Great Expectations

Chatterbox, who is terribly busy, hates crowds, and only likes talking to strangers in a professional journalistic capacity, loves to buy Christmas presents on the web. He is even willing to forgive the web merchant who last Christmas failed to send a Beatles necktie to Chatterbox’s 19-year-old nephew in California. (These things happen.) And Chatterbox is certainly not going to take the position, now that Internet Shopping is this year’s big Christmas retail story, that it stinks just because everybody’s doing it. (Chatterbox hates it when I-got-there-first snobs pull that trick on him.)

However, Chatterbox is somewhat concerned that all the Web Santa hype (including, this week, a “Christmas Goes Online ” cover story in Newsweek) will ramp expectations so high that on Dec. 26 business reporters will stampede to write “Online Christmas a Bust.” Web commerce is a tender shoot that needs to be nurtured with loving care. Please remember, dear reader, that in absolute dollars, web shopping is guaranteed to represent only a teensy portion of all Christmas shopping this year. The hype stories all have sentences acknowledging that, but the post-Yuletide naysayers will make a much bigger deal of it. Newsweek estimates that Americans will spend $2.3 billion on web Christmas shopping, or twice what it was last year, but “many people expect a threefold increase.” The Washington Post doesn’t bother with this hedge, and just says internet Christmas shopping will triple. Even setting aside the relative insignificance of $2-3 billion in Christmas sales, if online shopping “merely” doubles, expect business journalists to brand “” a bust.

We will probably also be hearing after Christmas about how credit card merchants didn’t do nearly as well as expected on Yuletide Internet sales. But again, that’s because expectations are too high. Newsweek has an astounding statistic in its cover story: A Visa survey in November found that “46 percent of those polled plan to buy at least some gifts online.” Holy Cow, that’s a lot of shoppers! Only Newsweek garbled the statistic. The 46 percent is not of all Visa cardholders, which truly would represent a teeming mass of humanity; it’s of adult PC users with Internet access at home or work (about one-third of the population). In any case, it’s unlikely that all (or perhaps even most) of these Internet users will come through. Chatterbox “planned” to read Cold Mountain all year, but never got around to it. People are always “planning” to do more than they actually do.

Chatterbox’s solution to expectation inflation is to set the bar very low. Chatterbox is going to predict Internet sales will reach $150,000 during this Christmas season. Jeff Bezos, you’ll thank Chatterbox for this kindness when the final numbers come in.

–Timothy Noah