I did something interesting the other day. After receiving a doormat I'd ordered online (yes, a doormat), I actually called on the phone and spoke to a human to exchange my doormat.
Although I enjoy clicking away on a Web site as much as the next person, sometimes there's nothing like talking to someone. Sites have, of course, built real people into the purchase process, with live text chats and voice connections over computer lines. But it's not the same. When I called directly, I felt as if there was no third party--in this case, the computer.
But first: I'd been wanting a big, industrial-strength doormat and had looked at home centers and linen shops. Most doormats seemed wimpy. Surely, the Internet could do better.
The Web site for mail-order catalog Plow & Hearth (http://www.plowhearth.com) had a few doormats. "Our lifetime woven mat is your doorway guardian," the site said of its $34.95 Cape Cod model. It came in three sizes, was made of a tough poly fiber and could be hosed off when dirty. Sounded good. The site had a nice feature that would show whether a model was available once you chose the color.
I wanted to shop around a bit, though, and landed at Orvis.com, which had the same doormat--even called Cape Cod--for $39.50.
I don't remember how I got to Williams-Sonoma (http://www.williamssonoma.com)--I think I'd recalled seeing doormats in their mail-order catalog. The site had one that also sounded interesting. The $29.50 super-absorbent doormat made of polypropylene fabric "absorbs a prodigious amount of water in just a few seconds." It had an attractive design, to boot.
Not content with just two options, I kept hunting. Hammacher Schlemmer (http://www.hammacherschlemmer.com) had a giant "lifetime doormat" of polypropylene for $159.
I moved on to Home Products Direct (http://www.homeproductsdirect.com), which had 143 doormats, decorated with everything from butterflies and birds to manatees and marigolds. I didn't want cute, just sturdy.
I searched on Yahoo for doormats, which brought up a book at Amazon called "The Doormat Syndrome." It also gave me Harriet Carter.com (http://www.harrietcarter.com) and its rubber "lifetime doormat," a mere $9.95. Marthastewart.com (http://www.marthastewart.com) had five, but they were all kinds of pretty, not especially tough looking. The Home Depot (http://www.homedepot.com) had three pages of doormats made from coco fiber (which is what I had), green plastic grass and woven dragon grass (less than $3). Improvements (http://www.improvementscatalog.com) had the "aquaflow doormat" with a raised dye-cut design with "flowing channels," but I'd be charged an additional $7.50 because of the doormat's size.
This was becoming exhausting. I checked back at Plow & Hearth to read shipping policies; items weighing less than 20 pounds were shipped at regular rates. Williams-Sonoma also didn't charge extra for a doormat, and I could return it at their stores to save return postage.
So I ordered from Plow & Hearth ($34.95 plus $7.95 for postage) and Williams-Sonoma ($29.50 plus $7.75 postage). The Williams-Sonoma mat came on time, four days later, but on the eighth day, I called Plow & Hearth. I've e-mailed sites often enough asking about orders, but with the phone, you can get an answer straightaway. This answer came so fast, in fact, I wasn't ready to accept it.
A pleasant-enough woman punched in my order number and immediately told me UPS must have lost it; the tracking number was not in the system. "Are you sure?" I asked. Maybe she hadn't typed in the number right. She assured me she had and that someone would call me the next day, probably to ship out another mat.
That night, when I got home, there was the Plow & Hearth box. So much for it being lost.
I did have a voice-mail message from Plow & Hearth the next morning asking whether I'd gotten my mat or wanted to report it lost. I called back. (I was getting into this calling thing.) Imagine my surprise when another pleasant operator at Plow & Hearth not only could handle my exchange for a larger doormat but had on her screen notes about my supposedly lost doormat and wanted to know whether I'd received it. Could I have had this conversation online?
I mailed back the smaller doormat for the next size up, then trotted to the mall to return the doormat at the Williams-Sonoma store. (I liked both mats, but the open-weave one from Plow & Hearth would work best on my patio.)
Because it was a Sunday, the Williams-Sonoma clerk couldn't call in my return; the exchange department wasn't open. Apparently, they call a central customer service number just as customers do. I left the mat with my order information. I was assured it would be handled the next day, but I felt slightly uneasy because of a bad experience a few years ago when another store failed to process an Internet order I'd returned to the store.
The next day, the phone was in my hand again, only this time I was calling American Express. I wanted to hear someone's voice saying yes, the return had gone through on my credit card.
Jennifer Lowe is deputy food editor of The Times.