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Not only are real companies with real business plans having problems, but the dot-coms that survived the first shakeouts, and particularly those who have questionable business plans, have it worse. If I’ve written about them on the way up, I’ll try to hit them on the way down, or when the business plan has apparently changed. This week I’ll report on four. I liked shopping at outpost.com. The prices were good, the service was reliable, the Web site worked well. The best part was that second day air shipping was free on purchases about either $50 or $100. This made it practical to make a spontaneous decision to purchase an inexpensive monitor or printer, and I used the system several times. Although price, service and Web site speed haven’t suffered, as far as I know, free next day is gone. The company now provides free ground shipping on purchases of over $500. This means I’ll aggregate relatively inexpensive but heavy goods til I’m over the $500 limit, if I’m determined to use Outpost, but the site is no longer at the top of my shopping list. www.outpost.com. When I shopped at cyberrebate, the sales prices were very high, but there were no shipping charges and everything came with a rebate, to be returned from the seller about 13 weeks after the sale. A lot of merchandise had a rebate that was equal to the price tag, making the net cost equal to that of a first class stamp. I couldn’t determine how anyone was going to make money with this business plan, but decided to give it a try, ordering a bunch of things I probably wouldn’t have bothered with if they cost real money. The merchandise arrived in a couple of days, and I printed out coupons and invoices from the Web, and, following instructions, submitted a separate claim for each item, by first class mail. About 12 weeks later a check arrived for each one. My mention of cyberrebate in these columns noted that I worried a bit until I received my rebates, and I never did buy from cyberrebate again. At some point, what seemed to be a beneficent Ponzi scheme just had to fall apart. Last month, the company filed for Chapter 11. Presumably, those awaiting rebates are now general creditors. www.cyberrebates.com. Intranets.com provided a nice looking private space on the Web, for small or larger groups, and provided a suite of tools including personal and public (to other members of the Intranet) calendar, addressbook, Web links, reminders, e-mail, discussion groups, document depository and the like. A site took minutes to set up and would be useful for non-profit boards, co-counsel in a lawsuit, planning a college reunion and a variety of serious commercial settings. There were two modes: a free of charge advertising-based mode with a limited amount of disc space available, and a fee-based mode costing $5 or $15 per member per month. I tried the free mode in a number of settings, and both concept and implementation to be sound. Alas, the free times are over, and the company expects all of the advertising-based users to convert to paid mode or drop the service. I am interested in seeing if the company can survive as a paid service. www.intranets.com. eFax.com had a great service. The company would, without a fee, assign you a fax number in some part of the world, convert each fax that was sent to the number to a proprietary graphics format and e-mail the resulting graphics file to your computer. Nuisance faxes could easily be deleted, and useful faxes printed for review and stored in the subdirectory I maintained for computer files for the particular client. Although the company retained the right to change free fax numbers, I was assured that I could have the number “for life.” I’ve been using my “free” number for several months, and was upset to get a notice that my “free” number would be discontinued three weeks hence, although the company is still giving out free numbers, and would issue another free number to me. If I wished to keep my existing number, I would have to pay $10 per month for the privilege. Sounds like some bait and switch there, although the company claims not. Perhaps the answer is to not publish fax numbers on cards and legal directories — I cannot recall getting an important fax out of the blue, anyhow — or resurrect the old fax machine, and rededicate the old fax number once again to fax. www.efax.com BARGAINS ON THE WEB All of this does not mean that all of the bargains on the Web are gone. Lately, I’ve found staples.com ( www.staples.com), a friendly place to shop. The company does charge sales tax almost everywhere, but as with many of the office supply stores, doesn’t charge for shipping if you buy more than $50. In addition, staples.com runs some very nice specials on specific items, and always seems to have an active coupon good for $40 off a $200 purchase, or maybe $30 of $150. (Enter the valid coupon code when you run through the “check out” procedure, and the software is supposed to reduce the amount owed by the coupon amount.) Staples isn’t the only dot-com with coupons. I regularly get e-mail with coupon codes from vendors of books, flowers, non-prescription drugs and a wide variety of other merchandise. The job of tracking all of them and finding the right one when you need it is overwhelming and I don’t bother to do it. You shouldn’t, however, be surprised to learn that there are Web sites that track the coupons. For instance, www.valueconsumer.comlists the latest coupons and rebates for a variety of Web-based vendors. If you decide you do want to purchase something from a dot-com retailer, check to see if a coupon is available; it doesn’t take long, and it doesn’t cost anything. Some dot-coms have gone down hill, but be sure to check on coupons when you do buy from a Web-based vendor.

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