Online malls make gift giving easy 

p> With the impending barrage of artificial mistletoe, boozy eggnog, mall parking lot car wars, holiday sales and plastic Santas upon us, a pervasive expectation of Yuletide cheer is poised to dominate our lives for the next month.

If, like many of us, you'd like to avoid some of the shopping nightmare associated with this fine season, what follows will be of considerable interest.

For the past two years, I've discussed the ins and outs of online shopping. In 1996, I directed you to a handful of sites that advertise their products online, a few of which could also be purchased with a point and a click.

In 1997, I rejoiced in the vast improvement in and ubiquity of the technologies that empower vendors to sell and consumers to buy online safely. Secure transactions, always recognizable by the "s" after the "http" in the address bar, had finally arrived.

As prices continue to plummet and horsepower shoots through the roof, computers should be a hot gift idea this year. Numerous vendors offer online configuration and purchase now, but the leaders continue to be Dell (www.dell.com) and Gateway (www.gateway.com).

Both sites are relatively easy to navigate and allow you to choose from a wealth of available features. Calculate your total, click "buy it," and you're done. And my good friends in tech support assure me that both Gateway and Dell are known to sell solid, reliable systems.

A trend that has been snowballing for some time now is the amalgamation of services on the web in super sites. One of the early entrants into the shopping megasite fray remains www.internetmall.com, which admonishes these days, "The time to shop is Now." Shopping.com is another such site and offers online buying of everything from patio furniture to auto parts to software to "cigar apparel."

Both sites offer a similar range of products, and either should serve well those of us who need something, but aren't sure quite what.

Another symptom of these amalgamations is that search engines have attempted with great success to re-create themselves as "portals," sites that provide all the functionality one could possibly need. Extending far beyond mere searching capabilities, these big search engines all provide shopping guides similar to the "malls" mentioned above.

For a sampling, check out www.excite.com/shopping,www.shopping.yahoo.com or shop.hotbot.com. All provide helpful category groupings where you're sure to find whatever interests you.

Amazon.com continues to reign as "Earth's biggest bookstore," and now has expanded its offerings to include CDs and videos. I especially like Amazon for purchasing books myself, because it remembers previous purchases and makes recommendations. The site is also handy for choosing books for someone whose interests you're familiar with, as reader reviews are sometimes provided. And, their catalog has expanded.

Last year, I reported that my search for "Montana history" of Amazon turned up just over 100 matches. This year, I got 254. Finally, Amazon offers electronic gift certificates, which are emailed to the recipient instantly.

For video games, the best source I'm aware of is the VidGame Warehouse, at vidgamewh.buysafe.com. Nintendo, Playstation, and PC games are all available for secure online ordering. Last year, I was on a mad hunt for Goldeneye 007, VidGame Warehouse was the only place, online or otherwise, that still had it in stock.

Patagonia.com has a decent online store that allows you to browse either by activity (snowboarding, backpacking, et. al.), or product (jackets, pants, skis, etc.). The site is clean and uncomplicated, and online secure checkout is available.

Many of my favorite gifts have been edibles, and if you're looking to send fruits, chocolates, cheeses or other goodies, the two sites you'll need are www.hickoryfarms.com. Shopping cart systems make browsing easy. If you have a printed catalog in hand, you can order straight from it.

While shopping online sure is convenient, it's also good to support local merchants. Get the best of both worlds in shopping at www.blueheronhemp.com. The company is based right here in Western Montana and creates cargo bags, wallets, fanny packs, backpacks and other goodies, all made from earth-friendly hemp material.

Another local merchant that offers online ordering is Hunter Bay Coffee Roasters, available at www.hunterbay.com. From Ethiopian Harrar to Costa Rican Tarrazu, plus accessories like mugs and grinders, Hunter Bay has it all. Secure online ordering is a snap, and the site is easy to navigate.

This holiday season, avoid the manic elbowing in cash register lines, and the mad clamoring for department store sales. Sit back, in the privacy of your home, at any time of the day or night, and take care of all your holiday shopping with a few point-and-clicks.


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