Friday, February 22, 2008

Be a Savvy Online Shopper

The Internet can be a shopper's paradise, as long as you know how to shop safely and avoid hidden fees. Here are some tips to make sure your online shopping experience is a positive one.

Make sure the web site is reputable.

If you're shopping on a new site that you've never done business with before and it isn't a brand name you recognize, take the time to do a little homework before you share any sensitive personal information. Look around the site to see if there's a third-party seal of approval posted from a trusted source like the Better Business Bureau Online, or Trust-E. Membership in these organizations means the web site has agreed to be held to strict standards in how they handle personal information, as well as customer complaints.

Opinion sites, like or, may have information about the site listed along with customer reviews. You can also enter the name of the web site or business into your favorite search engine to see what comes up. If someone has had a bad experience with the site, it may be mentioned in a user forum or consumer information site.

Only shop at sites that use secure technology.

When information is passed between your computer and the shopping site's server, it should be encrypted. If a shopping site's server uses encryption technology, your data will be scrambled into something like 'secret code' and then unscrambled when it reaches the shopping site's server, to prevent unscrupulous hackers from capturing the information during transmission.

When a shopping site asks you for any kind of personal data, there are two things to look for to know that it's using encryption technology:

- An icon of a small locked padlock will appear in the bottom right of your monitor's screen.

- The URL of the web page should begin with "https:", which also indicates that it's a secure web page.

Know what your shipping costs will be before you check out.

A reputable site will make their shipping costs easy to find, before you check out. Take the time to look for this information, to avoid any unpleasant surprises. Data collected from surveys of online shopping experiences consistently show that the one thing online shoppers dislike above all is shipping charges. While it's unavoidable that you have to absorb the cost of shipping one way or another, smart retailers will try to keep these costs to a minimum. Sometimes they'll do this creatively by offering you incentives to purchase more, to help offset their costs for discounted shipping charges.

And while reputable sites will have a liberal return policy in the event you're not happy with your merchandise, be aware that in most cases you won't be reimbursed for the shipping charges to return the item.

Make sure you understand the return policy.

Never purchase anything from a web site without reading the fine print - particularly the fine print about its return policy. Good retail sites will allow you to return items you're not completely happy with, but sometimes there are stipulations that you should be aware of before you order.

Is there a restocking fee? This charge can be anywhere from 5%-20% of an item's purchase price, and is meant to discourage customers from returning merchandise. Also make sure you know how much time you have to return an item in order to receive a refund. Some companies seem to allow an almost unlimited return window, but in some cases it can be as little as one week after you receive your order. You may still be able to return an item after this period, but will only receive a store credit instead of a full refund.

Shop with confidence.

Online retail sales in the U.S. amounted to $65B in 2004, and predictions for 2008 expect that figure to rise to $117B. An unbelievable variety of merchandise is already available on the Internet, and as time goes on the choices will be even greater. But to take advantage of this shopping paradise, consumers still need to be savvy shoppers. Shop securely and read the fine print, and then enjoy the savings and convenience of online shopping!

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