Online buying continues to snowball, according to the results of a recent America Online survey. This year, for the first time, Americans who regularly use the Internet for shopping -- researching or buying products at least once a month -- will do more shopping online than at shopping malls and stores, from catalogues and by phone, the survey found.
Fifty-three percent of those polled, AOL reports, said they planned to spend more than half their holiday budget shopping online. Make that 58 percent in the Washington area, where the regular online shoppers are expected to buy an average of 11 gifts while sitting in the festive glow of their computer screens. AOL doesn't know how many online shoppers can be considered this devoted, but the retail research firm NPD Group says that before the last strains of "Auld Lang Syne" this New Year, more than 40 percent of all Americans will have shopped the e-biz aisles at least once in 2004 and spent almost $145 billion online.
"It is increasing by leaps and bounds," says Hillary Mendelsohn, a dedicated online shopper and author of "thepurplebook: the definitive guide to exceptional online shopping -- 2005 edition."
Yet fear of getting ripped off still makes many shoppers uneasy about online purchasing. There's all that commotion about e-Grinchy identity theft. Clicking the "submit" icon when ordering and then realizing your credit card number has flitted off into Never-Never Land may feel a little like the adrenaline jolt that comes the moment you first think your wallet's missing.
With less than two weeks of holiday shopping to go, however, now is the time to place online orders and avoid expensive, last-minute shipping costs. So here are some timely chestnuts on how to shop smarter and safer online:
Where to shop? Common sense says buy from established online retailers and Internet offspring of brick-and-mortar companies you trust. But a growing number of shopper sites -- such as Yahoo! Shopping, BizRate, AOL's inStore, Froogle, Shopzilla, Cairo.com and Shopping.com -- assist consumers in comparison shopping. They not only search online retailers for good deals but rate the sellers for dependability, service, customer care, etc. Consumers can search shopping sites by specific products or browse categories of products, and even filter by price range, brand names, manufacturers and other specs.
Stick with online stores that give at least one telephone number, maybe even a physical address -- and not just an e-mail contact. Some experts suggest calling the number before ordering. "Make sure that you'll have multiple ways to touch base with the company," says Jack Freker, president of the Customer Management Group at Convergys, a leading customer-care service company providing call centers and similar services to major corporations.
When in doubt, a good idea is to check online for complaints against a retailer. It can be as simple as Googling the online store's name and the word "complaint."
Check the site's shipping calendar of drop-dead order dates for guaranteed on-time holiday deliveries. Author Mendelsohn says Web sites differ, but generally regular-delivery orders must be made by Dec. 20 and express orders by Dec. 23 to arrive by Christmas. "One of my big peeves is that some of them offer overnight shipping but in the fine print say they have a 24- or 48-hour processing time," she says. "When it's three days late, you're wondering where it is."
Check the return policies. While online retailers tend to be more lenient about returned items, "some merchants set a deadline for returns or charge a fee to accept returned merchandise," warns the Visa USA and Better Business Bureau guidelines.
When going from browsing products to the Web page where you actually order things, submitting credit card data and personal info, make sure it's a secure site. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the Identity Theft Resource Center's online shopping guide says indicators that such pages are secure include a padlock icon on the browser's status bar, an unbroken key icon, or a URL for the Web site that begins "https" (the "s" stands for "secure") when you make an order. E-mail is not secure.
Document all online purchases by printing and saving a copy of the order page -- before you click the "submit" icon. "Once you press that button, more often than not, you just get a confirmation code," says Mendelsohn, who also prints the confirmation page and any other correspondences with the company.
Use one credit card exclusively for online purchases so fraudulent or unauthorized charges are easier to monitor. And never use your bank account debit card. It lacks protections credit cards provide, such as limited liability for losses.
When precautions are taken, shopping online is about as good as shopping gets, says Mendelsohn. It's the luxury of "being able to shop in your pajamas at 12 o'clock at night while everyone else is sleeping and have the world at your feet," she says. "You become the most creative gift giver."
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.