Cookies and Shopping

photo of John Michael Pierobon By: John Michael Pierobon

With the on-line holiday shopping season upon us, now is a good time to explore the relationship between cookies and on-line shopping.

Serious on-line merchants use a shopping basket application. Sometimes it is called a shopping cart application, but in the United Kingdom it is called a shopping trolley.

A shopping basket application is software that permits the selection and purchase of products on the Web. It displays products from the on-line product catalogue based on a search criteria. It also remembers customer selections placed in the shopping basket, and totals the order. And naturally, it accepts shipping and credit card information.

Cookies were invented by Netscape. According to the Netscape specification, cookies are a way for the Web server to both store and retrieve information on the browser. A cookie is a text string containing description of the range of URLs for which the cookie is valid, an expiration, and a cookie name and value. Cookies are the key to making shopping basket applications work because cookies are used to remember what is in the shopping basket.

Here is how cookies work. When a browser is used to issue a request to visit a Web site, the browser first looks in the Cookies folder (for Internet Explorer), or in the cookies.txt file (for Navigator), for the existence of cookies pertaining to that Web site or domain. If they exist, the browser presents those cookies to the Web server when the connection to the Web server is established. The Web server reads the cookie information, and when it returns a Web page to the browser the Web server may send back one or more cookies.

When shopping on-line, a cookie value is assigned to your cart or basket. With each subsequent Web page visited, items may be added or removed from the basket. Keeping track of the current state of the contents in the basket, and of the basket identification number, is done via cookies being sent back and forth between the browser and Web server.

On-line merchants also use cookies to identify customers so they can pesonalize their product offerings. They may also use Web cookie cutting techniques to provide faster response time to their preferred customers.

Just as I mentioned in a previous article on the subject, cookies are safe. Cookies pose no virus threat. They cannot fill up your disk drive. Netscape Navigator, for example, will store a maximum of 300 cookies. However, cookies help fill your shopping cart and greatly enhance the on-line holiday shopping experience.

John Michael Pierobon is an Internet consultant based in Fort Lauderdale.
John Michael may be reached by sending electronic mail to

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