Black Friday has come and gone. Cyber Monday is history. Yet, online shopping continues in full force. Various reports suggest that online shopping has increased dramatically this year, likely due to the increasing usage of broadband connections in the home, and the draw of huge savings secretly located on the Internet if you can just find the right combination of coupon codes, discount websites, and wholesalers online. However, as always, when it comes to personal finance what you don’t know can hurt you. Make sure you understand all of the details regarding online shopping for bargains. Otherwise, you may get burned.
Amazon Makes Online Shopping OK
Not long ago, online shopping was the exclusive providence of very specific people, typically techies, and ultra-bargain shoppers who linked together in electronic discount finding groups reminiscent of the old coupon clubs. A few appearances on Oprah by folks like "Coupon Mom" helped drive online shopping and deal finding to the forefront of the American consciousness. But, what finally pushed online shopping over the edge from the wary, angst filled, activity it used to be to a common shopping method used by teenagers, little old ladies, and the technological inept alike was the legitimizing factor of Amazon.com.
When Amazon burst onto the scene a decade ago, it was a revolutionary idea. Selling books online meant that not only could Amazon offer deep discounts on books, but it could also stock many more titles than local booksellers could on their shelves. Even the big national chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders couldn’t compete with how many books Amazon sold. The offer to order a book for you began to pale by comparison. Instead of waiting for the bookstore’s regular shipment of books to include the book title you were looking for, you could order the same book from Amazon and have it delivered directly to your house right away.
For a while, books, were one of the things that was OK to purchase online. There were many things that made them safe. First, any book Amazon.com sells is exactly the same as the books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. In other words, there is no concern about quality or some sort of bait and switch scam. Secondly, shipping costs were relatively low. The savings offered on the price of the book was larger than the cost of sending it in the mail, which meant a good deal, was still a good deal even with shipping. This was no small factor as online pet supply websites found out when it turned out no one was interested in buy 50 lb. bags of dog food online due to the ridiculous shipping costs. Finally, Amazon had good customer service. Products could be returned, and exchanged, and over time, the company became a household name, erasing the fear of giving out your credit card number online.
Once Amazon started selling products beyond books, the barriers were officially broken, and online shopping was a common thing among all groups of people.
Not All Shopping Websites Are Like Amazon
Unfortunately, this familiarization with online shopping via a retailer like Amazon has made many Americans let their guard down when it comes to buying online. It is important to remember that not all merchants are Amazon.com. In fact, precious few are. That means that you need to find out all the facts about who you are buying from FIRST before placing an order, no matter how great of deal it is.
Top Things To Know About Online Shopping Websites
- Return Policy – Not just that they accept returns, but the details as well. Who pays for shipping? How long is the return period? If it is also a brick and mortar store, can you return items to the store? Is there a restocking fee? Most importantly, under what conditions can something be returned? Many sites allow returns, but only for defective items. That means if you don’t like it, or it isn’t what you thought it would be, then that is just too bad.
- Shipping and Handling Charges – Even on Amazon.com you have to be careful of this one. Amazon lets anyone sell on their website. Unfortunately, it sorts prices based on the cost without shipping. That means that the vendor who sells for $9.99 plus $8.95 shipping is listed as cheaper than the vendor who sells for $12.99 plus $2.99 shipping.
- Is It Really Amazon – Speaking of Amazon. The website doesn’t always make it easy to tell if you are buying a product from Amazon, or from some third-party using Amazon as a store front. It matters because they have very different return policies and shipping time frames.
- Who Is It? – Amazon isn’t the only website that makes it harder to see who you are actually doing business with. Don’t check out the main website to see if they are legitimate, check out the actual seller. There is a big difference between how legitimate eBay.com is and how legitimate one of its storefront sellers is.
Lastly, never forget that identity theft and credit card numbers are tasty targets for scammers. Protect them as much as you can by not signing up or registering for websites with your real name and address until you are actually ready to make a purchase. Whenever possible, use a temporary credit card number for all online transactions to avoid nasty surprises later.