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The Star - 22/03/97

Saturday, March 22, 1997
Shop Watch

Welcome to cyber-shopping

By Sharon Raj
IT WAS bound to happen! After aeons of mail order catalogues and ageing stuntmen pushing miracle cures on telly, shopping has finally gone hi-tech. Over the Internet, to be exact.

Well okay, so specialised items like computer paraphernalia and books have been available over the Net for years. And certain retail outlets have websites for on-line orders.

But with the emergence of Value-i-store (or VIS), cyber-shopping has taken a leap forward. This Malaysian-owned company runs a virtual supermarket, where items ranging from fine wines to washing machines can be purchased at the click of a mouse.

It all began with a quest for difference.

"I'm trying to create value with cheaper solutions, faster service and a pleasant environment for employees,"explains Leng Kean Meng, who is Virtual Chief 1.00 at VIS. (That must be cyber-speak for managing director.)

According to Leng, VIS's concept of shopping benefits both retailer and consumers.

A cyber-showroom cuts overheads and inventory costs. Moreover, the actual outlet - where the goods are - can retail from an area with lower rent. That way, savings are passed on to consumers.

Best of all, cyber-shopping saves lots of time and hassle. Parking woes and traffic jams become a thing of the past. Decisions are made easier with the helpful display of product features. And, you can take your own sweet time browsing without having an aggressive salesperson bugging you.

Consumer response so far has been pretty favourable. A majority of the people contacted were pleased about the time-saving factor.

Dinesh Nair, 28, made his first purchase from VIS, a bouquet of flowers, for his wife on Valentine's Day.

"Because of the nature of my work, I'm sometimes in the office till 4am. And I sleep in the day, so the service is very convenient," says Dinesh.

Valentine's Day purchases through VIS also worked very well for Chang Jye Kai, 26, a research engineer at an R&D institute in Singapore, and Zain Azrin, 24, a postgraduate student at the University of London.

Both surprised their "special someones" in Malaysia through VIS. Zain was especially happy that VIS e-mailed confirmation of delivery - as well as his girlfriend's reaction (surprise) to the bouquet.

"What I really liked was that they (VIS) were friendly and enthusiatic. I mean, not every website service takes the trouble to e-mail you just to say how your partner reacted." A big percentage of first-time purchases with VIS comprise gifts.

But after the initial novelty wears off, does anyone actually go back for bigger purchases? Apparently so. Pauline Tong, 28, says she regularly checks out the virtual store for new goods as one would a favourite clothes store.

"It's better because I needn't go anywhere or ask anyone. Just click! The thought of how much time I have saved, while doing it in the comfort of my own home or office, makes me feel like I've actually been productive," explains the business consultant.

Another advantage of cyber-shopping, especially if you're after computer software, is that you get to sample the products before buying, comments Raymond Tang, 34, a general manager.

And cyber-shopping can bring faraway places a little closer. Engineer Lim Keng Jit, 28, buys computer software and peripherals like modems from stores in the USA. The ability to shop across continents, he says, is a very big advantage. (VIS doesn't offer this.)

So how does VIS stack up to the competition?

"I can't compare VIS with the other sites I've visited," says flower purchaser Chang. "Those sites are generally very specialised. I think VIS is trying to be a cyber-supermarket. It's up to their sales report to say if it's good or bad."

"Compared with other web-sites," Lim adjudges, "the VIS web pages are pretty good. However, the payment for the USA sites are better as they use Credit Cards online, which are encrypted for safety."

Talking about safety, Virtual Chief Leng assures me that credit card data is stored in one system and delivery addresses on yet another. In the event some genius hacker manages to break in, he might be able to place an order through someone else's account. The goods, however, will be sent to the account holder's address, thus defeating the purpose.

And every time an address is changed, the account holder is contacted for verification.

As a consumer, Nair would however like to see a central certification authority at work to help clear up the grey areas. The authority would act to certify both merchant and client, so neither can deny things should there be a dispute.

But security isn't the only thing that can cause you to part with that hard-earned moolah. How about impulse buys? See something you like, just click and it's yours! Zain believes that such compulsiveness is bound to arise.

"You feel that, never mind, it's on the card. So you don't actually feel like you're throwing money away. This is especially so if daddy's boy has just discovered the joys of cyber-shopping with daddy's card. It's like giving Charles Manson a gun and letting him loose in Hollywood. Of course, this does not in any way refer to moi!" Of course. . .

Tong, however, thinks differently.

"If you are a practical plastic shopper (because you always have to pay the bills at the end of the day) and are used to delayed payment shopping, it will be no different; you'll have to shop wisely."

But here's the mother of all shopping questions: WILL CYBER SHOPPING EVER REPLACE SHOPPING MALLS? The answer, thankfully, is a resounding NO!

"No matter how great the possibility, I sincerely hope that cyber-shopping will never replace good ol' shopping malls," says Zain.

"These malls let you do stuff and spend time with people. I can't imagine one person with a mouse and a whole battalion of friends/relatives blabbering away behind him. Oh, God forbid!" he adds.

"Browsing on the web takes all the fun out of window shopping," Nair opines. "Web shopping is targetted for people who don't have much time to spend."

"If you've got four to five hours to kill, cyber-shopping won't provide a pleasurable outlet. Besides, where else would I get my exercise?" quips Tang.

So, there you have it, a thumbs up for convenience and technology. But two thumbs up for capitalism and mall suburbia!

Value-i-store can be reached at Phone:03-4270-2898

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