: 9
Overall ease of use: 8
Timeliness: 8
Loyalty efforts: 7
Information collection: 0
Search capabilities: 9
Privacy policy: 0

May 15, 2:30 pm, Explorer 5.0

Where am I? The URL is, but the site is called And nowhere on the site does it say “Nailco, a division of The Industry Source,” or anything to that effect.

So right off the bat, The Cybercritic feels Nailco’s branding could use a little polish (though on the home page you can request a free Nailco Beauty Book catalog). The home page is also a little overwhelming — icons and thumbnails for product categories and other features crowd the page. What’s more, the graphics are fuzzy, and some of the links aren’t live. What frustration! Worse yet, the site requires shoppers to register — supply their name, address, salon name, phone number, and e-mail — just to browse the products on the site. Tsk.

Once you register, though, navigation is easy enough, and you can search items by description, name, vendor, or item number. But when I search by name for the Aussie Mega Shampoo — an item I had already found searching by description — the search turns up nary an Aussie product. And when I click on the icon for the Vecco All-purpose salon chair, there is no photo to accompany the description.

But the site scores points for its “50 Reasons to Shop with Industry Source,” which details such benefits as multilingual sales reps and two-day delivery. And the site’s privacy and security policies are precise, with a feature that allows you to opt out of receiving promotional information.

The order page provides a currency-exchange table and international shipping rates for 13 locations. And all the information I entered during registration appears in the billing and ship-to fields, simplifying the checkout process. What’s more, the company accepts a variety of credit cards as well as COD payment — a nice option if the site’s branding issues leave you wary as to whom you’re ordering from.

Overall rating: 6.7
Brand identification: 4
Fun quotient: 4
Graphics: 5
Copy: 4
Depth/assortment: 10
Navigation: 5
Ease of ordering: 9
Overall ease of use: 6
Timeliness: 8
Loyalty efforts: 9
Information collection: 9
Search capabilities: 4
Privacy policy: 10

May 16, 3:00 pm, Explorer 5.0

The well-groomed American Pro Hair Care Website is highly organized and easy to read, with clear graphics and a vast product selection. Products are categorized on the left side of the page (American Pro brand products, Pro Tools, Accessories, Salon Furniture, and Body Care). While each category includes links to subcategories — for example, Accessories features links to Wood Combs, Wood Brushes, and Attachments — the home page also features large icons and descriptions for the subcategories.

Navigation is easy — each subcategory links to a page of products with good-size photos and an option to add the items to the shopping cart. And some products come with a free gift. For example, when ordering a hair dryer or a flat iron, customers can receive free foot lotion and scrub or a hair diffuser.

On the downside, there is no search option — a major Web gaffe — and some of the links, such as Be a Member, aren’t live. I presume that the link would have explained the benefits of being an American Pro Hair Care member, but I guess I’ll never know for sure.

Ordering and service policies are listed in great detail. Billing and ship-to information can be filled out on one page; payment options include check/money order, major credit cards, and certified check. Or, you could check the “call for credit card number” box, and the company will call for your credit-card information, rather than have you submit it online.

Customers might be wise to do that, as searching for a privacy policy proves to be fruitless. The return policy is also hairy: “All products must obtain written approval via e-mail prior to return or refund.” Though American Pro Hair Care looks pretty good, its privacy and return policies could sure use a makeover!

Overall rating: 6.1
Brand identification: 10
Fun quotient: 7
Graphics: 8
Copy: 5
Depth/assortment: 8
Navigation: 9
Ease of ordering: 10
Overall ease of use: 8
Timeliness: 7
Loyalty efforts: 7
Information collection: 0
Search capabilities: 0
Privacy policy: 0

the cybercritic

Thursday, Jan. 11, 5 p.m., Explorer 5.0

Judging from its home page, Utrecht believes that nearly all artists are starving. Low prices appear to be the manufacturer/marketer’s key selling point. “Winter Sales. Click here for great savings” declares the link at the top of the center column. Below that, “We are introducing our new trio of portfolios at HALF-OFF!” and, under that, in promoting sets of colored pencils, “Take advantage of our Winter Sale prices and save 40% off our regular prices.” For good measure, the top link of the left column promoted free shipping for orders of more than $100, and a box in the right column links to the Clearance Center.

If low prices aren’t enough, the home page offers lots more: catalog requests; dozens of subcategories in a baker’s dozen of product categories; a sign-up for six e-mail newsletters; and links to, among other pages, the Art Education Center and Get Advice.

The Art Education Center is for art teachers and consists primarily of the Lesson Plan Forum. Teachers who submit plans are eligible to win the Quarterly Lesson Plan Award, which comes with a $100 gift certificate. It’s a clever way for Utrecht to inexpensively add content to its site as well as gain the loyalty of art instructors.

Clicking the Get Advice link calls up pages of questions and answers, most of them quite sophisticated. But even when specific products are cited in the answers, no direct links are offered to the goods. A wasted opportunity, that.

Returning to the home page, I select the Watercolor merchandise subcategory and am directed to a page with individual links to 54 colors. There’s also a link to a color chart that displays only 42 colors. Apparently 12 of the hues aren’t worth inclusion.

The site seems targeted to artists who are already familiar with Utrecht’s product lines. For instance, it doesn’t explain how Utrecht Acrylic Artists’ Colors differ from Utrecht Professional Acrylic Colors.

Then there’s all the unnecessary drilling. I select the Mat Cutters subcategory of Framing products. I’m led to a page with links to nine mat cutters. After selecting the link to the Mat Cutters Logan Simplex, I’m led to another page, which has a single link alongside the price. Selecting that link calls up a page with a slight, serviceable description that could easily have fit on the previous page, eliminating a click.

That’s not the worst of it. The link on the price page of Jolly King Grey Green Clay leads to a page that doesn’t even have a description — it’s identical to the page I’d just been on!

Checking out adds to my disappointment. Oh, the process itself is easy enough. And a pop-up window reminds you to enter any promotional codes you may have from the print catalog, fliers, or whatnot, which helps Utrecht correctly allocate the source of the sale. But the site presents you with the product total and shipping costs sans sales tax, and only after you input your payment info does it offer you the final total.

Then there’s this rather offputting note: “Some items may be out of stock. We will cancel these from your order and inform you via e-mail.” What if I don’t want a partial order, but rather all or nothing — isn’t that an option?

With its paucity of product information and service amenities, Utrecht makes it clear why artists are often called struggling: It’s a struggle simply to buy the necessary supplies.

rating Utrecht’s overall rating: 5.8
Brand identification: 7
Fun quotient: 7
Graphics: 6
Product depth/assortment: 5
Navigation: 4
Ease of product ordering: 6
Overall ease of use: 5
Timeliness: 8
Loyalty efforts: 8
Information collection: 7
Search capabilities: 6
Privacy policy: 0

Thursday, Jan. 11, 7 p.m. Explorer 5.0

As soon as the Cybercritic gazes upon the Dick Blick home page, it’s love at first sight. Like all good artists, the Website designer knows the value of white space. The home page makes great use of it, at the same time creating a look different from that of most other commerce sites. Instead of the near-ubiquitous column of product links on the left and the horizontal row of service links across the top, Dick Blick presents seven links in the center of the page. These include the catalog request form, a directory of stores, and info about free shipping on orders of more than $200. A picture of a palette offers more links, to such areas as the index and something called Info and Ideas.

Scroll down, and you see links to more than two dozen product categories. Then there’s the search engine, the e-mail sign-up list, and contact info — phone and fax numbers, e-mail and snail-mail addresses. As a copy block notes, “How many times have you searched a web site in vain for a phone number? Our customer service and product information phone numbers are on every single page of this web site!”

Intrigued by the Info and Ideas link at the top, I click it. What follows are links to Artist’s Forums and Teacher’s Forums, which include message boards and links to galleries, artists’ organizations, and magazines; and to Lesson Plans.

Next, I check out the service offerings. These include loads of details about product-safety labels. I’d never known that so many labels governing so many safety aspects exist. If I need more information, the site also offers the phone number of its product specialists.

I don’t see why I’d need to call one of them, though; the product copy is superbly detailed. Here’s an example: “Golden Artist Colors’ original line of acrylics is known for its exceptionally smooth, thick consistency. It contains pure pigments in a 100% acrylic emulsion vehicle, using no fillers, extenders, opacifiers, toners, or dyes. These colors offer excellent permanency and lightfastness.…” The product page goes on to point out which colors are toxic vs. nontoxic and specific qualities of certain colors.

Dick Blick’s merchandise isn’t limited to the fine arts. The site also sells crafts-related gear, for mosaics, stenciling, and the like. Given the depth and breadth of its offerings, I’m not surprised there are some snafus. For instance, the Stick ’N Stencil page offers a description, but no SKU or price.

One last gripe: When I click on the button to add the item to my shopping cart, the page flickers, but no message assures me that my order went through. So I click the Update Order button again, and again. Only as I check out do I see that yes, my order went through — several times, in fact.

rating Dick Blick’s overall rating: 7.6
Brand identification: 8
Fun quotient: 8
Graphics: 8
Product depth/assortment: 8
Navigation: 7
Ease of ordering: 7
Overall ease of use: 8
Timeliness: 6
Loyalty efforts: 8
Information collection: 7
Search capabilities: 7
Privacy policy: 9

Friday, Jan. 12, 1 p.m. Explorer 5.0

No sooner has the Daniel Smith home page loaded than a pop-up box demands that I register before proceeding. It’s akin to an alarm buzzing the moment I cross a store’s threshold and a salesperson affronting me with “What are you looking for?” when all I want to do is check out the product line first.

I register anyway. That done, I see that the home page offers two links, to the Online Store and the Information Resource. The latter includes a gallery of works submitted by customers, general info about the Daniel Smith brand of materials, and a listing of classes at the company’s three stores in Washington State. While the dates of those classes are current, those of the independent workshops under the Events link are at least six months out of date.

That’s not the only instance where the site is behind the times. The Online Shopping page touts both the “yearly fall sale” and “Holiday Savings” — in January!

Another link on the Information Resource page, titled Tips, includes a wealth of articles, most of them how-tos such as “Add Texture to Your Paintings” and “Studio Safety.” These make it clear that Daniel Smith knows its stuff. Also under Tips are Technical Leaflets with product specs, bulletin boards, and links to artists’ organizations.

Heading to the Online Store, I select the Childrens’ Art Supplies product category and am led to a page with links to all the products in the category. I select something called Doodle Tops, but the product page is blank. I try the Gyotaku Fish Printing Kit next; this has a brief description, but no photo.

Even when there are photos, they don’t always add much. The picture on the product page of Metal Leaf Patent Gold shows a half-dozen types of metallic leaf, but doesn’t indicate which is the Patent Gold. The same picture appears on the Metal Leaf Genuine Gold XxDeep Gold page, this time with the six types of leaf labeled. Lucky I didn’t give up the first time, huh?

At least the copy provides the right information. For instance, the description of Rembrandt Acrylics begins “Made with care by the Dutch firm Talens, these versatile paints have good pigment load and covering power. Their rather stiff body makes them a good choice when visible brushstrokes are desired, or for impasto work.…” That really clarifies why I should buy these acrylics over the others offered.

One nicety I must mention: On the bottom of every category and subcategory page is a reminder that Daniel Smith offers secure online ordering.

That would be swell — if it didn’t take me so long to find what I need in the first place.

Daniel Smith’s overall rating: 5.9
Brand identification: 7
Fun quotient: 8
Graphics: 4
Product depth/assortment: 7
Navigation: 5
Ease of product ordering: 7
Overall ease of use: 4
Timeliness: 2
Loyalty efforts: 5
Information collection: 6
Search capabilities: 7
Privacy policy: 9