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Your Ultimate Online Shopping Guide Without Experiencing the Pitfalls

By Editorial Staff

Online shopping offers both convenience and bargains. There are a plethora of products at your fingertips. These are just waiting for you to click “Add to Cart”. So it can be tempting to load up your cart with bling and baubles. However, before you do, make sure that you understand how to safely take advantage of the online shopping opportunities in order to make intelligent purchases in an organized and efficient manner.

How to Stay Safe and Save Money

Searching For Super Deals

searching for deals
The internet provides seemingly limitless information—product information, reviews, and even more purchase options are just a click away. Unfortunately, this ease of obtaining information can also be a big distraction. It is easy to lose track of what you bought and when you bought it — especially during the chaotic holiday season.

In order to keep your information under control, be proactive and put a plan in place to organize your search results. Here are just a few ways to keep tabs on your purchases.

Create “Favorites” Folders

When initiating an online search for a particular product, consider creating a folder to hold your “favorite” search results. It is much easier to go back to a single, well-labeled folder (such as one named “Living Room Sofa Options”) to try to locate a particular “favorite” item than to scroll through page after page of random, unsorted favorites. Folders also make it easy for you to quickly delete the folder (and thereby delete all of the related items) when a folder is no longer relevant.

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Wish Lists

Many websites offer a “Wish List” option in order to save products that you wish to purchase at a later date. These Wish Lists function much like department store registries. It is often possible to “share” these wish lists with friends and family. You can do this via email, or social media, in order to make gift-giving even easier. This allows you to make notes of general items you’d like to purchase yourself, as well as items that you might request from others for a specific gift-giving occasion.

There’s an App for That!

In order to consolidate your beloved items on one grand wish list, consider an app that builds a central wish list for all of your coveted items. Some websites, such as Giftery.me even allow users to build a wish list, track purchases, send Thank-You notes, and manage their registry from their mobile device. This allows users to share their customized Wish Lists on Facebook or other social media. With over 5,000 participating merchants, from big-name chain stores to airlines, and boutiques, you are bound to find something you want!

Keep Your Computer Safe

keep computer safe
If you plan on shopping online, make sure that your computer is protected. Secure your computer against malware with regular updates to your anti-virus program. Thieves don’t wait for innocent shoppers to simply hand over private information (although, unfortunately, many do just that); often these swindlers utilize malware to gather sensitive information from unknowing participants.

Besides investing in quality anti-virus software, also remember to change your password regularly, and to not use the same password for everything.

Researching Products

Reviews

As you narrow down your list of possible products, make sure to read (and bookmark) the product reviews. These comments from other purchasers can offer valuable insight into a product’s shortcomings and can save you time and money. While there are likely to be some negative reviews, look at the spread of ratings to see if they are clustered in a certain range. If a product has the majority of its rankings in the 4 and 5-star range, it might be worth further consideration; however, if a product has the majority of its rankings in the 1 or 2-star range, you might want to eliminate that product from your list of contenders.

When researching a product, also consider checking out Consumer Reports or other review sites, such as Buzzillions, to read reviews, compare products, and research prices and product details. Reviews can point out features, or a lack of features, that might sway your decision when purchasing an item, and often they illuminate problems or concerns that might not have been readily apparent.

Shop at Home

While some overseas deals may seem too good to be true, there could be a good reason for that — perhaps they really are too good to be true — you might consider paying a little more for goods “Made in the U.S.A.” When you purchase goods within the United States, you are afforded additional protections due to state and federal consumer laws which can offer assistance in the case of problems with the product or the merchant; however, items purchased outside of the United States may not offer the same level of protection.

Comparison Shopping

comparison shopping

Pricing

There are many price-comparison sites that allow buyers to search for the best price for a particular product. These sites often allow for price-based searches to take into consideration the cost of shipping. While one vendor might offer a very low price for an item, the cost of shipping can cause the total cost of the item to become cost-prohibitive or may cause another vendor to have a lower price once shipping costs are factored into the total cost of the item. Many such sites also offer rankings-based searches which allow you to sort the results with the best-ranked products listed first on the results page.

Shipping Options

Websites often offer several options for shipping—there is normally a slower/cheaper option, as well as an option for expedited shipping (often for a higher fee). More and more websites now offer free shipping for order in excess of a certain dollar amount. Other sites offer free shipping on all purchases if the buyer is a member of a certain program. For those that order online with great frequency, or who are planning to do a burst of online shopping (such as during the holidays) these online memberships may prove to be a valuable investment.

When considering shipping costs, also be aware of purchases made from foreign countries, since the shipping cost can be quite expensive. At times, the cost for shipping an item overseas is more than the item itself. Make sure to calculate shipping costs when comparing shopping.

Payment Options

Credit Card Payments

Online Shopping
There are several advantages to paying for online purchases with your credit card since these transactions are governed by the Fair Credit Billing Act. This Act allows purchasers to dispute charges in some circumstances, and while the creditor investigates the claims the payments are temporarily withheld pending verification. The Act also provides some protection in the event your credit card is used without your permission, and in this event, your liability is usually limited to the first $50 in charges.

Some credit card companies further guarantee that cardholders will not be responsible for any authorized charges to their account. In addition, some credit cards provide additional purchase protection benefits such as increased warranties on goods. With these benefits, it might make sense to say “charge it!”

Keep Receipts

Read those Receipts! When you make online purchases, always print or save a screenshot of your receipt. Make sure that the receipt includes the product description and price. If you exchange any emails with the seller, retain copies of those as well. Compare your receipts with your credit card statements to confirm that you were charged the proper, agreed-upon amount, and also be observant regarding any charges or fees that you do not recognize. If you notice any discrepancies, follow up promptly with the merchant.

Protect Your Financial Information

If you do exchange emails with sellers, do not transmit any financial information (such as credit card numbers, checking account numbers, or Social Security numbers) or private information via email. Email is not a secure method for providing this type of sensitive information.

In addition, when engaging in a transaction on a company’s website, make sure you look for indications that the site is secure. For instance, make sure that the URL begins with https (the “s” stands for “Secure”). Although websites can be hacked, and fraudulent sites can appear legitimate, taking these steps to keep your financial information safe is a good practice to help prevent unauthorized charges.

Receiving Items

receiving packages

Online Tracking

Keeping track of online purchases serves many purposes. It allows buyers to track the shipment of purchases and anticipated delivery dates, but it also allows purchasers to keep track of trusted vendors for future references and also to retain product information for registration, warranty, or reorder purposes. By maintaining a computer file with purchase orders, you can have product and vendor information ready for easy retrieval.

Home Delivery

For those who will be at home for delivery, it might be worthwhile to have items shipped directly to the home. However, those who work outside the home might be leery of having big-ticket items shipped directly to their home if there won’t be anyone home to receive the shipment. While you can consider having the purchases shipped to a safer location — perhaps to your work address—this may not be practical for large or bulky items. Fortunately, there are other options available for shipping receipt.

Ship to Store

The “Ship to Store” or “Ship to Site” option is offered by many online retailers and allows for customers to have a purchase shipped free, or at a reduced cost, to the customer’s local store. Besides saving on shipping costs, the “Ship to Store” option also gives the purchaser peace of mind since they do not have to worry about a big-ticket item being delivered to their home and left on their porch or other location that might invite theft.

Mailbox Centers

Those who shop online extensively might consider investing in a “Mailbox Service.”

These mailbox centers allow you to have your packages delivered to a physical address which will notify you of the receipt of packages and retain the item in a secure location until you pick it up. While these centers charge for the convenience, the peace of mind of having your purchases safe and secure might justify the additional expense.

Many Happy Returns

What’s the Policy? Online shoppers should be diligent about researching a merchant’s website to determine their return policy. If you cannot located a return policy on a merchant’s website, contact the merchant and request their policy in writing and retain this information in your records. Before you order from a merchant, make sure that you can answer the following questions (and that you are comfortable with the answers):

• Does the merchant allow returns? If so, under what circumstances and time frame? (Many merchants only accept returns within a certain time of the original purchase.)
• Is a receipt or gift receipt required in order to return an item?
• Are returned honored with a cash refund or with a store credit towards future purchases?
• Does the merchant charge a “restocking fee” on returned items?
• If your purchase is made during the holiday season, inquire with the merchant about any special holiday return policies they may have in place.
• Who is responsible for the shipping and handling expense for a returned item?
• Now, if the returned item is electronic equipment, music, movies, videogames, or software, some merchants charge an “open box” fee, while others refuse to accept items after the package has been opened. Inquire as to the merchant’s policy on these items.
• If the online merchant also maintains a “brick and mortar” store, can you make the return at the store or do you have to return it to the online merchant?
• Does the merchant offer a “money back” guarantee?

Defective Merchandise

Returns of defective merchandise may require additional documentation or verification of the specific defect in order to qualify for a return or replacement of the purchased item. Some merchants require evidence of the alleged defect in the form of photographic evidence, while other merchants require that the original, defective item be returned along with a statement setting forth specific allegations of the defect Research what is required by each merchant before submitting any returns, and keep copies of all statements and photographs submitted in order to substantiate your claim in the event the return/refund is denied.

Also, inquire with the merchant about the possibility of having the item repaired locally by a merchant-approved service center. Some merchants have local vendors who offer repairs to a defective item as an alternative to a refund. In fact, some merchants may actually require that an attempt at repair be made by their approved service center before issuing a refund.

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Privacy Policy

Just Between Us

A Privacy Policy is more than a hyperlink that you ignore while you get back to your shopping; you should read and understand a merchant’s privacy policy before you place an order with them. The Privacy Policy allows you to determine if a merchant intends to share your information, to sell it to other parties, or if it will be kept private. You should also research the merchant’s data security practices in order to determine how they use the information they gather from you.

Merchants who are members of certain programs with specific guidelines regarding privacy practices, such as TRUSTe, Verisign, or BBBonline adhere to these programs’ more stringent, voluntary guidelines. While participating in these programs is no guarantee of a merchant’s trustworthiness, it does show their willingness to conform with more stringent guidelines in their effort to protect their customers’ private information.

Reporting Online Fraud

We Can Work it Out

If you do experience problems with an online transaction, your first step should be to contact the seller or the individual named on the “Contact Us” or “Disputes” page directly. You should bring the problem to their attention and give them the opportunity to make things right. However, if that does not work, there are other remedies available to affected shoppers. Online fraud can be reported to the following:

The Federal Trade Commission
• The State Attorney General of your state
The Better Business Bureau

In addition, customers who believe they have been the victim of a fraudulent transaction can also file a Consumer Complaint to help ensure that other shoppers will not be victimized by those perpetrating online fraud. These organizations have experience in dealing with fraud, identity theft, and bait-and-switch type schemes, and can help assist you in getting your matter resolved.

And, of course, contact your bank of credit card holder immediately to report the fraudulent activity in order to prevent any additional unauthorized activity or otherwise fraudulent transactions.

A Passion for Online Shopping

passion for online shopping
The money-saving deals and the relative ease of online shopping can make it a more attractive option than navigating irritated crowds and congested traffic while you seek out that perfect present. Fortunately, online shopping doesn’t have to be a hassle.

Comparison shopping, researching merchants, and keeping track of your purchases can go a long way towards making your online shopping experience a pleasant one. In fact, you may never want to go back to those brick-and-mortar stores again!

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About the Author: Terri Wallace is freelance writer who finds time to blog and contribute to various websites between bouts of reading and eating vegan chocolate.

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