Where Is the Web’s Holiday Spirit?

If e-commerce fails to capture whopping holiday sales this year, it is going to be for lack of imagination. Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have always known that people want much more out of the holiday season than the opportunity to get a bargain, and they have made the creation of aesthetically pleasing, entertaining, emotionally fulfilling shopping environments an art form. But holiday magic seems woefully lacking on the Web.

When I was a kid, the season always included a visit to Santa at Marshall Field’s big downtown Chicago store. My parents would bundle up all of us youngsters and take us for a thrilling train ride. Dad always maneuvered us into the front of the first car so we could watch wide-eyed as the elevated train flew over rooftops and then hurled itself down into the mouth of the subway tunnel.

Bounty for the Senses

We would emerge into the crowded Loop, where sharp gusts of wind off the lake added to the sensory feast of swirling snowflakes, Salvation Army bells, carols floating from outdoor speakers and lavish store window displays that fed our imaginations with hopes and expectations.

Although we were ostensibly on a shopping excursion, we didn’t go home with any packages. In fact, the day was all about looking and wishing in the presence of parents who wanted to make sure their kids’ fondest dreams would not be dashed on the biggest morning of the year.

Business Follows Pleasure

The actual buying occurred later and in secret, my parents being the type to preserve the notion of industrious elves as far into childhood as possible. When they got down to the business of fulfilling the wish lists, the shopping became less about having a pleasant day than getting a job done, but the fact is, they went back to the stores where we had spotted our treasures to close the deals.

I don’t think there’s a Web site that even comes close to delivering a holiday shopping experience that will feed nostalgic recollections in years to come. It’s easy to assume that it just isn’t possible, or that everyone will need broadband connections before the Web comes alive, but if that is the case, e-commerce may have to pack it in.

Motivation Fading

Now that e-businesses are feeling heavy pressure to show profits, many are raising prices and charging realistic (that is, costly) shipping fees. Customers can’t count on finding great deals on the Web. And even the best e-tailers haven’t figured out how to deliver instant gratification, which is one of the biggest trump cards for brick-and-mortar shops.

E-tailers can’t even guarantee delayed gratification, since images on a monitor don’t always translate into eagerly anticipated objects of desire. It’s hard to tell the difference between silk and polyester from a thumbnail photo. Anyone who has been disappointed more than a few times has little motivation for giving the Web another chance.

On the plus side, the Internet can deliver just about anything. That means a lot to people who don’t have access to big stores in major U.S. cities and to those who have kids with hearts set on items the local toy store can’t keep in stock.

E-Shoppers Are People, Too

But that brings us back to what the Web isn’t even trying very hard to deliver — the meaning of the season. I think it’s possible to convey the emotional resonance of the holidays on the Internet, but e-tailers need to be more creative to do it. They need to draw people beyond the flat monitor screen into the realm of the imagination, and they already have adequate tools to meet the challenge.

People are drawn to the stories, images, sounds and symbols that express shared traditions. Sure, the live experience is going to be the most evocative, but a beautiful print ad in a magazine can momentarily strike a chord. Television commercials are sometimes funny and moving — especially with the right musical touches.

Even the Sears Wish Book had it figured out long before the Internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. Why are Web stores — for the most part — so flat, cluttered and boring?

Imaginations Unchained

I think that when consumers feel there is the possibility of being drawn in and transported to another realm, they will be more inclined to go to the Internet for all sorts of purposes — including holiday shopping.

But as long as people feel that they’re chained to a chair looking at a glaring screen full of blinking, repetitive, obnoxious and unimaginative appeals to spend their money, holiday shopping on the Web is going to rank right down there with doing taxes and paying the bills.

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