Online commerce is growing all the time, but a recent experience shows just how far we have yet to go. Like good little technogeeks, Tonya and I own a cellular phone and a camcorder. However, unlike really good little technogeeks, we haven't replaced the perfectly functional cell phone and camcorder that we've had for several years now. Both work fine for the minimal uses we require of them, and as much as technolust does kick in whenever I see a friend with a tiny cell phone that can also receive email or a digital camcorder that puts ours to shame in a package a tenth the size, we've resisted buying new models for the sake of having the latest and greatest.
The real problem is that the rechargeable batteries powering these devices have finite lifespans, somewhere between 500 and 800 charge cycles. Over a few years, it seems that we'd hit roughly that number of charge cycles; the camcorder wouldn't work at all on battery (an increasingly serious problem with an infant in the house), and we had to plug the cell phone into the car adapter to be assured that it wouldn't cut out on us in the middle of a call.
The Initial Charge -- Rather than spend hours traipsing around the Seattle metropolitan area in search of stores that would carry replacement batteries, I figured that the Web would be a good place to shop. After all, batteries are extremely specific pieces, and there are thousands of possible sizes and shapes. Thus, it would seem to make sense for a vendor to stock as many as possible in a warehouse somewhere, offering a Web-based ordering system backed by a database as the storefront to this business.
I started my search in the appropriate section of Yahoo, figuring that I could easily go down the list and compare the different online battery vendors. The list is populated with about 50 likely sounding companies, such as Batteries Direct, The Battery Guys, BatteryZone, and e-Battery.
My criteria were simple at first. I wanted to buy replacement batteries for both the cell phone and the camcorder at the same place, and I didn't want to pay a huge amount, because if the batteries were too expensive, that little technolust voice would nag about how a new phone or digital camcorder would be so much nicer.
Assault & Battery -- I started by Command-clicking each link on the Yahoo page to open each site in its own window. To Yahoo's credit, most of the sites listed still existed, and only a few had moved, necessitating another click. Once in a site, I first looked for the batteries for our Sony CM-H333 cell phone. If I found a battery for the Sony phone, I then switched to looking for a JVC BN-V7GU battery for our camcorder.
Since I wanted to buy both batteries from the same vendor, I closed the window on stores that didn't have either battery and moved on to the next site in Yahoo's list. (Having the visited links colored provided useful feedback on how far through the list I'd gotten.) A large percentage of the battery vendors lost my business in this fashion, despite their standard claims that they carried every battery in the known universe.
I quickly discovered that most sites feature hierarchical lists of products, so you could click a series of links like Batteries -> Camcorder -> JVC and end up with a list of batters that fit JVC camcorders. Sites that required you to search fared worse; some didn't work at all and others forced you to search for manufacturer, which was more convoluted than just clicking a link in a list or selecting from a pop-up menu. I also found search engines confusing because I had four gobbledygook model numbers to choose from, one each for the phone and the camcorder and another one for each of the batteries, and it was never clear which model number I should use.
While working through this process for each site, I discovered that I needed to add another criterion to my collection. Since I was doing this after dinner at night, I didn't want to send email or call for an answer to a question, and I especially didn't want to have to wait until the next day, then call in my order. Online ordering wouldn't seem to be that big of a deal these days, but a number of battery vendors still lack that basic capability.
Eventually I discovered three sites that met my criteria: Battery Barn, MJM Electronic, and Westco Battery. Ignoring for the moment that the design and graphics on these sites range from the merely acceptable down to the painful, I discovered that these sites offered wildly different prices.
A Trip to Battery Island -- At this point, I'd seen enough seemingly random numbers and letters being thrown around to realize that something odd was going on. I looked more closely at the two existing batteries I wanted to replace. The cell phone used a 4.8 volt (V), 900 mAH (milliamp-hour) NiCad battery, and the camcorder had a 9.6 V, 1400 mAH NiCad battery. It was time to find out what all this meant. On the eBatts.com site, I found an discussion of battery chemistry that explained the practical differences between NiCad (Nickel Cadmium), NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride), and Li-Ion (Lithium-Ion) battery technologies. In short, NiCads are often the cheapest, but they have less power per pound than the others, suffer from a memory effect, and present an environmental hazard if not recycled properly. NiMH batteries are more expensive, but they provide about twice as much power per pound than NiCads, don't have nearly as much of a memory effect, and don't contain the heavy metals that present environmental problems. Li-Ion batteries continue the trend, offering about 35 percent more power than NiMH batteries for the same weight and eliminating the memory effect entirely. I assume they're more expensive yet, but since they weren't an option for my devices, I didn't check into them more.
The different battery types apparently aren't interchangeable unless a device is configured to accept more than one type. Figuring out whether or not my devices, which both came with NiCad batteries, could accept NiMH batteries would have required extensive investigation into finding and deciphering manuals, so I decided to accept the replacement batteries the vendors claimed would work.
(As an aside, I also found the Web site for the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, a non-profit formed to promote the recycling of NiCad batteries to keep them out of landfills. Their Web site provides a search engine that tells you where you can take your dead NiCads for recycling in your area. I never knew how to go about this before, but I was pleased to learn what to do with my dead NiCad batteries.)
Battery chemistry obviously caused the NiMH batteries to be more expensive, but that didn't seem to account for everything. Once again, the eBatts's Battery Tips page helped out. The voltage of the replacement batteries had to match the original, but apparently the milliamp-hour rating could be higher, at which point the replacement battery would offer a longer run time. Now the cost differences made sense, so I made up a little chart comparing the prices and the milliamp-hours and came up with the best compromise.
Picking a Power Level -- I ended up buying my batteries from Battery Barn because they offered NiMH batteries with good milliamp-hour ratings for the camcorder and the cell phone. MJM Electronic had only NiCad batteries with lower milliamp-hour ratings, and although their cell phone battery was $7 cheaper, their camcorder battery was $12 more expensive. Westco Battery had the best designed site and the lowest prices, but their NiCad camcorder battery was rated at 500 mAH less than the Battery Barn's NiMH battery but only cost $13 less. And although Westco's NiCad cell phone battery was $18 cheaper, they didn't provide a milliamp-hour rating, and the total $31 savings was heavily offset by a $10 shipping charge that both other sites waived entirely.
I include this level of detail merely to illustrate how difficult it was to compare prices between vendors. In no case was I comparing apples to apples - the battery chemistry and capacity variables provided most of the confusion, with the shipping charges topping it all off.
Finishing off the order on Battery Barn's Web site proved somewhat more difficult than one would expect, since their Web order form had no links to the products. It worked just like a paper form in a mail order catalog - you wrote down the product numbers (which were of course different from the original battery numbers) and prices and then entered them into the order form manually, adding in any necessary shipping and tax amounts.
Powering Down -- Being the inveterate problem-solver that I am, it struck me that the replacement battery industry could use a healthy dose of database, user interface, and Web help. A well-designed database would be the first step, since the vendors need to track manufacturers, product model numbers, and battery model numbers, along with the overlap when different retailers rebrand devices from other manufacturers. Then comes the user interface effort - consumers (remember, we're talking about consumer electronics here) should be able to type in any model number they can find. They should also be able to browse hierarchically to the appropriate spot. And when they find the appropriate replacement batteries, they should be presented with full descriptions that verify that the battery will work with the device in question and include all the information necessary to decide between batteries (the chemistry and capacity question). Ideally, links on those pages should explain all the variables so the user doesn't have to visit another site, as I did. And finally, all of this database information should be integrated with the Web order form, so purchasing is merely a matter of adding an item to a cart. It's not rocket science, though it would require hard work and attention to detail.
In the end, although I was successful in purchasing my batteries at a reasonable cost and without spending hours driving around to different stores, I was struck by how far commerce on the Internet has come, and how far it has left to go.