LOS ANGELES -- It may be easy to buy products online, but what happens when you have to take something back to a store that doesn't exist?
On the heels of the most successful online retailing season ever, one customer discovered the downside of e-commerce in the all-too-real town of Commerce, Calif., site of the warehouse for online megastore eToys.com.
Early in December, Gloria Zai, housewife and mother of five young boys, placed an order for nearly $1,400 worth of presents with eToys.com. It was the first time in nearly a decade that she and her husband, Eli, had finished their holiday shopping before Christmas Eve.
Less than a week later, Gloria's dreamlike holiday season quickly turned into the nightmare before Christmas.
Although the shipment from eToys.com arrived a day ahead of schedule, it contained three Star Wars: X-wing Fighter Lego sets instead of the two Episode I: Anakin's Pod Racers that the Zais had ordered. In addition, there had been a mix-up with an order of Pokémon figures. Bellsprout, Weepinbell, and Victreebel had been purchased, but instead four Dewgongs were shipped. All in all, the Zais received only a third of the items they ordered online, although they received 32 almost-correct products.
Almost, however, doesn't cut it with little boys at Christmastime. With 12 days left before the big day, Gloria Zai carefully repackaged the wrong toys and returned them to eToys.com. Eight days later, she opened a second eToys.com shipment -- only to discover that while most of her order had been correctly filled, there had been yet another Pokémon foul-up.
Desperate calls to the company's 800 number followed, but in the end, a customer service supervisor gently broke the bad news: Yes, some of the correct Pokémons were in stock, but no, they could not be shipped in time. Distraught, Gloria scoured the eToys.com Web site, searching for an upper-level manager who might be able to grant her satisfaction. It was then that she discovered eToys.com was actually located near the Santa Monica airport, just a 30-minute drive from the Zais' home in Van Nuys, Calif.
The next morning, with only three days left until Christmas, Mrs. Zai loaded the incorrect Pokémon order into her Chevy Suburban and headed for 3100 Ocean Park Blvd., the non-virtual home of eToys.com. Inside Suite 300, the exasperated mom eventually met with Jim Romans, director of inventory control. Confronted with a box of Pokémon figures, the befuddled financial analyst explained that there were no toys at the headquarters of eToys.com, just technical, financial, and marketing staff. The inventory, Romans said, is stored in a warehouse in nearby Commerce, Calif.
Determined not to return home without a Bellsprout, Weepinbell, and Victreebel in tow, Mrs. Zai drove through East Los Angeles to Peach Tree Street, the site of the eToys.com warehouse and shipping depot. But just minutes after her arrival, she learned that the eToys.com warehouse can only process requests placed via the Web. Although a shipping clerk was kind enough to let Mrs. Zai place a new order on his computer, she was informed online that her Pokémon would not come off the nearby shelves until Dec. 27.
Because the eToys.com warehouse is fully automated, Mrs. Zai subsequently learned, all orders must be filled in the exact sequence they are received. Unfortunately, Mrs. Zai's order was number 1,217 in the electronic queue. The toys, only a few yards from her in the warehouse, might as well have been on the other side of the planet.
Mrs. Zai was able to come up with substitute gifts for her three youngest at a nearby mall. And last week, a cohort of Pokémons -- including the coveted Bellsprout, Weepinbell, and Victreebel -- arrived at the Zai household, courtesy of eToys.com, which also sent a personal apology from a corporate vice president. Still, Gloria Zai says she will not use the online vendor for holiday shopping next year.
"Call me old-fashioned, but I just need to know there's a person behind a counter somewhere," Mrs. Zai says.
South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments? Holler@sttf.org.