WEB SITE REVIEW November 9, 1999

Now You Can Buy Savings Bonds Online. But...
...It sure isn't easy. The folks at Treasury have a few things to learn about e-commerce

The Treasury Dept. has come up with a great idea -- letting consumers buy U.S. savings bonds online. There's just one problem: By the standards of a good commercial e-tailing site, rates no better than a "C." It's confusing, hard-to-navigate, and has a decidedly utilitarian feel. And, when I tried to buy a bond, it inundated me with error messages.

Before now, you had only three ways to buy savings bonds: The lucky ones did it through payroll deductions. Everyone else had to stand in line in two of the most dismal venues known to American consumers -- banks and post offices.

Savings Bonds are big business. As hard as it is to buy the paper, the Treasury's Bureau of Public Debt sold 50 million bonds last year with a value of $4.5 billion. The hope, of course, is that by finally making it less of a chore to buy bonds, even more folks would make the investments.

OVERLOADED. The good news: The site, built with IBM iron and software, but run by Treasury staffers, is less trouble than standing in a bank line. And 3,600 bonds were sold in the first couple of days the site was up.

But a purchase is still far more difficult than it should be. On Nov. 3, BW Online sprung for $25 so I could buy an old-fashioned $50 EE bond. But working my way through the site, I kept getting error messages. I finally got my bond, but it took more than 30 minutes. A Public Debt spokesman attributes the snafu to "a little bit of a volume situation" on the first day of business. But he would not say how busy the site was when it locked up. I tried again on Nov. 4, and the purchase went more smoothly -- until I got a really scary error message: Command Structure Failure. I was about to dive under my desk but then realized at least it didn't come from the Pentagon.

Other features were equally disappointing. The site promotes the Savings Bond Wizard, which allows you to record your bonds, figure current redemption values, and calculate earned interest. Again, it's a nice idea. But you can't use it online. Instead, you must download an unwieldy 2.4-megabyte file and run it on your hard drive. Every brokerage site on the planet lets you manage your portfolio online. Treasury should as well.

CLICK HERE, DUMMY. You also can buy higher-domination bonds on the site through an e-version of Treasury Direct -- the agency's highly successful system for retail sales of Treasury bonds.

But first, you must register and get an account number. And try as I might, I could not figure out how to do it. Turned out, I was clicking on a link entitled "Learn how you can buy or reinvest online." That took me to a dead end. I was supposed to be clicking on "Find out what securities we offer...and how you can buy them." Sorry.

By dealing directly with bond buyers, Treasury is on to something. But in an era of slick Wall Street sites, good-enough-for-government-work just ain't good enough.

By Howard Gleckman in Washington EDITED BY DOUGLAS HARBRECHT _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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