This was supposed to be the UK's first real cyber-Christmas. The online retailers promised us that we could avoid all those horrible queues in Oxford Street and Lakeside, and do our shopping in comfort from our desktops.
The analyst firms agreed, falling over themselves in their eagerness to come up with the most outlandish predictions for ecommerce over the festive season.
But it didn't happen. Many online purchasers simply didn't receive what they'd bought until after Christmas. Others - and in retrospect these may have been the lucky ones - weren't even able to get that far, as the website of their chosen retailer buckled under the strain of people actually trying to buy things from it.
Andersen Consulting has identified the 10 worst problems encountered by online shoppers this Christmas (see graphic). And while figures are still being collated, it looks like e-Xmas failed not only to satisfy buyers, but sellers too. UK ecommerce watchers Insight say the UK saw only 40 per cent of the predicted amount of ecommerce shopping (£200 million instead of £500 million), that 65 per cent of orders did not arrive in time, and that online retailers may have lost as much as £75 million in operating losses.
So what went wrong? In many ways, we simply saw a repeat of the teething troubles Cyber Santa experienced in 1998 in the US. Seems someone didn't do their research.
Otherwise, UK ecommerce sites would have learnt the mantra: performance, performance, performance. Too many UK companies don't seem to have planned for an upturn in traffic, while as a result of last year's experience, many US firms had begun making their ecommerce systems more robust in preparation for Christmas as far back as August.
The price of failure in what was really the first major stress test of large-scale ecommerce could be high for those retailers who got into trouble.
In previous years online purchasers have tended to be technically savvy individuals who are likely to have some understanding of the Internet and its workings. But this year the 'rest of us' came online as well: the great technologically unwashed who don't understand - and hence won't tolerate - server outages. All they see is a site that doesn't work.
When your closest competitors are only a mouse-click away, there's no room for alienating potential customers. You really do only get one chance to make a first impression in cyberspace.
"The question being asked is, whether it's cheaper, faster and more convenient to shop online," comments Robert Mann, partner with Andersen Consulting's supply chain practice.
"The answer is that it may be better not to go on to the Web... yet. Companies risk impacting customer loyalty through poor performance. Right now, reliability and service are the only things that matter."
Andersen Consulting conducted its research before Christmas into how easy it was to do your shopping over the Net. Its findings do not make for encouraging reading. Andersen employees tried to purchase a total of 480 gifts from 100 websites, but were only able to complete 350 transactions. More than one in four sites crashed, were blocked, were still under construction or otherwise inaccessible.
Relatively few sites were able to inform customers when to expect delivery of their order, making it difficult for the end user to be confident that the gift would arrive in time for Christmas.
The shipping forecast
The exception to this rule was, guess who, Amazon.com. It informed customers of the shipping modes available for the ordered goods in order to ensure that buyers knew if they would receive them before Christmas.
As a rule, the so-called etailers - those which exist purely as Internet entities - were more reliable than the 'bricks and clicks' companies which have begun offering an online service alongside existing real world operations.
In the US, Amazon.com was the most visited site over the Christmas period. While figures are not yet available for the UK, the company's success appears to have been repeated internationally.
"We didn't see many surprises emerging from online Christmas sales, because it wasn't our first," says Colleen Byrum, managing director of Amazon UK. "But we were concerned as to whether customers were going to shop online," she adds.
Byrum identifies a number of key areas for e-tailers to focus on. "Customer services is a challenging aspect of trading online and one that e-merchants must concentrate on. One aspect of our business that needed addressing was our distribution warehouse. It needed a massive boost. We had begun to outgrow our operation in Slough, and so opened another in Milton Keynes. Over Christmas we were able to operate out of both."
Solid supply chain
The need to have a solid distribution supply chain in place was also cited by HMV as vital when doing business online. "The Internet is a difficult trading environment, but HMV has seen we can go forward from here," said a spokesman.
"We found orders placed over the Web exceeded expectations, but overall was no better than our stores."
He added that HMV did not run into distribution problems because its despatch warehouse for online sales is located next door to its flagship Oxford Street store, enabling e-orders to be met by using the store's regular inventory.
"This supports the theory that the clicks and mortar businesses will do better in the long run than the Web-only companies," it claims.
That doesn't mean other clicks and mortar operations didn't have a horrendous time over the Christmas period. On 22 December, toy chain Toys 'R' Us was forced to notify Internet customers who had ordered before its stated 14 December deadline that it would be unable to deliver before Christmas Eve. Given the nature of the Toys 'R' Us business and its target audience, this was perhaps the cruelest manifestation of the limitations of Cyber Santa this year.
The firm admitted it had underestimated the number of online orders it would receive, despite updating its website in October in anticipation.
In November, the company's online store had to turn away customers after offering free shipping, discounts and a Tickle Me Elmo doll to online shoppers spending more than £60.
The failure to ensure delivery has already hurt the company. Internet sales for the last nine weeks of 1999 totalled $39 million (£24 million) - a figure which the company admits was below expectations and reduced by its inability to meet demand. It also faces a potentially costly class action lawsuit, filed this month on behalf of customers who didn't receive their orders on time.
US lawyer Steve Berman of the firm Hagens Berman, which filed the suit, thunders: "There are lots of things in life that are excusable, but ruining Christmas for thousands of children isn't one of them. The thought that Toysrus.com had full knowledge they couldn't keep the Christmas Eve date but continued to accept orders, makes it even worse. To thousands of kids, Toysrus.com is the e-grinch that stole Christmas."
Catalogue of failure
But Toys 'R' Us was hardly alone in being unable to cope with demand. In the UK, catalogue firm Argos posted a notice on its website informing would-be customers that it was unable to accept further orders if it was to meet demand before Christmas. While it might be assumed that catalogue firms would be well versed in supply chain matters, the Andersen study of ecommerce sites found that companies in this sector did not have a good record at ensuring items were in stock, with less than 80 per cent of goods on sale were in stock at catalogue sites.
Argos declined to discuss the reasons for the shut-down of the site when contacted by Computing, preferring to issue a corporate statement reinforcing its commitment to the concept of online shopping.
While Argos will clearly be identifying its own particular issues to address, in general the main cause of missed orders is that the back-end fulfilment systems are simply not fully integrated with the front-end ecommerce applications. The completion of the sale is all the more complicated when the inventory on offer is diverse, such as that of a department store rather than a specialist supplier of a single product line.
Customer service issues must also rise up the agenda of many companies before next Christmas. In the ecommerce world, the distribution warehouse and customer service are typically not physically next to one another, so companies rely on databases to know what is in stock at any given time. But these are not always updated as quickly as they need to be, leading to shortfalls in inventory.
"The long term message is clear: Internet retailers must solve their infrastructure problems or suffer the consequences," warns Steve Johnson, co-director of Andersen's ecommerce programme.
"Etailers can't continue to lose one of every three consumers and expect to survive. Their top concern must be infrastructure improvements."
If 1999 was Year Zero for ecommerce, then 2000 had better be Year One - the year it gets done right.
Additional reporting by Sean Samuels
Cotton seedling freezes to death as Chang'e-4 shuts down for the Moon's 14-day lunar night
Fortnite easily out-earns PUBG, Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2018
Meteor showers as a service will be visible for about 100 kilometres in all directions
Saturn's rings only formed in the past 100 million years, suggests analysis of Cassini space probe data
New findings contradict conventional belief that Saturn's rings were formed along with the planet about 4.5 billion years ago