It’s uncanny, says Hema, leafing through the catalogue, how these online retail stores can guess exactly what you’re after.
She is seated on her balcony in Pune, India, with her husband, Henry, who, with an air of affected busyness, is making an appearance of browsing through the pages of a newspaper. He is flipping through too quickly to be really reading anything more than the headlines.
Between them, on a low table are two half-consumed cups of green tea. It is seven in the morning, a time when a family of black-throated bulbuls visits to peck at the biscuit crumbs scattered on the ledge, just for them. The two of them are retired after long careers in education.
At this throwaway price I’ll never get them anywhere in the city, and even if I did, I’d only get them after a long search by which time I would have spent a lot more on taxi fare
These are now good days to sit back and sift idly through catalogues while marvelling at the wonders of online retailing: just pick up your phone, click a few buttons, select your commodity, place your order and have it delivered to your door in no time and with no sweat involved. Pune has become a sweat-inducing city now, where driving is concerned.
‘It’s not the store that’s uncanny,’ says Henry, ‘It’s more to do with you. You look at something in the catalogue and decide that’s exactly what you’re after.’
Gazing at the catalogue
But Hema is not quite convinced because the picture she is gazing at in the catalogue is not just one of an everyday commodity such as a leather handbag or an embroidered chiffon salwar set. This is a picture of a potted plant, with delicate pink and white blossoms.
An avid, amateur gardener herself, just looking at the adenium blooms in festoons sets her pulse racing.
‘Never reach for your credit card when your heart races wildly and a voice in your head is saying you’ve simply got to have it,’ her husband has cautioned her, on more than one occasion.
Yet now, here she is at this early morning hour, experiencing that familiar shortness of breath that tells her in no uncertain terms that she is about to be rash once again and reach for her wallet.
Five minutes it takes, no longer. In that time she has crossed well and truly over into rashness, ordering not one but two sets of potted plants, reasoning thus: ‘At this throwaway price I’ll never get them anywhere in the city, and even if I did, I’d only get them after a long search by which time I would have spent a lot more on taxi fare.’
And so the decision, ultimately, is an easy one. After those reckless five minutes, it’s back to the mundane routine of tea sipping, and on to the chores of another day.
Two days later, the doorbell rings jarringly. Henry is, by now on the balcony, painting a scene of village life in watercolours. It is what he does routinely between 9am and noon, when lunch is served. He doesn’t hear the doorbell but Hema does and opens the door to find that it is, indeed, a delivery man, holding out a small parcel.
‘Your order,’ he says, hands it over and leaves.
Hema is momentarily perplexed. Order? She checks with her husband. No, he hasn’t ordered anything. Anyhow, she opens the small parcel to find, inside, an even smaller packet. It has ‘Adenium’ printed on it, along with a picture, and the packet itself contains precisely twelve little seeds.
‘You didn’t order the seeds, did you?’ asks her husband.
‘No, of course not. I ordered the potted plant. The seeds must be a complimentary addition,’ she says.
‘Check the details in the catalogue once again,’ suggests Henry.
‘Oh, no,’ she wails.
‘You ordered seeds,’ says her husband, stating the obvious, adding, ‘I’ve always warned you to read the fine print.’
— Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney.