As yet another holiday season approaches, many of us are wondering how to ease our shopping burden so that November and December weekends aren't entirely owned by the local mall. I have not only Christmas to worry about, but also no less than four major birthdays and one anniversary all coming up in December and January. What to do?

Forget catalogues or TV shopping channels: The point of bypassing the retail system is to save time and hopefully some money, and the best way to manage that trick today is to shop online.

To many people, that's not exactly news. But not everybody has gotten the news. How can Internet shopping still seem like such a mystic art if everything about it is so convenient? The answer is simple: lack of education among consumers and outdated fears about the security of financial transactions on the Web. A large (but shrinking) segment of the buying population has never shopped online before, doesn't know how to go about it and is afraid to try for fear of getting burned.

But it takes only four steps to get the hang of it all. Step one is to get on the Web and find the merchant's Web site. That's the easy part; the increasing deluge of dot-com ads on TV and in print means it's hard to avoid having 10 new Web-shopping addresses beamed into your head every day. Step two is to shop like anywhere else: Browse the shelves until the right product is found, or type the name of the product into a search field. (You're often better off browsing than searching; we've seen way too many online stores' search engines fail to find anything at all.) Third, once you've selected a product, toss it into a virtual shopping cart, typically by clicking on an icon that conveniently says "add item to shopping cart." The last step is to hit the "proceed to checkout" icon, where shoppers are asked to enter billing address, shipping address, preferred shipping method (FedEx, UPS, etc.) and their credit-card information. A few days later, the product arrives in your mailbox, courtesy of the Post Office, FedEx or whoever. That's all there is to it.

What still bothers some consumers about this process is the part about sending credit-card information over the Internet. There's no human hand to give you back a paper receipt, no human voice to confirm your order and no way to know that somebody hasn't snooped on the entire transaction. That's the perception, at least. The reality is, the Web is in general a safer place to shop than the physical world, since all reputable merchants encrypt the financial data that passes between your computer and their sites--other people online might try to eavesdrop, but they will "hear" only the equivalent of static. There's no such protection if you place an order on a cordless phone or hand over your plastic to a waiter in a restaurant. And when's the last time somebody had to decode your wallet after lifting it?

Even if criminals somehow gained access to your data, losing credit-card information on the Web is no different from having a physical card stolen or lost in real life. When your next bill comes in, just inform the bank of those purchases that aren't yours and keep track of where you used the card online. You won't be held responsible for purchases made by criminals.

Many vendors are trying to add an extra level of convenience and security by inviting you to store your data one time on their site, after which it's locked away on a secure server and available to you only when you log in with your own password. Amazon.com, for example, allows users who register in this way to click once on any product and proceed through checkout with just one further click. If your address or credit-card number changes, you simply update your account with the new info. Microsoft just launched a similar service, Passport which stores your info for use at a few online stores.

As this emphasis on saving a few seconds at checkout time shows, Web buying tends to be about saving time first, then money. It's quite possible to spend more to buy something online--pay attention to shipping costs, and remember that next-day anything gets expensive. If you wait until too long to do your holiday shopping, you might find that the cheapest tactic will be none other than the nearest mall.