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Cybershopping becomes a reality

Cybershopping becomes a reality — Despite some bugs, these are sites to check out.

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Remember that old Mad magazine comic about the home of the future? The place was so hooked up with gadgets and tubes that the contented family inside never had to leave. It’s still a beguiling concept: Press a button and, blammo, beer cans fly out of your sofa, steaks teleport into the oven, fresh daisies magically sprout in every vase.

Theoretically, online shopping could make that house-potato dream come true: Already, sites like Amazon.com and CDnow let you order books and CDs and have uniformed humans deliver them to your door. People are buying, too; according to the Direct Marketing Association, Internet sales hit $600 million in 1997. But these are still the Pong years of online shopping, with companies trying to figure out how to get us stuff we really need — like, say, tuna casseroles.

One of the first online supermarkets, NetGrocer (www. netgrocer.com) shows the promise and the reality. Through deals with national distributors, the site stocks everything from breakfast cereal to dog biscuits, then zips the goods…via FedEx, within four days. Parents can browse the ”aisles” (i.e., lists) of baby products or run a search by item name, though it screws up if you type in ”diapers” rather than ”diaper.” You won’t miss reading the fine print on the box: A nifty option lets you categorize items by fat or cholesterol content. Unfortunately, anything that rots, sours, or spoils won’t be available. And, with no checkout aisle, the dating scene pretty much stinks.

If you’re sick of dealing with frustrated filmmakers/video clerks, try Kozmo.com (www.kozmo.com), a video-rental delivery site recently launched in New York City; plans are to expand to Seattle, San Francisco, and Philadelphia within the year. For about the same price as a Blockbuster rental ($4 for a new release, $3.50 for a general release), Kozmo hand-delivers your selection from its East Village storefront within an hour. The bad news is that you have to get off your butt and return the flick back to one of Kozmo’s drop-off centers. Currently, the site has a searchable database of 22,000 titles: new, old, and adult — if a kid has a credit card, he qualifies. Kozmo offers a homespun recommendation service, but these geeks aren’t critics; more trustworthy are the onsite reviews taken from the VideoHound video guide.

Perhaps the most ambitious one-stop entertainment shopping can be had at Total E (www.totale.com), run by the ubiquitous Columbia House record club and featuring more than 200,000 albums, videos, CD-ROMs, books, and audio books. Reviews and sound clips help you decide what’s worth getting, and a personalized shopping option called eDNA supposedly makes the choices easier. The downside of such a vast database, though, is that a search for a specific artist often elicits inaccurate, if not outright bizarre, results; enter ”Prince” and you’ll get a link to a 1903 opera recording. Instant gratification? Almost — but not quite.

Despite the kinks, Internet shopping sales are projected to skyrocket to nearly $12 billion in 2002 — at which point, homebodies may actually be able to bring the world to their doorsteps without walking outside. Hopefully, they’ll order some treadmills, too.