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Changing Holidays

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
November 2007 Issue
October 14, 2007

Changing Holidays

The holidays are changing, and I don’t just mean the fact that the Toyland section opened in mid-October at my favorite warehouse store.

Another major change is the loss of Christmas cards.

Charlie Brown used to wait at the mailbox for even one card. Today, he’d be waiting for an electronic greeting, which offers slightly more warmth than a “video fireplace” and some virtual eggnog.

Every major greeting card company offers e-cards, often through portals like Yahoo or MSN. Programs like The Print Shop and Print Explosion also offer an e-card design option, where your customized card design is sent via e-mail to a recipient.
     
I suppose we’re saving thousands of trees with e-cards, and some of us are finally getting cards to people before the new year begins, but you can’t cover a door with e-cards or stand them on a shelf to remind yourself of all the wonderful people in your life. Sometimes, a card was a good reminder to write a long-promised letter. When a card included a photo, signed and dated, it was extra special.

Now, e-cards come with a message that reads, “This greeting will be available for 30 days.” I’ve always saved special cards, like those from grandparents. You can’t really save an e-card; printing the card isn’t the same.

Why, you might be asking, is a tech columnist complaining about e-cards?

Because I think there are better ideas — and they’re online, too!

Instead of an e-card with a single photo, create a special “year in the life” album using a photo sharing Web site. With Shutterfly, KodakGallery, and similar Web sites, you can prepare real “photo books” that are delivered to friends and family. If you don’t want a coffee table book of your life, then sharing sites like Yahoo’s Flickr and Google’s Picasa allow you to share virtual photo albums.

Personally, I like Shutterfly, but Flickr and Picasa are the most popular photo sites on the Web. Shutterfly is simply a better choice if you think friends and family might want to order “traditional” prints of pictures or specialty items like calendars. The new “kid’s book” feature even allows you to create custom photo books with characters like Dora the Explorer.

Okay, the Martha Stewart Holiday Collection on Shutterfly is a bit much, but it is evidence that people love the concept of photo books. And unlike old-fashioned albums, you don’t have to fuss with sticky pages or adhesive corners.

If you really want to go beyond the basic card, why not create a video greeting and post it to the ubiquitous YouTube? You could have the complete Google holiday, with pictures on Picasa and photos on YouTube! Or, try the Yahoo experience with Flickr and Yahoo Video. Either way, you can have pictures and video out there for every relative to view in time for Christmas.

Of course, I’ll admit that shopping is where the real changes are taking place. When online shopping first took off, it was “clicks versus bricks” but that’s no longer the case. Now, I’m not sure who is competing against whom.

“The special online isn’t the same one we are running in the store.”

My wife and I were in an electronics store looking for the great holiday specials we had found online. What we were finding instead was a strange truth about “click and mortar” stores: they’re often operated as two different retailers.

It seems this well-known national retailer was competing against itself. The online prices on the most popular items were less than the prices in the store. The store specials were on items that were not, to be generous, in high demand.

Already, I can report that little has changed in a year. The online specials are already appearing at some retailers and are often not matched by in-store prices. Even the largest department stores sometimes suffer from this disconnect, forgetting that it is very easy to compare prices online — and their online stores aren’t usually the winners.

I can’t understand this. Why would a company have lower prices online, yet those prices are still higher than online-only retailers offer? Using a service like Froogle (now Google Product Search) or PriceGrabber, I can quickly compare the prices for most items sold online. In effect, large retailers are daring me to price shop.

Some large retailers at least give me a reason to shop online: someone can return a gift I buy online to any of the chain’s physical retail stores. That’s not always the case, but when it is, I appreciate the policy.

There is an even better solution, though, and I do not mean gift cards.

Some online retailers allow visitors to create “wish lists” that warn potential buyers when another generous soul has already granted a wish. If you have a particular book or video on your wish list, you aren’t told when it is purchased for you, so you’ll still be surprised. Of course, you could try to “buy” each gift for yourself on December 24, just to see what you’re getting, but who doesn’t like a little surprise?
Online retailers will even wrap and ship directly to good girls and boys, for a fee.

A real DVD or book always seems better to me than a plastic card. Sure, the card is more flexible, but it also feels like the other person had no idea what to buy. Online wish lists are a great way to deal with this problem. There’s no doubt what I want, and there are no shopping hassles.

Finally, the Internet and Web have changed the old rotund jolly man himself.

NORAD’s annual tracking of Santa’s flight used to be live on the radio, but now you can track the reindeer via the Web (http://www.noradsanta.org/). North American Aerospace Defense Command apparently realized children wanted precise global positioning, in real-time! After all, Santa must have the best GPS in existence.

Dozens of Web sites also promise to accept letters on behalf of Santa. Curiously, almost without exception, these sites promise a reply via U.S. Postal Service… mailed directly from North Pole, Alaska.

Some things are best the traditional way.

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