Dear Jeff, owes you a big apology

December 30, 1999

This Christmas season I reached a couple of conclusions. First, I like online Christmas shopping because you never have to leave the house. Second, I dislike online Christmas shopping because nothing you order ever seems to arrive.

This creates a lot more moral dilemmas than I am comfortable trying to answer.

For example, once I click the "Submit Order" button, I like to think that I have washed my hands of the gift-giving responsibility. I have made the effort, I have done what I can and if it doesn't work out, well, it isn't my fault.

But as I've found out, it is not this simple. There are gray areas.

So, since it doesn't look as if Emily Post is going to get around to it any time soon, I will try to fill a need I see for some kind of online gift-ordering etiquette.

If you submit an order for an online product but receive no confirmation by return e-mail, I have arbitrarily decided that the gift-giver still maintains 40 percent culpability should something go wrong. Technically, you can get by, saying that you filed the order. But without verification, you probably ought to suspect that something's up.


If you receive confirmation that your order has been received, with no indication that the item is out of stock, I believe that you, in good faith, need never think about that product or that person again. If, or whoever, screws up at this point, you cannot help it. In fact, I think this gives you the right to demand a thank-you note even if the person never receives the gift.

It may be helpful at this point, for illustrative purposes, to equate e-commerce with prayer. Suppose a friend is sick and you pray for him to get better and he dies.

Is it your responsibility that the man is dead? Of course not, it is God's. But you checked in, you put in a good word, you did your best. There's nothing more the widow could have rightfully asked of you.

So it is with online gifts. There is a limited (very limited, that's the appeal) amount of effort you can put forth and after that, it is in the company's hands.

"But," you ask, "What happens if you make the best effort possible and your gift, instead of going to its intended location, ends up at the Roanoke City Jail instead? What then?"

Well it's funny you should bring that up, because it just so happens I'd recently sent a couple of books via Amazon to a friend who is temporarily indisposed at the Roanoke City Jail.

Earlier this month I ordered a L'il Traveler Spices of the World kit from Amazon for my nephew, but forgot to change the shipping address from the Roanoke City Jail.

At first I was hoping my friend would get the L'il Traveler Spices of the World Kit and figure out it wasn't for him and send it back.

But then I began to worry that if he did receive the L'il Traveler kit he might get beat up by everyone on the cell block, just on general principle.

As far as I know, neither scenario came to pass. Probably a jailer thinks I was trying to sneak some sort of contraband into the pen - "look here, warden, it's a nickel bag of curry powder" - and confiscated it for his own kid.

I'm scared to call the jail to ask, because I'm afraid I'll be named an accessory to smuggling cinnamon. And I'm afraid to call Amazon because I'm afraid I'll be named an accessory to being stupid. Meanwhile, Christmas has come and gone and Jeff doesn't have his present.

Fortunately his birthday is coming up soon, so I'm searching Amazon for a L'il Litigator Limited Consumer Tort Liability Kit so maybe he can figure out who's to blame in all this.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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