CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published Monday, December 11, 2000

Online Xmas Shopping Tips

"Are you ready for the holidays?" This is the pat question around the water cooler these days. Although Indian corn and pumpkins still adorn my household, most of my shopping needs have been fulfilled online. For the last three years I've shopped e-commerce sites during the Christmas season and this year has proved to the best yet. Many of the bugs from previous years have been worked out as consumers are expected to spend $12 billion online this holiday season. There are still some basic guidelines to follow, however, to insure a successful online shopping spree.

Shop with reputable e-tailers that have a good track record. Amazon.com and eToys.com are both examples of seasoned online sites that score high in consumer confidence. To find a trustworthy shopping site, first visit Gomez.com, an Internet service that rates e-commerce sites in such areas as ease of use, customer confidence, and product selection.

Shopping an online site with bricks-and-mortar backing makes good sense, but don't assume it's a reliable e-tailer exclusively for this reason. Traditional retailers have been slower in developing their e-commerce counterparts and may not have as much experience as the true dot coms. For example, in July 2000 Macys.com settled a large suit with the Federal Trade Commission and paid civil penalties concerning holiday shipping delays during the 1999 Christmas season.

Before buying online or even at a storefront, ConsumerAffairs.com is an excellent site for researching a retail operation. Its list of "Good Guys" and "Rogues" proves to be interesting reading. I've had good luck with traditional catalog companies, who are veterans at shipping and returns. I ordered online directly from the Lillian Vernon catalog that came in the mail and received my order via UPS within 5 days.

I did break my own rules, however, this year when buying the popular Nomination Italian charm bracelet from a relatively unknown site, BellaCharm.com, but I wasn't disappointed. This clever, interactive site lets you build your own bracelet by selecting from over 400 unique charms that snap into stainless steel links. The bracelet was delivered in an appropriate blue velvet bag within 10 days and followed up with a thank-you note by e-mail.

Always checkout the return policies before you buy online. Insure that you will receive full monetary credit, not store credit, if your purchase turns out to be unsatisfactory. If the online site has a storefront counterpart, such as Nordstrom's or Eddie Bauer, verify that your gifts can be returned at the mall.

Return and exchange policies should be easily identifiable from the home page. Nordstrom.com, for example, offers free return shipping if you purchase with your Nordstrom credit card, otherwise $3.95 is deducted from the refund for shipping costs. You can return any online purchase for exchange to a Nordstrom store to avoid shipping expenses.

Before you give out your credit card information online, be sure you are in a secure area of the website. You can recognize this by the lock icon displayed in the status bar area of your web browser. A secure site prevents unauthorized people from seeing the information that is sent to or from those sites.

Never send your credit card information in an e-mail message. It is also not required that you supply the online shopping sites with more information than necessary. Often sites will try and gather information about demographics and buying habits for future target marketing. Look for the asterisks in the online form areas, indicating only the required information fields.

Yahoo! Internet Life magazine has published a thorough E-Shopping Guide as a bonus holiday issue. It features last minute gift ideas, best and worst net shopping and useful buying services. It's for sale at the newsstand or can be read it online at www.yil.com.

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.

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