A few days ago (last Thursday night, but after midnight, making it February 18th), I decided to buy a few CDs online. I had a coupon for $10 off at Barnes & Noble’s site, and they had the CDs that I wanted, so I decided to use them. Big mistake.

Setting up my account

My first problem with B&N was with the account setup system. In order to be able to place an order with Barnes & Noble online, you have to set up an account with them. (This is no different from most, if not all, online merchants.) Their setup system flat-out refused to store my credit card information; for the first three times that I submitted it, I got back a cryptic database message (I wish that I had kept it), and the next two times, it accepted it, but when I went back to the billing information screen, I had no credit cards listed. For some reason, I tried a sixth time, and it worked — I have no idea what I did differently.

Then, it allowed me to set up specific shipping addresses. Since I cannot receive packages at my residence (I live in an apartment building without a doorman, meaning that I end up playing chase with a UPS or FedEx driver for days), I always have stuff shipped to work. I decided to set this up as my primary shipping address… and again, it just didn’t stick. The server seemed to accept it — I didn’t get any error messages, but it just wasn’t there. It took three tries to get it to stay.

With that done, I embarked on my shopping spree. Everything that I wanted was listed as in 24-hour stock, so I felt good that I’d have it all soon.

The gift certificate

At the end of the buying process on B&N, you’re asked for any gift certifiates that you may have (it’s step five). I entered the number of the one that I wanted to use, and then clicked to proceed. On the next screen (step seven), the gift certificate had not been taken off of the price. Hmmmm… I hit back in my browser, and it was typed into the space just fine. I clicked “Continue” again, and this time, it was accepted… strange. I clicked to confirm my order, and within about 10 minutes, got an email confirmation that everything was proceeding along, and that I’d get another email when the CDs shipped. For kicks, I checked my order status on their site, and it was listed as “In Process.”

I then clicked on the feedback mechanism on the website and penned off a quick note about my poor experience, and wondered to myself if I would ever get a response.

Flash forward to today…

This morning (around 9 AM Eastern), I realized that I didn’t have any confirmation that my CDs had shipped. I checked my order status on their site, and the order was still listed as “In Process” (whatever that means), so I called them.

The first annoyance of the call was that, after negotiating two menu trees, I was asked to put in my order number via my touch-tone phone. I did so, and then it asked me my zip code; after I entered this, I was connected to a human, whose first question was “What is your order number?” I asked her why I had been asked to type it in on my phone, and her answer was “I’m sure that there’s a very good reason for it, but I really can’t answer that.” Interesting.

More interesting, though, was her explanation for my order status — it appeared that my credit card had failed authorization. I had just used that credit card this morning, and knew that it was fine, so I asked her to read me back the number that they had. She read the last five digits, which were fine, so I asked her for the whole number. She replied, “Oh, I’m sure that you typed it in wrong… do you just want to give it back to me, and I’ll enter it and resubmit the order?” I told her that I didn’t want that; instead, I wanted her to read me the whole credit card number so that I could verify what they had, and she put me on hold. Three minutes later, she read it back to me, and sure enough, it was correct. I asked her why it had failed, then, and she had no clue — which is my clue to ask for a manager.

Her manager then came to the line, and I repeated my troubles to her. I told her that I was amazed that I had to call them to find out that my order was on hold; she said that I should have received an email to that effect. I explained that I didn’t, and she was audibly amazed (for lack of a better description). I also told her that I was a little put off by the complete lack of a response to my feedback message about the troubles I had even setting up my account and placing my order; she apologized for that, and offered me 30% off of this order. I told her that that was fine, she resubmitted my order, and said that it was going to be shipped out ASAP. That ended the call.

This evening

When I arrived back home this evening from school, I checked the status of the order again, and it was still “In Process.” I called to ask if and when it was going to ship, and was told that it was “in the process of shipping,” but that there would be “no possible way” for it to go out before tomorrow, since all of the items were on 24-hour inventory. I agreed with the woman, but noted to her that they were on 24-hour inventory last Thursday, when I placed the order… and that a manager told me they would ship ASAP when we spoke this morning. This agent told me that tomorrow is ASAP, and tried to “explain” how web merchants work to me. She also said that it was the gift certificate that I had used that caused the entire problem; their system breaks with certain gift certificates, and here’s the kicker: there’s no way for them to know the orders that have broken without the customer calling in to complain. I told her that that line alone had guaranteed that I never will shop with them again, and she apologized, said she wished it weren’t so, and insinuated that I should have been happy to get the 30% discount. Buh-bye.


Like I said a few days ago, good web merchants can make your life a lot easier. The flip side of this is that bad ones can make it a lot harder; there’s no reason why customers should have to keep a close eye on their orders to make sure that they haven’t been forgotten or caught in a poorly-designed system. There’s just no excuse for it.

Now, does anyone think I’ll see those CDs?



This morning, 48 hours after the supervisor had confirmed my order and credit card authorization and set it up to ship “ASAP,” my order has still not been sent. They show it in the “packed and ready for pickup” stage. When I asked why it hadn’t shipped, this morning’s supervisor could give me no explanation; she again apologized, said that “we have been having a lot of systems problems here for a little while,” and said that she would look into it further.

I can’t imagine that I’ll give them another chance with my money.

• Posted by: Jason Levine on Feb 24, 2000, 9:47 AM

Please post more comments, I will visit this site again.

• Posted by: zip code on Jun 9, 2003, 1:58 AM
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