The joy of shopping


Any fool can get rich by making money. It takes a genius to make his fortune by losing it. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of, runs a company which has never made a profit yet which is worth billions, because he understands better than anyone else the things that make shopping on the Internet attractive. The most fiendish and ingenious of all his inventions is one-click shopping, the web's answer to crack cocaine: you get an immediate surge of pleasure, followed minutes later by the urge to do it again: life speeds into a blur of delight and time ceases to mean anything until your credit rating slams into the buffers.

This is a slight exaggeration: I understand that cocaine has its downside. But shopping for books on the web really is more fun than doing it almost anywhere else. One reason is that Amazon can be used as a source of books in print. It's much easier and quicker to search its catalogue than to do it almost any other way. Another feature that cannot be reproduced off-line is the customer reviews. These are almost always informative, not often intentionally.

If you want out-of-print books, Amazon will find them, but charges outrageously and is slow and inefficient. Much better is either Blackwell's, in this country, or, a wonderful database of American second-hand bookshops which will find anything that can be found: I was offered, for example, 20 copies of Philip Kitcher's book on socio-biology, Vaulting Ambition, which is impossible to obtain in England.

I live outside Cambridge, which has probably the best bookshops of any town in Britain: certainly better than London. They are large, friendly and staffed by literate and helpful people. The Waterstone's even has a coffee bar on the top floor. Yet with all this half an hour's drive away, I still find myself shopping more and more on the web and not just because the coffee at my desk is better and a great deal cheaper than the Seattle Coffee Company's.

Sometimes the urge for transatlantic shopping is pure perversity. When I built a computer last year, I ordered all the small and portable bits from California, mostly because I could, but partly because it was such a pleasure to deal with friendly and knowledgeable people. The cost savings were almost exactly balanced out by the freight and the taxes - but at least I was buying from people who knew more about what they were selling than I do.

In general, computers and their parts are much the best things to buy across the net. Not only will most of the major manufacturers allow you to design your own machine from standard parts on their sites, but there are a couple of large and effective search engines which will trawl hundreds of American shops to find the lowest prices on anything you might want. Looking at the size of that market, and the way that prices compete with each other all across the continent, is one way to persuade yourself that the euro is not just some cunning wonk's scheme to bore us all to death.

A lot of my favourite trout flies this year came from Dan Bailey's fly shop in Livingstone, Montana. This was fun and not too appallingly expensive, since the patterns I bought are not obtainable here and the shipping costs are negligible. There was no real advantage to doing it this way as opposed to from a catalogue: no fancy searches revealed unexpected delights as they can on larger sites. But it was a nice example of the way that even conventional mail-order shopping can extend its reach across the Internet.

A similar hybrid catalogue run by the Grateful Dead is going to ensure that I get two pairs of variously tie-dyed socks this Christmas and, with any luck, a grinning silver skull to hang on the Christmas tree. But music, which would have seemed a natural for Internet shopping, still doesn't quite work. Amazon does music as well as anyone: the formula of placing 30-second extracts on each catalogue page, alongside reviews from other customers, works well with the search engine. But there is little money to be saved after shipping and tax, and the wait for CDs always seems much longer than it is for books. I suspect that it is a market that must wait until it has been Europeanised.

Last week, just in time for Christmas, Amazon opened a video store and one for "holiday gifts", which means Christmas presents. The stock zoomed again, making the company worth $7.5 billion; losses were smaller than expected, and the American writer Andrew Rice started a rumour that the company would next move into on-line taxidermy.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family