When Privacy Matters

clfrey@aol.com

There are some things I don't like to buy at the store. You know, personal items--such as pregnancy tests and hemorrhoid cream and adult diapers--that tell the checkout guy a little too much.

Shopping at an online drugstore avoids the knowing looks and keeps those personal items personal. With selections and prices comparable to the local pharmacy, sites such as Drugstore.com, Longs Drugs (http://www.longs.com) and Savon.com (http://www.sav-ondrugs.com) offer all the lotions and ointments you need to stop that burning itch--without the embarrassment of pretending that the yeast infection cream is for "a friend."

As a test, I purchased five potentially embarrassing items from three Web sites and hoped the packaging wouldn't give anything away to the mailman. Although the three sites stock similar merchandise at comparable prices, they vary significantly in their ease of use.

But even with the best of them, there's a several-day delay between when you order something and when it shows up at your home. For clothes or electronics, most of us can wait a few days. But the thought of waiting more than a couple of minutes for some salves might be unbearable.

Unlike some online drugstores, which are virtual extensions of their bricks-and-mortar counterparts, Drugstore.com is purely an Internet merchant, making it slightly more sophisticated and easier to navigate than its competitors.

In response to my search request for condoms, the site displayed its entire collection--10 pages' worth--and included photographs of each product as well as its size and price. It also offered to narrow my search by brand or type.

After I selected my condoms, the site presented the package details, such as directions and warnings, then recommended other products in which I might be interested. "May we suggest K-Y personal lubricant jelly?" it asked.

Hmmm. So much for keeping personal items personal.

Though unnerved by the site's perceptiveness, I continued shopping and I purchased four other products: a pregnancy test, hemorrhoid and yeast infection creams and adult diapers--after which the site recommended I buy denture cleanser as well. Total cost, including shipping and handling, to keep my pride intact: $54.40.

I found the same products and brands at http://www.longs.com, but the site lacks some of Drugstore.com's search and navigation features. The site separates its merchandise into categories, such as family planning and incontinence, which can be viewed individually or searched by keyword to find a product or brand.

Unlike Drugstore.com, the site does not automatically offer to narrow searches. If, after looking for a certain product, I wanted to find a specific brand, I had to submit another keyword search. I could not browse a listing of available brands without clicking through pages of search results.

The site's ordering process also was cumbersome. Each time I selected an item, the site took me to a separate shopping cart page, where I had to confirm my purchase before I could shop further. Drugstore.com, on the other hand, maintained a mini shopping cart in a screen sidebar, detailing what I had already bought and spent.

Despite the slow shopping spree at Longs, I purchased the five items for $54.48. Shipping and handling were free.

As on Drugstore.com, simple product searches at http://www.sav-ondrugs.com could be narrowed by brand and type. However, the site's alphabetical categorization of products was so detailed that it was difficult to find some of the items.

With eight "feminine need" categories, I couldn't figure out which one carried yeast infection cream until I searched several.

When I tried to register, the site did not let me, blaming a malfunctioning browser. I closed Internet Explorer and opened it again. It still did not let me register, blaming a malfunctioning browser. I closed Internet Explorer and opened Netscape Navigator. It still did not let me register.

Finally, after switching computers, I registered and selected my purchases. But just as I was about to check out, the site refused to process my order, once again attributing the problem to a malfunctioning browser.

It took a third visit, back on my original computer, to submit my order. The slightly lower cost--$47.67--and free shipping did not make up for the time I spent.

Fortunately, I did not need any of the items I purchased immediately--or at all. Drugstore.com delivered in five business days, Sav-On in six. Longs took more than a week. The items arrived in nondescript shipping boxes--only the company brand on the outside--but my dignity would be tested when I returned some of the items.

Although Drugstore.com and Sav-On require an e-mail return request, Longs accepts returns at its local drugstores.

Sometimes those guys at the checkout counter can't be avoided after all.

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Christine Frey is a freelance writer.

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