Online Retailers Fail at Every Possible Thing

shopping-cart-on-fire

If you’re like most Americans, you did more holiday shopping online than ever before last month. There’s no denying that it’s more convenient than schlepping to multiple stores to compare prices and find the perfect gift. You don’t have to deal with crowded malls. And it’s even, on the whole, better for the environment.

The retailers benefitting sure don’t make it easy, though.

Amazon Fails at Search

The great thing about Amazon is its vast selection. The terrible thing about Amazon is its vast selection.

It truly is possible to purchase just about any product through Amazon. That makes wading through all the stuff you don’t want a real chore. Unless you have an exact model number or are content to buy whatever’s advertised to you, it’s almost impossible to be certain you’re finding the item that best suits your needs – whether that’s lowest possible price, feature set, or whatever.

Amazon’s search feature is designed much more for pushing product than delivering accurate results. While it contains elements of guided navigation – that is, pre-configured filters for narrowing down your choices – those elements often rely on inconsistent or confusing data.

The first choice is always the hardest.

amazon-choose-a-department-to-sort

Apparently robot versions of prehistoric pack predators and infants go together. Noted.

Before you can sort your results, you need to select a department. Amazon thinks that you want Toys & Games, since it’s at the top of the list and there are a couple refinements you can make off to the left, but it’s not giving you any other clues. Number of results in each category? Nah, that’s just confusing, even if we’re (maybe?) sorting the list by that instead of something arcane and useless like the alphabet.

Not that narrowing down to a different department actually helps.

amazon-price-low-to-high

If the words “Robosapien Companion” doesn’t conjure a disturbing image in your mind of our collective hellish technological sex life in 50 years, you are luckier than me.

Which prices are we even comparing here? Just Amazon-sold items, or third-party sellers too? New or used? Printed or downloadable? Even “the first price for each listing” doesn’t work. It’s been this way for years.

TigerDirect Fails at Shipping

To be clear, I’ve always received everything I’ve ordered from TigerDirect, and fairly promptly, too. The company accomplishes this, apparently, by pre-boxing all their products and sending them out without a single care given for efficient shipping.

tigerdirect-box-tower

Princess Ruby Fluffytail gets a wonderful, awful idea.

That’s a single order of eight items in six boxes, all from the same warehouse if the return address is to be believed. One box did have three items in it – a wireless computer mouse and two flat software titles. That UPS box in the middle, by the way, says right on it not to use it for Ground service, which of course is how it was sent.

As an exercise in curiosity and Tetris skill reinforcement, I re-packed every purchase in the largest box of the bunch. The two biggest items were a bit snug the only way they fit together, but one slightly larger box or maybe two boxes would have left plenty of room for cushioning material.

tigerdirect-single-box

It was a very dino-mechanical Christmas.

Sears Fails at Copywriting, Programming, Graphic Design, Interface Design, Basic Math, and Points

sears-pijnts

Beg pardon. Of course I mean “pijnts”.

This post would have gone up weeks ago if not for the challenge of describing just how convoluted and awful the Sears situation has become. In some ways I feel bad for Sears – it’s an old, venerable company struggling to compete in the Internet age. It has made some effort to lean on its respected brand names and vast brick & mortar operation while expanding into online retailing.

But Sears went full derp with its “Shop Your Way” umbrella program. It’s your basic rewards system, giving you points when you shop that you can redeem later. And they also give you “Surprise Points” for no reason sometimes, which usually expire quickly and can only be used in a certain department, and only if you spend all your actual earned points first. And sometimes there are bonus points, which you get back above and beyond the one-point-per-10-cents-spent normally earned, and expire sort of soonish, but don’t get earned at all if you use previous points for your purchase, usually.

It’s all a bit convoluted. Also, it was clearly implemented by drunken koalas with buckets on their heads.

  • Points totals are frequently inaccurate. Sometimes it’s because a recent purchase hasn’t made its way fully through the system; sometimes the website is still showing the total from the last time you were logged in, even though your session has expired and you have to sign in again (twice, because that doesn’t work properly either); sometimes points spent on a canceled transaction aren’t refunded for weeks.
  • The checkout process shows differing calculations at different stages, and even on different parts of the same page. Sometimes it’s as simple as an errant conjunction, saying, “You have $10.24 (10,240) in points to use on this order and will earn $10.52 (10,524) in points to use later” (emphasis mine). In truth, using those points you have could disqualify you from earning some or all of those points to use later.
  • Coupons (usually) treat points as other coupons, rather than, say, gift card balances. That means you’re sorta kinda forbidden from using points with coupons that exclude the use of other coupons in the same order. Unless the shopping cart lets you get away with it.
  • The final order summary has an extra even more summarized summary as a sidebar on the right side of the page. Your available points and to-be-earned points are shown again, with colorful meaningless bar graphs this time, in the sidebar. The button to actually redeem your points, though, is small and all the way on the left.

Why do I still shop at these places? Well, I’m a sucker for a deal. Even if it’s something I don’t need. Still, they’re not often my first choices unless they’re offering something extremely cheap or even free after rebate or gifted points.

sears-pints

Beg pardon. Of course I mean “pints”.

Michelle Branch: Hotel Paper – with “‘Til I Get Over You” video cover

Michelle Branch - Hotel PaperPart 12 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me

Association with strong memories gets a lot of music stuck in people’s heads. “Favorite song” is not a meritocratic competition, even one judged solely on personal preference. That’s why I was so pleased with the phrasing of this meme a year ago – albums that “stuck with me” rather than “are objectively the best” or “I like the most”.

Take Hotel Paper. Part of its resonance for me is the timing of my discovery of it. “Tuesday Morning” played on my car stereo when I’d just had a very similar experience – shall we say, a significant milestone early in a relationship – on the same day of the week. Thus the stage was set for “Find Your Way Back” to be my personal soundtrack when that same relationship got temporarily rocky and estranged for a few weeks.

The album has quirks that are alternately irritating and immensely endearing. Branch sometimes sings like she’s never heard vowels pronounced before, swapping i for a or e for o like they’re Pokemon cards. A light percussion click on “One of These Days”, almost certainly inserted by a producer, is I swear lifted straight from the default Windows XP sound theme.

If there’s a formula for poppy solo female singer-songwriters, Branch nails it. There’s insecurity and girl power both in these mostly romantically-tinged songs; a quarter of them end by repeating the first line of the first verse, oh so soaked with meaning; one, as specified in all such devil’s pacts, is titled “Breathe”.

Sure, but it's not like Faith Hill, Anna Nalick, or Tay-Tay had seven remixes made too.

Sure, but it’s not like Faith Hill, Anna Nalick, or Tay-Tay had seven remixes made too.

One has to imagine if there was a debate about using the name for track 4, “Empty Handed”, since the word is prominent in that song’s chorus as well. With a more interesting chord progression and more creative lyrics (see: repeating first line), “Empty Handed” was never destined to be the hit that “Breathe” was so it got the more original title too.

None of this is to say that I don’t genuinely love this album. I do. I sometimes refer to Michelle Branch’s work as my “guilty pleasure”, as if she’s the most artificial superstar ever created (she’s not) and the music is blandly catchy with no real craft put into it (it’s totally not) so it doesn’t deserve my precious ears. It’s unfair and I should stop. Hotel Paper has honesty and poise surpassing many records, let alone platinum-selling ones.

It’s that honesty and vulnerability seeping through that keeps me returning. I suspect Hotel Paper is not Branch’s own favorite among her albums, given her turn toward country in later releases. It’s slicker and sparklier than independent singer-songwriters usually get, but it works.

(Note to any and all exes obsessively reading my blog: ending this series of posts on this song is in no way a message about my yearning and aching for you. It’s just the way it worked out. Emergent patterns and all.)

 

Victoria Arico: Everybody Come to Dinner – with “Mountains on Fire” video cover

Victoria Arico - Everybody Come to DinnerPart 11 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me

It’s tough to review someone you know – even if only peripherally.

I’ve exchanged a few words with Gideon Freudmann, both in person and via email, but it’s always been as a fan. Victoria Arico and I met as fellow performers, ran into each other frequently at open mics, and exchanged CDs. At the time, she was part of a duo called Tell Your Daughters, but the disc she gave me was an earlier solo album.

Everybody Come to Dinner starts off pretty challenging to the listener. “Mosquito Controller” features two simultaneous (though related) melodic and lyrical lines, both sung by Arico. It’s a brave choice to place this track first, but it ably showcases her storytelling ability and knack for setting a tone. Her titular crush sounds almost mystical, a product of his quite blue-collar local business T-shirt and “size 13 Etonics sneakers” – a fortuitous brand if it became necessary, for a wider release, to replace it with a generic word like “athletic” à la “cherry cola” in The Kinks’ “Lola”.

Characters and situations are deftly drawn throughout the album, as much with flip omission as with detailed description. A gay drummer is encapsulated in his preference for “pints of Perrier” in “Secret Love”; mention of a bride’s mother’s obliviousness to an approaching hurricane elides right over the rained-out wedding to get to the gymnasium shelter serving as a hotel in “Story of the Odds”.

Fear of omission drives one of the strongest songs, “Pretty Good Secretary” – fear that that phrase would “sum up her life”. It’s written in third person, but lady, it’s about someone who labors to find time for music and painting. We see the signature on your CD’s cover art. You are so busted.

Along with somber folk story “Go to the Well”, hippie lovefest title track “Everybody Come to Dinner”, and MIDI-heavy scientific history pontification “Up Come the Daisies”, the second half of the album offers a trilogy of relationship songs. In the utterly charming “Story of the Odds” she gets the guy; in “Walking Alone” and “Mountains on Fire” they struggle to make it work. Though the natural imagery is of epic scale, the challenges depicted are beautifully ordinary.

Through it all, Arico’s voice is humble, her acoustic guitar temperate. It’s well worth the download.

Voter ID Means You Trade a Poker Chip for a Ballot

black and white poker chip

In 2012, my state passed a voter ID law. As you know, these laws are super effective.

Here in New Hampshire, see, we’re very concerned about people committing voter fraud. That’s when some dastardly individual goes out of his or her way to cast a vote in an election despite being ineligible to do so. Said criminal might be completely ineligible, so that even one vote is illegal, or just completing more than one ballot – say, by sneaking around and impersonating actual registered voters.

By requiring a photo ID to vote, my state and many others have ensured that no dead, imaginary, poor, or no-showing people cast a vote.

As always, of course, the devil’s in the details.

Charlie Daniels: The Devil Went Down to Georgia

It’s only really a problem during his vacations.

At my polling place yesterday, there were two tables set up. One was for folks to get themselves registered if they hadn’t already done so. All registration requires is “proof of identity, age, citizenship, and domicile”, so it’s like pre-checking ID because you’ll still have to prove that you are who you say you are every election.

The second table was divided into five sections: four for ranges of the alphabet, where registered voters with corresponding first letters of their last names waited in lines for their plain, white poker chips; and one for those voters to exchange their poker chips for ballots.

Signing the Declaration - Founders Playing Poker

Just as the founders intended.

A printed boarding pass with one’s name, flight number, and coded airline data is sufficient to get on an airplane because its bearer has already presented ID to security personnel and been searched for contraband before being granted access to the separate waiting area. Similarly, a poker chip handed to you by a poll worker who crosses your name off a list serves as a flawless identification token after milling about in a large room where anyone can leave and re-enter at any time.

Wait, I might have gotten confused there. I meant to say that after already registering with “proof of identity, age, citizenship, and domicile”, needing a photo ID again at the polls is just common sense – especially when showing that ID grants you a cheap, common item that you then give to a completely different person who can’t possibly keep track of everyone being verified in order to receive your single allocated ballot.

In fact, it’s even more fraud-proof than airline security. Instead of just two steps, it has three.

Tom Cochrane: Mad Mad World – with “Friendly Advice” video cover

Tom Cochrane - Mad Mad WorldPart 10 of 12 Albums That Stuck With Me

If you know Tom Cochrane’s biggest hit, it’s probably as “that Rascal Flatts song from Cars“. Indeed, the original “Life is a Highway” was pretty big for a couple weeks at the end of 1991, but it faded away pretty quickly. As an anthem for a bunch of computer-animated, anthropomorphic automobiles 15 years later, Pixar could’ve picked worse.

The rest of the album is … well, it’s not at the top of  many lists. Maybe “Tom Cochrane solo records” or “least politically challenging post-Gulf War releases”. Were it not for my own nerd rage at country covers of rock songs and a final track I could play acoustically at open mics to a fair amount of praise, the whole disc might’ve faded from my memory too.

I was also about 13 when this thing came out, and thus the perfect audience for its straightforward rock and roll sorta-coolness. While it strays into heavy topics like drug use and poverty occasionally, it’s never subtle. Consider this metric: on average, the title of each song is repeated nearly 12 times in that song. The number would be considerably higher if Cochrane actually sang “Everything comes around” instead of “Everything comes ’round” in track 6.

Tom Cochrane: Mad Mad World spreadsheet

Spreadsheets: the ultimate music appreciation tool.

This tendency to repeat a key phrase likely influenced my own very early songwriting – the stuff that no one ever, ever needs to hear. Reacting against that simplistic technique later on made me into the obscure creator of uncatchy yet brilliantly insightful tunes you all know and love.

Something else stands out about Tom Cochrane: this particular noise he makes. It might be “Awrwrwrwrwrwrwrwr”, his equivalent of an “ooh” or “ah” or rapper’s “yeah”. The sound is the precise midpoint between seeing a pile of sleeping kittens and adjusting your eyepatch with your hook hand.

Hidden between these tropes, though, is a good amount of decent music. The lyrics are sometimes clumsy, but Cochrane knows it, going so far as to pen an entire bridge composed of nothing but clichés in “Washed Away”. The unslick writing does lead to a few choice lines, and several tracks feature not just one but two bridge sections.

Speaking of movies and covers, by the way, the album and second track title has nothing to do with “Mad World”, the 1982 Tears for Fears song covered by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules for the Donnie Darko soundtrack. Also I am not related to Michael Andrews, as far as I know. And also speaking of Tears for Fears, while I did try to grow my hair like Roland Orzabal’s, I never saw the original Canadian cover art for Mad Mad World and didn’t go for that look.

Tom Cochrane: Mad Mad World original cover art

Man, I could’ve been so rad in high school.

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