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3 Things You Shouldn't Buy Online


I'm as wired as the next guy -- I spend way more time in front of a screen than I care to think about, and I buy more online than I do offline, both personally and for business. But I am stubbornly old-school about certain business purchases and activities that I still believe are best handled "unplugged." Here are my three biggest:
  • Travel: Yeah, I know it's an $80 billion dollar industry and one of the original and most successful online business categories... but my travel agent kicks all their butts. Lori and her staff have taken care of all of my family's business and personal travel, through our two businesses, over almost 20 years. They have not only saved us time (which of course is money) and trouble, but they've wrangled up deals and "impossible" favors from their industry contacts, found me my ever-so-precious upgrades when the airlines said there were none, and rescued me at all hours when I've had travel grief. The second I hear my flight is canceled, I push one speed dial button and in 97 seconds cheerful Lori has a confirmed seat for me on the next plane. Everyone else is either waiting in an hour-long conga line of rage and hysteria, or frantically thumb-typing or standup-laptopping, trying to get un-screwed before some other poor sap beats them to it. I enjoy sipping an icy cold beer while watching this stranded traveler side show.

In fairness, I will say there are times when it makes sense to buy tickets online, and my travel agent would agree. When you have a very simple itinerary, no special requirements, and just want the dirt-cheapest fare, you're usually best-off booking directly with the airline or other online service. But if you're like me and you have complicated international itineraries, "must-get" mileage upgrades on 14-hour flights, and don't have the time or desire to spend hours or days dealing with it, there is no substitute for a great travel agent. And there's no shortage of (online) agreement on the topic. So there.


  • Legal: From incorporation to patent and trademark filing to employee termination, virtually every legal form and process is now available online, through sites like legalzoom.com. And for some things, I'm sure they're fine, fast and inexpensive; I might take a chance on the $14.95 Catering Services Agreement form. But for anything really important, I want to know that my lawyer is a phone call away. Believe me, I think very carefully before starting the legal meter running, and I always cringe when the bills come inside those thick, fancy envelopes. But I'd cringe more if I spent tons of time trying to be my own lawyer and screwed up something important. "Pay me now or pay me later," as the saying goes.

For example, we do a decent amount of patent and trademark stuff, and it's not inexpensive. In some situations perhaps we could save money trying to do it ourselves, but anyone who's done intellectual property work knows that very few of these matters are smooth sailing. Trademarks get opposed, examiners send office actions challenging patent applications, and all kinds of other wrenches get thrown in the works. Patents and trademarks are critical to protecting our business and all the work we do, so trying to take cheap shortcuts is an iffy proposition that I'm unwilling to risk. Feel free to start with the lawyer wisecracks (I have some good jokes myself, and so do my lawyer friends). But when you really need one -- assuming you have a good one -- you'll be damned glad that attorney is there instead of an "FAQ" page on a Website.


  • Insurance: Again, a seemingly commoditized thing that's easy to buy online. But like our travel agent, our insurance agent is there for us, knows our business and has its interests at heart, is easy to reach, and saves us time/money and trouble. We've had many situations where we needed a fast clarification or a policy adjustment, and it was done with a phone call. Our agent has even called, unsolicited, to let us know about new, significantly lower cost options -- even though it is rarely in a broker's business interest to reduce the cost of your coverage. Good luck getting that call from your online insurance company. And they're incredibly nice, decent people with much better personalities than a website. That matters to me in all my business relationships.
I'm a small business owner, and make no mistake, the pennies matter to me. We have a near-religious aversion to wasting money (it's even one of our core principles). Perhaps at times we've paid more for some services, and at other times less. I will never know what the total out-of-pocket cost would have been if I did all of this business online. But in the great scheme of things, my usually-reliable gut tells me that the costs have been acceptable, and more importantly, that having these real professionals in my corner has saved me huge amounts of time and untold headaches. I have never had a doubt or regret.

Internet, don't worry -- I will keep buying books and music and office supplies and even shoes from you. But for these mission-critical services and others, I'm afraid you just don't cut it for me.

Have you taken these or any other elements of your business offline and been happy -- or unhappy -- that you did? As always, I'd love to hear from you.

(Image provided by Skooba Design)