Black Friday? Cyber Monday? Planning to shop online? Keep these tips handy
The answer to all of these questions is: “maybe.”
By Alison Blackman for advicesisters.com
I review products every day on advicesisters.com but I’m a consumer, and online shopper as well. I’m sharing what I’ve learned over decades, starting with this: to shop online safely, efficiently, joyfully and successfully, you need to be careful. If you just click and buy without thought you can end up disappointed.
Done right, shopping online can be a big time safer, money safer, and sanity saver. When things go wrong,however, it can also be frustrating, time consuming, and a waste of money. During peak consumer shopping seasons (e.g. now during the holidays) even if you live in a large City with nearly limitless stores, in person shopping can be exhausting. Shopping online is one way to avoid the lines and chaos. But online shipping isn’t for everyone,e especially if you love “perusing what’s out there,” and you want to see the goods in person, or if you still can’t get over the sticker shock of shipping prices when you order online, But if you can’t find what you want locally, or can’t get out an shop (e.g. lack of time, illness, little ones to lug alone, etc.) then shopping online and spending a few extra dollars in shipping costs, can be a huge benefit.
How, when, and where to do your online shopping is the first hurdle. The chances are the first thing you’ll do is search for what you want (Google it most likely). Stores with various prices will appear. You might recognize some of them from their “bricks and mortar” stores. Keep searching and sooner or later, what you want will appear — you will know if you can buy it in Hoboken or Holland—or both!
Price doesn’t always correspond with quality: Prices vary widely from place to place, but be wary: the site claiming to sell “authentic” designer bags might have prices that seem too good to be true and if so, they probably are too good to be true. Some sites with amazing deals really are amazing. Some sites are simply not reputable (e.g. the fashion site based in China that claims 3 weeks and you wait three months). Other sites may knowingly or unwittingly sell grey market goods. You can’t always tell from a photograph what’s genuine or not.
Don’t just rely on photos: Good lighting and the right angles can make that sweater look much larger or smaller than it really is. If an item appeals to you but you are not familiar with that brand, be sure the photo you’re looking at is of the exact model you expect to receive. Model numbers vary and there are sometimes special versions of the products that are similar, but not the same. A “made just for us” version can be very good, or sometimes, a cheap version.
Read reviews, then use your own common sense: Review sites like advicesisters.net can help you get a reliable perspective on what an item is really going to be like (there are web sites and blogs that review just about any product you’re interested in). When it comes to sites that pile up consumer reviews they are often written by inexperienced people who either liked or hated an item enough to mention it. Some so-called consumer reviewers get pad for their “input” (recently Amazon.com was accused of paying reviewers or compensating them with products for “reviews.”). When you read a review (e.g. a specific red lipstick) and it says: “this is the best red lipstick EVER!” or “this product is no good because it smelled bad) what does that really mean? This person may only have owned half a dozen red lipsticks in her entire life. She may not have any clue what’s in it (good or bad) or any of the other things reputable reviewers work so hard to tell you about (as we do on this web site). If there are no details about the lipstick other than the reviewer liked or loathed it, or if you’re reading information from a person who clearly just wants you to know her basic opinion (she liked/hated the lipstick) it isn’t terribly helpful. Even on big review sites with lots of reviews, it pays to be dubious, especially if a lot of the reviews are too glowing, or terribly negative. These are not coming from reputable, unbiased reviewers. On the other hand, if you visit a site where 99% of the reviews say the product broke immediately, or the handle fell off, or something like that, the chances are these things are valid.
About EBAY and consignment sites: They can be great places to get a bargain, but all that glitters may not be gold. Sites like EBAY do their best to crack down on bad sellers, but all it takes is one bad experience to disappoint you. Even if the price is great, a company who sells you an iPod, a piece of jewelry, a watch or anything else “as is” is letting you know that either they know it isn’t in good condition or won’t stand behind the item if it fails. If the item is cheap it’s a gamble but maybe worth the risk. For most people, buying something really expensive online (e.g. a diamond ring) probably isn’t worth it unless you do a lot of investigation, ask a lot of questions, and are an expert.
Buying electronics? There are so many great sites are out there on the Internet, offering items you just can’t find locally, and often with a discount. Even if you are sure of what you want, there are some items that it’s really better to try before you buy (if possible). Here’s what one of our readers told us: “I was dying for a big telephoto lens for my camera, so I could photograph my kids’ soccer games from high up in the stands. I did my research and found the exact lens I wanted, online. When it arrived it was the right lens, but it was too heavy for me to handle. I wish I’d taken a few moments to actually test this lens before I bought it.” Another reader said: “I didn’t realize when I bought my new laptop from a discount house online that when something went wrong with it –almost right out of the box, I either had to pay a huge re-stocking penalty fee, or my only recourse was to go straight back to the manufacturer. I should have read the company’s disclaimers more carefully before I purchased even though I got a fantastic discount.”
Buying high jewelry, watches, fragrances and other luxury items? I wouldn’t suggest it, unless I knew the company’s reputation (e.g. if you purchase from Tiffany.com (just an example) you’ll get gold if you purchase a gold item. If you don’t know that company well, you can’t know exactly what you are buying. Be sure that the company will stand behind your purchase with decent return policy if what you get isn’t what you wanted or the size or type was mis-represented. Most reputable places selling high end items will also provide an appraisal and warranty. If it’s a watch or other such item, will the company service it if something goes wrong? While you’re looking at the computer screen and sipping that chardonnay (one glass–drunk shopping is usually regrettable), don’t just click and buy without reading the fine print and asking questions first .
Clothing, accessories, food and other items delight or disappoint: The best advice I can give is be flexible. Again, if you know the brand and the online store, the item you order may meet your expectations. But that sweater in “spiced peach” that looked so creamy and luxurious online might look more like a baked apple red and be so thin you can see through it. Know your size and check with the on-line size chart to make sure that their sizes correspond with yours (some companies size things very differently, especially if they’re from overseas). If in doubt, shop at reputable online retailers with huge inventories (e.g. QVC, Target, HSN, Burlington Coat Factory, and most department store online sites –these are just a few examples). The best of the on-line stores will pay return postage if you need to exchange or return an item and tell you up front if you get a store credit, or your money back, or will be charged a fee for returning an item.
The Bottom Line: Online shopping can be fun and good bargains are out there to be had, especially right now. Just be informed and cautious before you “click and buy.”
*Bonus Tips: The better Business Bureau sent us these tips, and they’re good to know:
“Shop Surely” on Black Friday: . Learn how to read ads and understand “badvertising” at bbb.org/adtruth. Spot a bad ad? Use #AdTruth on social media to warn others.
“Shop Small” on Small Business Saturday: On November 28, look for “Shop Small” signs at thousands of small and independent businesses. Take a selfie at your favorite small business, share it on social media with #BBBHolidayHelper and #ShopSmall, and tell the world why you love small businesses.
“Shop Savvy” on Cyber Monday: Online sales are expected to top $105 billion this holiday season. Look for the lock icon and https for secure URLs, watch out for look-alike websites, and use a credit (not debit) card. More tips on being a savvy shopper are available from the Digital IQ initiative at bbb.org/digitaliq.
“Give Wisely” on Giving Tuesday. December 1 is all about being generous. Make sure the charity you select will be a good steward of your money. Check out give.org for charity reviews from BBB Wise Giving Alliance.
No matter where or when you shop, find businesses you can trust at bbb.org.