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ShopTalk Discoveries Updates Ideas FAQ Tools Books PR Communication Circle


Shopping on America Online
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shopbag.gif (1200 bytes)    Shopping on America Online

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With 18 million members, America Online is the biggest portal to the online world, so naturally AOL has been busy over the years setting up virtual stores within its site.

And lots of those online shops also have a Web presence, so you can shop at most of them even if you are not an AOL member.

But visiting the stores as a member under AOL’s roof, or linking from AOL’s own Web site, at has some distinct advantages.

  •  AOL certifies its merchants, awarding them an icon as a guarantee that if the store itself doesn’t give you satisfaction resolving a problem, you can turn to AOL"s own Customer Service Help Desk, writing an email to screen name ShopHelp. (If you’re not a member, you write to If the merchant doesn’t comply with its stated return policy, AOL undertakes to provide you a refund for the full purchase price. You can figure that if AOL calls, most stores are going to listen. Also, if there is even a whiff of credit card fraud, AOL promises to pay the $50 not covered by your credit card company. (They claim that there has been no problem since they first issued this guarantee, a few years ago, so they are a lot safer than your local mall).
  •  Quick Gifts. AOL has brought together a few dozen merchants who promise to ship gifts out within 24 hours of your order, or sooner. For instance, 911Gifts says that if you order online by 8 PM Eastern Time, they will ship the package out that day. Because so many online stores waste time picking and packing your order, these special departments (within larger stores) are just what you may need if you have postponed shopping for that special person until, well, the last day.

And If You're a Member...

To encourage folks to become members, AOL also offers additional incentives if you sign on, go to their Shopping channel, and start exploring.

When you dig down into a category, you may reach a page on which AOL offers links to stores out on the Web, as well as ones within its own world. How can you tell the difference?

You know you are at a store within AOL if the screen itself is small, like all the other AOL screens (no scrolling!), and at the bottom of the first page you see a note advertising the store’s AOL keyword. That’s important, because AOL offers these advantages for keeping your shopping cart under their roof:

  • You earn points for every purchase at one of the stores within AOL’s realm (not at their public Web site, alas), and you sometimes get points just for answering silly questions. Registering at some merchants’ sites is enough to earn you points. These AOL Rewards can then be cashed in for free months of AOL, travel discounts, and some merchandise. To encourage you to rack up the points, AOL even lets you click for your Point Balance after you sign in, and go to their Shopping Channel.
  • When you are using stores set up under the AOL roof, you can go from one AOL store to another, buying stuff at each one, without having to re-enter your address and credit card info. It’s as if you were at a mall, and as you left one store, it alerted all the others that you were coming. Of course, this only works when you are shopping within AOL itself, because the info is being captured on their server, waiting for you to finish shopping.
  • AOL Shop Direct skims the best, or at least, the best-selling products from all its member stores, and brings them together under the keyword AOL Shop Direct. Categories include hardware, software, books, gifts, and AOL logo products—with ten or so items in each area. These are generally very good deals.
  • NetMarket, AOL’s discount warehouse, collects all the latest bargains. You have to become a member of NetMarket, but if you shop for bargains in consumer electronics, you’ll soon earn back the fee.

These advantages make shopping within AOL pretty easy.

The biggest problem is that AOL only hosts a few dozen stores, compared with the hundred-plus it links to. Selection is not as extensive inside AOL. But if security is important to you, and you like popular items, definitely become a member, and shop inside AOL.

If You're Not a Member...

If you don’t want to join AOL, but would still like the reassurance of an AOL guarantee, go to and use that to link to a lot of wonderful stores. The Web site’s shopping departments are organized in the same way as the ones inside AOL’s doors, with a teaser page featuring specials, and links to the stores.

Late news: AOL tells us that it is working on a new look, with the name You don’t have to wait, though, because the current interface works well, and looks good.


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