If you're like me, you like nice stuff, but hate paying full price.
How's that for a retail quandary? Thankfully, the Internet is an increasingly ideal marketplace for hard-to-please people that fit into that category.
It takes a small fraction of the time it would take to find a parking spot and muscle through crowds. Plus, it costs nothing in gas, and there's no hauling a heavy coat (and scarf, gloves and hat) around the mall. Best of all: Search engines do the work of finding the lowest prices for you.
That said, I'm a relatively recent Web-commerce inductee, having shunned now-defunct sites of the late 1990s like Kozmo.com. I now buy contact lenses, books, furniture, ski vacations, and prepaid long-distance calls online, with only a little trepidation and a few misgivings, which I will get to later.
There's a kind of "everybody's doing it" mentality that's made online shopping feel less like a high-risk roll of the dice. Last year, online sales reached $23.2 billion in the United States, up 25 percent from 2003, according to Nielsen NetRatings. This year, even more holiday spending is expected to shift to online.
"You see people with far more comfort level shopping online," said Heather Dougherty, a senior retail analyst with Nielsen/NetRatings. People have tested the waters and realized it usually works, she said.
Still, it requires a leap of faith. There's no testing or fondling of products beforehand. There's no instant gratification. And there is a risk that credit card information might leak into the wrong hands. Most sites advertise their security, but hackers are always trying to find a hole.
Having had my wallet stolen out of my purse three Christmas Eves ago, I feel like I'm at no greater risk for online theft than in person. If I were wiser, I would also protect myself against online fraud by using services like ePassporte or other virtual credit cards with prepaid credit or surrogate numbers that mask credit card numbers.
Instead, I just hover over the "buy now" icon before clicking on it, because it still feels a little creepy to fork my credit card information over to sites I've never heard of. I also suffer more prosaic worries: What if it's broken? What if it's not what I ordered? Then I'd be out shipping costs, return postage, and the time it takes to call customer service or stand in line to mail the thing back. For the bigger purchases -- over $100, let's say -- the process can be a little nerve-wracking.
Take my recent quest for a Cuisinart food processor, for example, which I decided I need to make cranberry relish.
I went to Bloomingdales.com because I figured it would have pretty pictures and a list of up-to-date models. Who knew a food processor could cost $350? For cranberry relish?! On the other hand, the 14-cup brushed chrome one looked so good, and it was marked down to $199.
I was tempted to pull the trigger, but I knew from searching Shopping.com, a price-comparison site, that the same thing was available elsewhere for as little as $153, not including shipping fees. One listed at $155 at Compuplus.com looked especially promising, but who's heard of Comp-U-Plus?
In a fit of self-doubt, I instant-messaged my friend Christopher to see whether he thought it was sketchy. His reply: "Why not? I'm a big fan of giving online retailers one opportunity to commit identity theft."
Hmmm. Not exactly the vote of confidence I hoped for.
This was the trade-off: If Bloomingdales.com somehow botched my order, at least I could march into an actual store with my grievance. There's no face-to-face customer service with Comp-U-Plus, just a toll-free number. On the other hand, did I want to pay an extra $50 to cover Bloomies' rent?
I slept on it, and after a little more hand-wringing, I decided to go with Comp-U-Plus. I'd successfully procured Chanel perfume from another site I'd never heard of, so why not try another?
Comp-U-Plus asked for things like the last four digits of my Social Security number and my mother's maiden name. I felt safe. I transacted. And then I got an e-mail from "Susan" in Comp-U-Plus customer service, who informed me that the company won't leave a package at my door; someone must sign for it.
I remember that's a bummer about online shopping: Delivery systems haven't learned to accommodate the working woman's schedule.
All in all, though, comparison shopping has gotten big for a reason. It works, most of the time, and because the Internet allows consumers to post reviews, it's a well-policed marketplace.
And it doesn't take much sophistication to learn a few basic tricks. Most of this involves the art of comparison shopping.
Last year, for example, I bought a digital camera from PriceGrabber.com, after my friend Julie had bought the camera I wanted at full price from the store. I typed in the brand and model number, and up came a list of prices and Web sites selling the same camera, for roughly $100 less.
I've since come across several similar comparison sites, like Shopzilla.com, Google's Froogle, and Yahoo Shopping, which perform such bargain-hunting services. In fact, there are dizzying arrays of options on the Web for nearly every product imaginable. In the process of looking for boutique dog collars, for example, I ran into sites called Pamperedpuppy.com, Thepamperedpup.com, and Classypets.com, as well as a link to an eBay auction for a light-blue Coach leather collar, a different kind of online shopping experience.
Good stuff ends up on the Internet at low prices because it's an efficient way to get rid of excess inventory. That's the idea behind Overstock.com, which a Washington Post colleague introduced me to long before they started airing prime-time television ads.
Overstock freed me of my least favorite shopping errand: looking for and carting home furniture. I bought an area rug, a console table, two floor lamps, and two bedside tables from the site. It's hard to get a good sense of whether it might match the sofa based on the photos, but my satisfaction with all of the items was passable to good. Best of all, shipping on all those heavy items ranged from free to $2.95, which, for me, sufficiently offset the financial risk of buying online.
Without the deal on shipping, online shopping is far less of a deal. Online retailers seems to be savvy about that, too. Amazon.com, for example, tags some of its items so that if your total purchase exceeds $25, shipping is free -- saving about $6 on a $25 shipment of books.
To be fair, though, there are some things that aren't socially gratifying or attractive about the online shopping experience.
Christopher recently considered buying a gift card from Apple's iTunes for his friend's birthday, but then rejected the idea because all-digital gift giving lacked the personal touch. "Let's see: I can buy it online, e-mail it to him, and he can purchase the music all without us interacting at all," he said. The digital medium can make you yearn for the bad wrapping job and the pleasure of someone ripping into a package.
For me, the bigger hang-up is having my friends or family members discover that I comparison-shopped for their gift. Sure, it's the thought that counts, but who wants to know their present came off the virtual clearance rack, right?
I realized that a few months ago when shopping online for a pair of Birkenstock sandals for a friend's birthday. I thought about having it sent directly, which would have saved me some time and money. But I couldn't do it. I pictured him getting the box and noting that it came from a discount site. He's not the type to care -- he's frugal and poor like me -- but I discovered that I cared.
So I repackaged it and handed to him in person.