Cybershopper struggles to splurge


Photo by Mark Garvin

Imagine getting $500 a week, free and clear, every week of the semester, to spend on anything you wanted — but with one catch: It all has to be spent on line, no visiting actual stores allowed.

For Tomiko Jones (C’99), who won just that in a contest sponsored by Levi, Strauss & Co., it proved not to be much of a catch at all.

Over the 20 weeks of the “Semester Online” promotion, Jones, one of three winners nationwide, spent more than $8,300 on items ranging from toilet paper to a trip to Cancun. The items she purchased included a New York Times subscription, gifts for her boyfriend and family, clothing, CDs, groceries and three stereos on line. (One of the stereos was for herself, another for her brother, and the third was donated to Check One, the multiracial student club, for its Spring Fling benefit auction.) Her single biggest online purchase was a new $2,000 computer, so she could give her old one to her mother.

In an interview last spring, Jones said that there are obvious benefits to shopping on line. “I don’t have to leave home to buy my groceries, and since I know what size clothes I wear, I just pick them out of the on-line catalogs.

But there are definite drawbacks, too,” she added. “In Philly, I haven’t been able to order real [perishable] groceries — I haven’t found a delivery service that goes to the Pathmark on Grays Ferry.”

And ordering restaurant meals on line didn’t pan out, either. “I went to after I won,” she said. “You place your order on line, but when the delivery comes, you have to pay cash, and that wouldn’t work for me,” since the weekly allotment was accessed using a Visa check card.

At the end of the semester, she stumbled across a local site,, that did accept debit cards. “I wish more of these services advertised in Philadelphia Weekly and the other local papers,” she said.

While most of her on-line shopping experiences were hassle-free, she did have a few downers. “The most frustrating one was shopping for my spring break package, because I ended up doing everything a travel agent would do,” she said. “I didn’t want to do that — I would much rather have gone across the street to STA Travel.”

During the promotion, visitors to the Levi’s Web site could track the winners’ purchases, view weekly Webcasts and send e-mail to the participants, including suggestions for things to buy.

For instance, she said, “We were supposed to buy pets on line. I sort of wimped out — I bought a Venus flytrap and some sea monkeys,” spending a whopping $9 in the process. “But they’re my pets!”

The three winners — the other two were Scott Raymond of the University of Kansas and Alanna Blanco of Cal State-Chico — also rated the quality of each of their Web shopping experiences, a task Jones enjoyed. Of all the sites where she spent money, only two, and, earned a thumbs down for delays in responding to questions and delivering the goods.

But there’s still room for many on-line shopping sites to improve — better selection, better customer service, for instance. “A lot of companies are building themselves up and have the potential to be great,” she said. On the whole, though, she was a happy customer. “This is every kid’s — and probably every adult’s — dream,” she said.

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Originally published on September 16, 1999