Shopping can be so effortless these days that we can literally do it with our fingers, be it through swipes and taps on our portable smart device or scrolls and clicks on our mouse.
Ordering something takes less than a minute. But for something so easy to do, there are plenty of traps in the online shopping arena that most first-time shoppers may fall into.
Do you know what you are paying for? How do you know which seller to trust to deliver the goods as promised? What other sensitive information could we have inadvertently given away in the process? If you’ve never considered any of these questions during your online shopping spree, it’s probably time to do so.
Let us now examine some of these potential pitfalls and how we can avoid them.
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1. The hidden shipping charges
While you may notice that the listed prices on shopping sites can sometimes be much lower than those at the local brick-and-mortar retail stores, we often fail to take into account the shipping and handling costs to get these items to our doorstep. These fees usually appear right before we click "Purchase".
By the time that we do notice, we would have already gone through the hassle of choosing our items and filling up our particulars and credit card information. Most of us would just go through to the checkout even if, with the shipping fee, the product is no longer cheaper than store prices.
And this placement of the shipping fee near the finishing line is no coincidence. Some merchants may charge you a separate shipping fee for each item shipped instead of a single fee for all items, or offer free shipping only if orders exceed a certain amount e.g. for Amazon, it is $35 for US deliveries.
Other dubious ones may even mislead customers with "free delivery" promises, which only apply to members who have to pay an annual membership fee anyways.
What you can do:
If you want to avoid falling into such a trap or save yourself from having to discard your shopping cart at the last minute and redo your orders, be sure to factor in all the hidden costs from the get-go. Check out their shipping rates and if there are special requirements to lower them.
Alternatively, you can find promotion or coupon codes at sites such as RetailMeNot, DealNews or just type in the name of the retailers along with keywords like "coupon", "free shipping", "codes". Some provide you with free shipping and other great discounts.
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2. Inconsistent delivery times
When you are in the shopping season, take note that delivery times will take a hit, especially if the item is in high demand. It takes time to restock products, especially if you are purchasing from smaller-scale online merchants.
You may even have to deal with an indefinite delay (which will be ugly for Christmas day morning). Fortunately, you can prevent this travesty if you take a few precautions.
What you can do:
Firstly, when choosing an online merchant to purchase your goods, make sure that it has a proper automatic notification system in place that will inform you if their stock is running low or sold out.
In most cases, these companies will also give buyers an estimated order-by deadline to ensure that the items will be delivered by, say, Dec 25th. Also, take note that most sites indicate the duration in terms of business days, not calendar days. So, when they say ten working days, they actually mean two weeks!
3. What you see (somtimes) isn’t what you get
One of the biggest drawbacks of online shopping is that you can’t be sure if what you see onscreen is going to be what you will eventually receive. This may be especially true when you’re buying apparel. To fill this gap, online merchants provide pictures and brief descriptions of these products, and include comments or feedback by people who have purchased similar items.
The trap you have to look out for here is whether the online retailers have a reasonable return policy in place. If the actual item isn’t what you had in mind, will you be able to return the item and get a one-to-one exchange or a full refund? Will there be any restocking fees imposed for the returns? Also, consider how the return can be done.
Do you have to send it back through the post office (and pay the shipping fees) or can you go to a local brick-and-mortar store partner to get an exchange? Remember that apart from allowing one to return items they do not like, a return-policy is also useful for damaged and faulty goods.
What you can do:
If the online retailer does not have an existing return policy, you may have to check out the material at the local store, especially for clothing (with the cutting and the sizing and the fitting), before considering ordering it online.
Better yet, if the price isn’t too much of a difference, you can just skip all the worrying and get your item at the physical store instead, preferably one that has a clear and reasonable return policy in case you need to return the item.
4. Reviews & ratings
There’s a lot of uncertainty involved when it comes to the "faceless" online shopping experience, which means there is homework to be done. Homework, as in, doing research on the products and sellers to see if the products and services are dependable. One way to do that is to look at the reviews and ratings of these sellers.
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What you can do:
One can reasonably depend on the feedback given by the users since they have first-hand experience in dealing with the seller. Similarly, the reputation ratings gathered from tens to thousands of users can be helpful in assessing a particular seller.
Reviews of the products are also important because (as discussed in #3 previously). For example, the size of a shirt indicated as of "medium" size, may turn out to be larger or smaller by your regional standards.
However when looking at reviews, take everything with a pinch of salt. Reviewers can be paid to give positive but fictitious testimonials for the seller or the product on the site itself. The rule of the thumb is to be skeptical when it comes to reviews and feedbacks.
Also, look for reviews from multiple sources and if possible from other sites. When in doubt, you can always Google the seller’s name with keywords such as "scam", "ripoff", "fraud", etc to find out if the merchant is indeed trustworthy.
5. Price comparisons
When shopping online you can quickly, vigorously and efficiently compare price tags, and possibly find better deals and discounts than any of the largest sales events you can find at the mall. Online merchants lure buyers in with insanely low-priced items on their sites, then hide the additional charges i.e. shipping fees. It’s probably a good idea to compare prices.
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What you can do:
If you have used sites to compare prices for flights, hotels and rental cars online, e.g. Expedia and Priceline, then you probably might know of comparison engines like PriceGrabber and Amazon. These sites collate the pricing information of products offered by their participating retailers and display the information in their results page based on search queries.
Due to their ability to sieve out information quickly and present them in intuitive layouts for clearer comparisons, these search engines are immensely useful to serious online shoppers.
Here’s a top ten list by Search Engine Watch for the best shopping engines.
6. Secure connections for payments
I’ve previously mentioned about the dangers using unsecure, open Wi-Fi hotspots that are freely available in public places. For one, such Wi-Fi sources do not offer encryption, which means that anyone who is connected to the same hotspot can gather data which you transmit online, be it your login details or your emails.
Another problem is the bogus hotspots that trick unsuspecting people into logging in. Once you are in, the hackers can record your keystrokes, or mine your device for sensitive information. If you use these hotspots to make online payments, your credit card details are as good as gone.
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What you can do:
Limit yourself to general browsing (with no logging in) when you are on open Wi-Fi connections, and do not do any online banking and purchases. This applies to your hotel Wi-Fi connections, even those that are password-protected.
If, however, under an emergency, you have to buy something while connected to public Wi-Fi, make sure the payment site is secure and encrypted. The web address should begin with "https" instead of the usual "http" and there should be a "lock" icon on your browser.
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7. Dubious links or apps
Scammers and companies are out to get as much out of shoppers as possible with dubious deals unbelievable deals. Not too long ago these came in the form of links in a random email. These phishing links will lead you to fraudulent sites wherein the process of acquiring something that isn’t actually there, you key in your credit card details to cash in on the superb deal.
What you can do:
If you don’t want to fall victim to this, trust your gut. Always run a check on Google to see if this too-good-to-miss deal is actually a legitimate one. Read up what other users or buyers (or victims) have to say about a particular deal before you release any information to the site.
Other than that, you can also verify the authenticity of the site by locating the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) certificates like VeriSign within the page itself.
Here’s how you can verify VeriSign certificates that you come across in any websites.
8. Shopping addiction
If you’ve been doing your shopping online, you would have realized by now that it can get pretty addictive. If you indulge in impulse buying and retail therapy, having 24/7 access to a shopping spree from home can be hard to say no to.
Just with a few clicks of our mouse, we are already browsing online catalogs, putting items into shopping carts and setting up accounts for return visits to Amazon and eBay.
The thing about online shopping is that everything from the shopping cart to the actual payment via your credit card is virtual (you don’t even have to hand over your card), so you never really feel the pinch on your wallet until you see the credit card bill at the end of the month.
Left uncontrolled, this can trap us into overspending and accumulating a mountain of debts, mostly from buying "limited time offers", "last-minute deals" and "must-haves" that we in fact have no need for.
What you can do:
Be conscious of what you spend on and how much. Exercise self-restraint. Don’t resort to shopping to improve your mood. Know what you’re looking for and stick to it. Set a budget on how much you will allow yourself to spend before heading to the site.
Set financial goals for a home renovation or a vacation, and keep them close by to remind you to watch your spending. Nothing helps you better in saying "no" to splurging than a bigger and longer-term target in mind.
When all else fails, keep the credit card statement near your laptop or computer, so you can relive that moment of horror you had when you find out how absolutely broke you were.