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Smart Buying

What to Know About Shopping Online

Get the lowdown on the season's free shipping deals and learn how to shop effecitvely and safely from the comfort of your own home.

1. Free shipping often has strings attached. The good news: Nearly 80% of online retailers plan to offer free shipping promotions this holiday season, according to a recent survey by BizRate Research. However, many offers will carry minimum purchase requirements., for example, offers free shipping on orders of $25 or more. Others offer free shipping only on select items., for example, lists which products currently qualify for free shipping on its Free Shipping Events page. You will find a handful of straight-shooters, such as L.L. Bean, offering free shipping on any-size order. And, of course, there are the sites that always offer free shipping, no matter what season, such as and

If your favorite shop isn't offering a promotion, Google "free shipping" and the name of the store to turn up any possible coupon codes.

2. Be specific in your search. Not finding what they’re looking for is a common complaint among online shoppers, says Larry Freed, chief executive officer of ForeSee Results, which measures customer satisfaction. Adds Hillary Mendelsohn, author of thepurplebook, a guide to online shopping: "Talk about a haystack -- if you type needle into a search engine, you get over 23 million matches." Enter as much relevant information as possible into search engines, she says. For example, "Sony + plasma + 40 inch + [manufacturer's product number]." When using a shopping-comparison site, the same applies, she says. "The more info, the better."

3. Overnight shipping? Open your eyes. You pay for "overnight" shipping but your order doesn't arrive for several days. "Buried in the fine print is something like, 'We have a 48-hour processing time,' " explains Mendelsohn. Even reputable companies do this, she says. When speedy delivery is important, look for disclaimers.


4. Use credit, not debit. If your credit card number is stolen online, the most your card issuer can hold you liable for is $50 by law. If your debit card number is pilfered, you could be liable for all fraudulent charges depending on how quickly you notice and report them. Credit cards are also the better choice in case of a glitch in a retailer’s system. For example, we recently experienced a glitch with a reputable retailer that mistakenly charged us 10 times for a single transaction. Because we used our debit card, it drained our checking account, leaving us broke for days while the store and our bank worked out the error. Had we used our credit card instead, our bank account would have been spared.

The key, of course, is to pay off the credit card bill immediately. To make sure you don’t overspend, deduct the amount you spent on your credit card from the balance in your checkbook so the money will be there when the bill comes.

5. Beware of crooked deals. Crooks love the holiday season. One prevalent scam this time of year involves promising to deliver hard-to-find items, such as sought-after toys. The odds of getting burned increase when you deal with no-name online merchants. Your first line of defense is to know the seller. When you buy items on eBay, avoid sellers who have recently received poor feedback from other buyers. Under certain circumstances, PayPal, a subsidiary of eBay, offers a guarantee to buyers who use it to pay for an item.

6. Look for security. When shopping online, it’s important to look for privacy and security seals on retailers’ sites. Before entering your personal information, look for a padlock icon on your browser’s status bar, or check that the URL begins with https:// -- the “s” is for “secure.” You should also read a Web site’s privacy policy to find out how it handles your personal info.


7. Customer service may not be a click away. A survey by ForeSee Results finds that a live voice on the other end of the phone is hard to come by. "Typically, to reduce call-center costs, some online retailers steer customers toward solving their own problems," says Freed, by routing them to the FAQ section or suggesting that they e-mail their questions. Netflix, Amazon, QVC and L.L. Bean do a "very good job" of responding to customers' needs, he says. Amazon does not list a toll-free number, but "they resolve every issue customers have" -- and they do so promptly.

8. Gift cards aren't always a perfect gift. Increasingly, a gift card is what you buy for the person who has everything, and most are sold online. But some come with service fees, and others begin losing value after a certain period of time. Some states, such as California, New Hampshire and Washington, have enacted legislation prohibiting expiration dates on retailer cards, but most states have not. For that reason, it's best to use gift cards you receive immediately.

And here's more incentive to spend gift cards early: Redeem your card in December and some retailers will add as much as 10% in value. Stores don't want you to wait until next year because they can't count the revenue until the card is redeemed. Retailers, who expect holiday sales to grow a tepid 3%, want to move more income into 2007 to boost their key numbers and keep Wall Street happy.

SEE ALSO: 20 Web sites to help you find Amazing Holiday Deals Online