How to Shop Online Without Fear

Or, how to get gelt, not guff

Online shopping looks just a shade more alluring this time of year, wouldn't you say? From the ample free parking in your driveway to the fast, friendly food court in your fridge, the old saw about buying stuff in your jammies just sounds a little more appealing than usual for even the most unreformed mall rats among us. If you proceed with care, Webbing from store to store can be a hassle-free way of handling the holiday consumerism.

Get cracking. Shop as soon as possible. Just because some Web sites promise delivery on orders placed as late as December 23 doesn't mean you want to try your luck.

Go where you know. This might not be the best time to test out a bunch of e-commerce sites you've never shopped before. (This isn't great news for the myriad e-commerce sites hoping the holidays will save their red-inked butts, but that's not your problem.) If you've successfully shopped at a particular site before, it's probable that your name and address info is correctly on file with that site, eliminating one possible source of trouble.

If you do choose to shop at, check out the site thoroughly. You should be able to find a snail-mail address, a customer service phone number and e-mail address, clear information on how to reach them if something goes wrong, and a means of secure ordering. Do not do business with sites that demand cash or money orders, which are hard to trace or get refunded if there's a problem. If you're feeling unsure, drop them an e-mail to ask questions. If they want and can handle your business, they'll be happy to answer questions.

Use plastic. Shopping with a credit card—not your check card!—provides good protection in case something goes wrong. Visa and Mastercard are much better at merchant dispute resolution than you will ever be.

Seal it. A customer-assurance seal such as those offered by WebAssured, BBBOnline, or WebTrust tells you that this e-business has a mechanism in place for making sure your service is stellar (or if it isn't, it gets that way fast). Check the "legal" or "customer service" page of the e-commerce site to see if it's sporting any of the appropriate logos. (For more information on seal programs, see "Shopping with .com-fidence," from our 10/26 issue.)

Let a bot do your legwork. Clicking from site to site is easier than driving from store to store, but it's still pretty tedious. Consider using a bot—an automated store-searching site—to do your legwork. It'll take your requests and check various online stores, reporting back to you on who's got the best prices. MySimon, PriceScan, and BizRate are among the most popular. Not all bots check all e-commerce sites, so you're not guaranteed perfect results every time, but generally speaking a bot can dig up bargains you would probably have missed—a trusted aide-de-camp in this frantic campaign. However . . .

Don't forget shipping. A great deal's not so great if shipping charges are astronomical. A number of sites offer free shipping as a promotional tool; compare and take advantage.

Keep a paper trail. Print out copies of your receipts (the screen that tells you your order has been received); also save the copies that most sites will e-mail to you. Keep a list of which gifts have been purchased, where they were bought, what you paid and on which card, how it's shipping (with the appropriate FedEx, UPS, or USPS tracking number), and when you expect to receive the item. Jotting down a few notes as you go along can save a lot of scrambling if December 23 rolls around and Uncle Bubba's present—now, where did you order that again?—hasn't turned up yet.

Weed out the junk. Detractors complain that the Web won't let you see goods before you get them, but you can turn your wired ways to your advantage when it comes to prescreening merchandise. If you're buying gifts in a category in which product warnings and recalls are an issue (toys, for instance), drop by to see if any recalls are in effect.

Consider direct shipping. Some sites will allow you to ship your gifts directly to the happy recipient. That's a terrific time- and muscle-saver, but be sure to keep track of whether the gift arrives at its destination. Note that e-commerce sites are bound by federal mail-order regulations about how long it can take to ship a package; they're required to ship by the date they promise you (if no firm date is given, they've got 30 days) or offer a full refund. And don't hesitate to call Aunt Melva to be sure she got her new wool twinset. What, you think she won't be glad to hear from you? It's the holidays!

Angela Gunn is a staff writer at Seattle Weekly.

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