Back in the not-too-distant past, people in search of gifts were required to shower, dress and brave cold winds and irritated fellow shoppers to choose holiday gifts. Fervent deal seekers impatiently awaited store openings on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) like idling engines awaiting ignition. Children flipped through toy store catalogs like doe-eyed automatons, leaving them conspicuously open to certain pages in the hope that the catalog would somehow accompany their parents to the mall. It was a nasty, brutish time. Uncertainty reigned.
Help would arrive in the late 1960s when computer scientists at the U.S. Department of Defense created ARPANET -- the predecessor of the Internet. We didn't know it at the time, but holiday shopping would never be the same again. We didn't have to go the store anymore! Instead, companies opened virtual stores online. Consumers could make their purchases day or night, respectably clothed or completely naked.
Like most paradigm shifts, the advent of online shopping brought changes to the status quo. In stores, one need only keep vigilant guard of one's wallet to ensure its security; not so online. It's exponentially easier to assert one's will over temporary seasonal help when returning an item in stores. Again, this is not so online.
In this vein, HowStuffWorks has laid out five simple tips for online shopping. We begin on the next page.
When shopping online, plastic is the preferred method of payment. However, you must remember that your credit card number is static. It doesn't change unless you close and reopen an account, and once your credit card information is online, it can be compromised if it falls into the wrong hands.
There are some measures online shoppers can take to minimize their risk. First and foremost is ensuring that all online shopping is carried out only on secure sites. To be certain the page you're on is secure, look for a tiny padlock icon, usually found in the top right corner of your browser's URL bar. You can also tell if the site is secure by looking for an "s" in the URL address. While non secure sites and pages begin with http://, secure sites begin with https://.
Some Web browsers now have larger certificate windows that are easier to read and that allow users to examine site information more carefully. For example, if you intend to check out your online purchases using Circuit City's secure Web page but the site name on the page certificate doesn't match up, steer clear -- and alert Circuit City of the problem.
Never send your account numbers or any other personal information via e-mail, which isn't secure [source: FTC]. For this same reason, you should never access a Web site to shop through an e-mail link [source: Consumer Reports].
Now, how should you pay for all that loot? Find out on the next page.
Shopping online is easiest with plastic, but some plastic is better than others. It's advisable only to use credit cards, rather than debit cards, for online shopping. Credit cards represent an extension of credit, while debit cards draw directly from your bank account. Once in possession of your banking information, hackers can do much more damage to your finances than with your credit card number.
Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, consumers are protected in the event of identity theft or fraud -- if they use a credit card. This law protects account holders by limiting their fraud liability to $50. Payments for unauthorized charges to a credit card can also be put on hold and investigated [source: FTC]. Even better, most credit card companies offer more protection, sometimes limiting consumer liability for fraud to zero. Using a debit card affords you some federal protection as well. If you notify your bank of a fraudulent debit card purchase within two days your liability is limited to $50; after that it raises to $500 [source: Bankrate].
Most credit card companies now offer single-use credit card numbers for online shopping. These expire after one purchase and only your credit card company knows which account it's linked to.
Using only one credit card for online shopping is another great way to head off potential online shopping headaches [source: Consumer Reports]. If you have one credit card number sent via cyberspace, the potential for fraud is limited to that one account. Should a hacker come by your account information, you'll have only that credit card company to contend with.
Online shopping could eventually mean the death of the physical retail store, but even if that happens, one thing will be constant: the warehouse. There will always be a need to store vast amounts of items and to employ people to stock these warehouses.
Until robots take their jobs, warehouse employees will require salaries for the work they perform. Paying a person for retrieving, packaging and shipping an item that you've purchased online is already built into a retailer's costs. But if you return the item, it still has to be repackaged and replaced, although the company hasn't made any money from the return. As a result, online retailers have begun to charge restocking fees on returned items.
It's a reasonable requirement, but some restocking fees are easier to swallow than others. While some retailers charge up to 25 percent or more, a fee of 15 percent of the price you paid for the returned item has become customary for intensively packaged products, like electronics. Before proceeding to checkout, familiarize yourself with the retailer's return policies, which should be explicitly stated somewhere on its Web site.
Simply packaged items like books and unopened DVDs shouldn't cost you any money to return. Likewise, if you're returning the product because it's defective, you shouldn't be expected to pay any return fee. If you've damaged the product's UPC code or serial number, however, don't bother trying to return it -- you've pretty much taken the item permanently out of circulation. You can try to recoup some of what you paid by listing the item on Craigslist or eBay.
Online shopping presents consumers with a wonderful new advantage -- the ease of bargain hunting. Prior to shopping via the Internet, finding the lowest price for an item meant perusing catalogs and circulars, traveling from store to store or hitting the yellow pages for a calling spree. Not so much anymore.
Check out sites like CyberMonday.com (Cyber Monday is the online retailers' version of Black Friday) to get hooked up with online bargains. Other sites, like NexTag.com, let you comparison shop. There are also entire blogs -- MightyGoods.com and FindGift.com are great places to get your online shopping chops -- dedicated to aggregating lists of gift ideas. Often, however, a simple Google search of the item you want will yield even better deals. If you want a more focused search, head over to Google's new Product Search page (formerly known as Froogle).
Search discount sites like Overstock.com for the item you want before buying it elsewhere. These retailers purchase excess items that manufacturers couldn't unload on other retailers at a discount and generally pass the savings onto customers. Don't be afraid of purchasing refurbished items either -- this is often just another word for surplus inventory [source: Allentown Morning Call].
Tabbed browsing has even further paved the way for finding deals online. When checking out, don't pass by the online coupon code bar. Open another tab or window and do a quick search for coupons for the retailer available on other sites, like FatWallet.com and CurrentCodes.com. You may come up with a coupon you didn't know existed just by taking a few extra seconds for a quick search. Many stores will happily provide you with their own promotional codes if you sign up for their email newsletters. Enter the code before you check out to reap the savings. Keep in mind that this is only a tiny sample of bargain-hunting sites on the Web. You may have your favorites, but no one would blame you for keeping your shopping secrets to yourself.
If there's one big drawback to online shopping, it's the agony of waiting for your order to be shipped. The earlier you make your purchases, the greater chance they'll arrive on time. Under federal law, retailers must ship items within the dates specified (for example, three to five days for standard shipping), or within 30 days if no shipping date is specified in the transaction.
To cut down on shipping fees, try to order many items at once from a single retailer. Your purchases should be lumped together into one large package with one shipping fee attached. By registering with an online retail site, the cookies uploaded to your computer will retain any items in your online shopping cart until you either delete or purchase them, allowing you to ship everything at once -- and at one price. Many online retailers offer free shipping on purchases over a certain dollar amount, and online coupon sites regularly offer free shipping coupon codes.
If you can't catch a break on shipping, ordering early enough will allow you to opt for standard shipping. It's almost always the slowest, but if you order early, you've got time on your side. Give yourself a little more time if you're ordering from a third-party vendor through a big online retailer. The retail site's delivery date is an estimate, one the vendor doesn't always meet.
To learn more about the ins and outs of online shopping, take a look at the links on the next page.
Is this the payment method of the future? No cash, no credit card, just your smartphone and your finger? Find out how Square works at HowStuffWorks.
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More Great Links
- Anderson, Tania. "Tips for making Black Friday not so scary." Washington Post. November 20, 2007.http://voices.washingtonpost.com/shoptoit/2007/11/post_1.html
- Karp, Gregory. "Refurbished electronics can save you money." Allentown Morning Call. November 9, 2008.http://www.newsday.com/business/yourmoney/ny-bzcovstory095917170nov09,0,809636.story
- Kavilanz, Parija B. "Holiday gift returns: still nothing easy about it." CNN. December 26, 2006.http://money.cnn.com/2006/12/06/news/companies/gift_returnpolicies/index.htm
- "Debit cards." Bankrate. May 1, 2006.http://www.bankrate.com/brm/green/chk/basics2-4a.asp?caret=12
- "Gift returns; new rules require new tactics." Consumer Reports. January 2008.http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/money/shopping/shopping-tips/gift-returns-1-08/overview/gift-returns-ov.htm
- "Make a deal! 5 surprising bargain-hunting tips." MSNBC. November 29, 2007.http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22010552/
- "Online secure shopping." Federal Trade Commission. February 2008.http://www.onguardonline.gov/topics/online-shopping.aspx
- "Welcome to IE-Vista." Microsoft Valuable Professional. October 11, 2008.http://www.ie-vista.com/secure.html
- "6 tips for shopping safely online." National Consumers League. Accessed November 18, 2008.http://www.nclnet.org/shoppingonline/shoppingtips.htm
- "7 online blunders." Consumer Reports. September 2008.http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/computers-internet/internet-and-other-services/7-online-blunders/overview/7-online-blunders-ov.htm