Chances are that if you're reading this, you've at some point ordered products over the Internet. For many of us, Internet retailers have become stalwart allies in our efforts to acquire the products we feel we need to live our lives as we wish. Internet shopping works particularly well with generic mass-produced items for which local retailers may not be able to compete in terms of selection, price, pre-sales information, or even customer service.
The promise of Internet shopping has always been based on solving the problems inherent in buying locally: it's faster than driving around town to multiple stores, cheaper thanks to economies of scale and the lack of expensive storefronts, and easier to learn about or compare similar items. So why do many people feel somewhat let down by Internet shopping experiences? Two reasons. First, even if shopping on the Internet is faster and easier than driving around town, that doesn't mean it's necessarily easy or fast when removed from that comparison. Researching products, finding retailers, and slogging through a purchasing process can chew up hours. Second, there's a lot of uncertainty in buying items over the Internet, both in the research phase and in the purchasing phase. Are you indeed buying the right widget for your needs based on the information you could find, and have you found a retailer that offers a good combination of price and service?
I haven't figured out how to make Internet shopping any quicker or easier, but I have worked out some ways you can reduce the uncertainty you may experience when shopping online. In fact, it's possible that by reducing uncertainty, I've made the shopping process slower and more difficult - if you just buy the first thing on your mind at the most well-known Internet retailer, you will save time and effort - though at a higher monetary cost. But for me, at least, the possibility that I could have gotten something better for less money would haunt me. This article is for those of you who, like me, dislike thinking that they could have done better.
Do Your Research -- The first step in any Internet shopping trip is to figure out exactly what you want. Sometimes that's trivial, such as when you know you want the latest Leonard Cohen CD because you've liked everything else he's done (well, I have anyway). But what if you're looking for a Palm OS handheld or a digital camera? The options multiply fast. And worse, what if you're looking for a fire truck for your kid? You can't exactly go to Toy Fire Trucks Monthly for a detailed comparison of the latest models.
It's always worth looking for professional reviews if the product type is appropriate. The more expensive the product, the more likely it is you'll be able to find a review, though it may take some searching to find the necessary publication. Do make sure the publication isn't just an advertising vehicle. Outside of publications, some fields have spawned Web sites dedicated to reviews - I've seen this nowhere more prominent than in the digital camera world, where it's possible to read incredibly detailed reviews that may present you with far more information than you wanted.
Barring a formal review, the next best things are short comments from others who have purchased the same product. Amazon and numerous other high-profile Internet retailers collect and present these informal reviews, and they're especially useful for toys and other hands-on items. Amazon even goes to the extent of letting people rate the reviews, which is good, since the quality of these reviews varies widely. Untrained reviewers tend not to think critically or put themselves in others' shoes, which leads to glowing or damning reviews when the product either works as advertised or fails to do so (or worse, when it works as advertised, but not the way the reviewer anticipated it would). Read these reviews carefully and try to get a sense if the reviewer is using the product like you plan to and if the reviewer has any sense of perspective. Many don't, and as such, I generally ignore any numeric or "star" ratings and concentrate instead on the comments by people who seem to have some insight.
There is one site, Epinions, dedicated to such reviews. I've found Epinions quite useful, especially since readers can (and do!) rate the reviewers. The two annoying things about Epinions are that they sometimes lump different models of a product together and you can read only a single review at a time. The first annoyance makes it difficult to determine exactly what product is being reviewed, and the second means that it's tedious to read more than a couple of reviews. Especially considering that usability guru Jakob Nielsen is (or at least was) on Epinions's advisory board, this design decision is a distressing lapse that would be easily solved by letting you read all reviews about a product on a single page.
Depending on what you're buying, it may also be worth visiting the manufacturer's site. Some are great, offering PDF versions of manuals or QuickTime VR panoramas of the products, whereas others merely offer the briefest of descriptions. Manufacturers' description of their own products are of course biased, but you may also find specs, comparisons to other models, and other bits of hard information.
Finally, there is one significant shortcut you may be able to take at times. If you have a friend whose judgement you trust and who has liked a product you're researching, you can short circuit the entire decision process and simply buy exactly the same model as your friend. We did that recently with a HEPA air filter we needed for Tristan's allergies - my sister's boyfriend had just shown me the one he had, saying it was the only model he'd found quiet enough to leave on all night. It just wasn't worth duplicating his effort.
Compare Prices -- The next step is to figure out from which retailer you wish to purchase the item. Sometimes that's a no-brainer, such as when the manufacturer is also the sole retailer, as might be the case with a Lands' End or L.L. Bean (but there's more to do even then, as we'll see in a minute). But when you're buying something that's available from many different retailers, it's a good idea to compare prices.
You could do this manually, but it's easier to rely on the many price comparison Web sites that have sprung up over the last few years. I've had excellent luck using a number of them. Price Watch is good for high-tech items like hard disks and RAM, our friend Glenn Fleishman's isbn.nu site is great for books, DealTime and mySimon and BizRate have worked well for standard consumer items, and my recent favorite has become NexTag. NexTag's database of products seems as extensive as the others, but what sets it apart is that it determines if you'll need to pay sales tax (based on your ZIP code) and adds in the retailers' shipping rates to provide the "true price." Since most low-price retailers hide some of their margin in shipping costs, and since sales tax can be significant on a high-ticket item, the "true price" is important. Don't get caught up in the assumption that a price comparison site's reported price is totally accurate - prices can change quickly.
I often end up searching in several price comparison sites because they don't carry pricing information from the same retailers. There isn't usually much difference in prices, but when you're looking for low prices, you need to pay attention to other factors, such as whether the products are new or refurbished, how return policies work, or if the low price is for a slightly different model or contingent on some other purchase. Many cut-rate retailers also push hard on you to buy higher-margin accessories or related products.
The major uncertainty here is worrying that you'll end up buying from a fly-by-night Web site that won't let you return a defective product and that may have a higher-than-average chance of sending you the aforementioned defective product. Luckily, the price comparison sites often rate retailers, and NexTag and DealTime even let consumers submit their own reviews. Don't worry about the star ratings, and instead read those reviews carefully, since you're more interested in the specific negative comments. There are also several rating organizations, like Gomez and the Better Business Bureau Online. I have no specific experience with them, but all other things being equal, I'd buy from a vendor with good ratings.
Do be careful when ordering from a cut-rate retailer. I recommend keeping your order entirely online and straightforward. A number of the complaints I saw revolved around customer service or strong-arm sales tactics related to telephone interaction. Go through the product selection process carefully so you know exactly what you're ordering, and pay special attention to your cart before you commit to the purchase. Once it's done, make sure to save the Web page confirming your order details (Internet Explorer's Scrapbook feature is ideal for this task, as well as for saving research results before you purchase), and when confirmation or tracking email arrives, always save those messages for reference. If there are problems, you want as much documentation as possible.
All that said, I've had good luck so far, saving 20 to 30 percent on recent purchases compared to some high-profile Internet retailers.
Look for Deals -- When you're buying from well-known retailers, the price generally isn't the lowest, but there is another way you can save money. Many online stores offer special promotions via codes that you enter during checkout. It might be free shipping or 15 percent off or $10 off if you ordered more than $50. The retailers send these promotional codes out to specific customers as a marketing ploy, but the codes quickly become known if they're not somehow tied to a specific customer.
Just as with price comparisons, entire sites have grown up to collect and publish these promotional codes and other special deals. I'm fondest of dealnews (and the associated dealmac and dealram), since they have a good interface and come from the Mac world, but I've also found useful promotional codes at DailyEDeals.com, 3rdCurrency, eDealFinder, DealofDay.com, and USAcodes.com.
You can peruse these sites or sign up to their email newsletters if you want to be alerted to sales or special deals as they come up. Or you can just wait until you're actually in the process of purchasing something at a site like Amazon or Road Runner Sports and when you get to the page that asks for your promotional code, just open a new browser window and go looking. Even a simple Google search along the lines of "Amazon promotional code" can turn up something useful.
Thinking Out of the Net -- With a few items I was looking for, I just kept striking out on finding anything interesting or affordable. This was cause for some consternation until I eventually settled on two solutions. The first was to start searching on eBay, the massive auction site. Whether or not anyone will have what you're looking for on eBay is total hit or miss, but the sheer number and variety of items on eBay, plus the representation of older items means it's not uncommon someone will be selling what you want. Or more to the point, someone will be selling something you hadn't considered but that would be ideal.
Shopping on eBay requires the same level of careful attention and evaluation as on other sites, if not more. Read item descriptions carefully, examine pictures closely, and make sure you're buying from a reputable seller. Go into the auction with a set price above which you will not bid - the real problem with auctions is that you can get caught up in the thrill of bidding to win and end up paying far more than you planned or the item was worth. Many auctions are decided right at the end, so there's little point in bidding on an item you want until the last few minutes (give yourself at least 10 or 15 minutes, but be ready to increase your bid at the wire if necessary). If you win an auction, act quickly to make contact with the seller and arrange for payment and shipping. Having a PayPal or Billpoint account makes payment significantly easier than mailing checks around - I won't even bid on an item if the seller doesn't accept PayPal. Finally, I encourage both buyers and sellers to submit feedback about one another, since reputation ratings are important within the eBay community.
Of course, eBay isn't the only option if the usual Internet shopping approaches haven't panned out. My second solution to failing to find a product on the Internet was to call around to local stores, since it's entirely possible that one will have exactly what you want. I ran into this just recently, when Tonya and I wanted to replace our nasty 12-year-old metal file cabinets with something more functional, safer, and more attractive. I spent quite a bit of time searching on the Internet for nicely designed file cabinets but found only a few that looked even moderately acceptable. The next time I was out, though, I stopped by a local furniture store that carries Amish oak furniture in Mission style, and poof, there was the file cabinet we wanted. Now, you could say that I was probably foolish to have spent any time searching for a file cabinet online, and you may be right, but sometimes even very large items such as area rugs are well-represented online. Since many products are in databases that are hidden to search engines, sometimes the best approach is to look for the type of retailer you want in Yahoo's directory, then visit a few of the top stores to see if you stand a chance of finding what you want.
Consumer Confidence -- I can't pretend to know everything about online shopping, and I'm sure there are additional sites or strategies that work well. But the approach I've outlined here - doing solid research into the desired product, then looking carefully for the best retailer from whom to purchase has worked well for me this year. It is a bit time-consuming, but for me, the confidence in knowing that I've found exactly the right item at a low price makes up for the extra effort.