What Do I Need?
Where Do I Find a Store?
How Do I Find a Product?
How do I get Help?
How Do I Order?
When will I get my Package?
What about Returns?
Where Can I Go to Solve Problems?
Can I save time shopping
Well, what does take time when I shop online?
Can I save money when I shop on the Web?
Can I find neat stuff online?
Can I learn enough about the product I want to buy?
Can I avoid human contact?
Is some stuff free?
Can I just research products online, and then go to a local store?
How private is the information I provide to an online store?
Can I save time
Youll save tons of time when you shop online.
You do not have to drive to the mall, park, hike inland for a mile or so, buy
stuff, hike back, and drive home.
You can shop whenever you want. These stores are always open. If you get an urge
to book a trip at 2 A.M., you can work out all the details, and have tickets coming your
way even though all real travel agents are asleep.
The minute you enter an online store, you can find what you want a lot faster
than you can going from department to department in a big mall store.
Purchases that involve purely electronic transactions can be completed in a few
seconds (or minutes, on a very busy day). For instance, several online stock-brokers
promise that trades will be completed within ten seconds. If you reserve a car, flight, or
hotel via the Web, you get confirmation in less than a minute.
Youll save even more time if you use our book. We steer you past the biggest
time-wasters for Web shoppers, such as:
Web sites that pretend to be stores but are just brochures advertising a retail
store or mail-order company. These sites may offer online catalogs, but they force you to
call their offices to buy anything, or, worse, urge you to come on down to the mall
outside a city 2,000 miles from your home.
Web sites that look like stores but are actually just the owners opinions.
For instance, if you go to a site that sounds as if it might sell CDs, you may discover
what someone thinks of a new band, period.
Web sites that are lists of other Web sites. Most of these lists include every
site that has anything to do with the topic, including university courses, personal pages,
magazines, newsgroups, and, oh, some stores. Depending on the dedication of the list
maker, these links may be 5% to 20% broken. The best-maintained lists include a wide range
of sites, from information hoards to online stores, without extensive evaluation of the
real worth of the sites, and with descriptions that are often a bit vague, leaving one
unsure whether or not a particular site actually sells stuff.
Graphics-heavy sites that take forever to download.
Amateur and back-alley sites that try to sell you their products without using a
Well, what does take time when I
Starting your computer, getting connected to the Web, and deciding where to go to shop:
these take more time than they should, particularly if you are using an older computer and
regular phone lines. Other ways you might spend more time than you expected:
You may get distracted by all the neat products. If you are browsing rather than
looking for one particular item, you can enjoy yourself for quite a while, learning about
a product category, considering various products, comparing prices. Oddly, most people do
not notice time passing when they are doing this kind of research, so you may easily pass
half an hour or more at a giant store, amusing yourself, downloading free software,
playing this or that tune. Strictly speaking, this takes time. But because its fun
(and informative), most people dont object.
Filling in a stores registration or order form for the first time may
involve typing your name and address into little slots, which can take a few minutes if
you are a hunt-and-peck keyboarder.
When you buy a physical item such as a book, CD, or computer, you do have to
wait a day or two for delivery, or a week if you decide to save money on shipping. But for
many people, getting a book or CD within a day or two is good enough, and not having to
take an hour or so to go to a physical store is the real time-saver.
Can I save money when I shop on
Yes, even though you pay for shipping, you can generally save a lot online, compared to
what you might have to spend in a retail store built out of steel, glass, and concrete
Every online store can offer better prices than their physical cousins, because each
online sale carries less overhead. Even if the company has retail outlets, an online sale
does not carry the burden of expenses that must be charged to retail sales.
An online store has:
No rent, air-conditioning, heating, or janitorial services for a retail showroom
No salesclerks out on the floor
No paper catalog, no postage
In fact, some online stores have no warehouses, either. Of course, like a retail
operation, an online store has to pay someone to maintain a database with their current
And unlike their physical counterparts, the online store has to hire programmers to
enable credit card verification and purchases over the Web, Web designers to make the site
easy to visit, and content experts to post descriptions of all the products. Those hires
cost major bucks, but if the store reaches a certain volume, a small profit margin can
cover all those Web-related expenses.
A few stores dont even make a profit on each sale. They offer huge discounts,
basically selling at whatever they paid for a product, hoping to make money on banner ads
or links to partner sites. Are these store owners crazy? In Silicon Valley, theyre
considered brilliant pioneers.
For some kinds of products, such as CDs and books, youll find a few stores
competing primarily on price, so discounts drop even more, and in the shops that get the
biggest discounts (because they buy the most), you may even end up paying less than small
retail shop owners usually pay their wholesalers.
Can I find neat stuff online?
In fact, if your experience is like ours, you will be amazed how many strange and
wonderful products other people have been buying for years. Suddenly you see how
incredibly specialized some products have become, and how many twists and turns there are
in customization and service, because the Web merchants are trying to outdo each other.
Can I learn enough about the
product I want to buy?
The amount of information you get on each product varies enormously from site to site,
but if you go to stores we recommend for their product descriptions, you will learn a lot,
probably more than you could pick up walking around and talking with salespeople in a
Instead of dealing with a clerk who hardly knows what products lie under the glass
countertop, you get a product description that often includes a list of specific features
and benefits, system requirements, optional add-on products, and possibly reviews by
critics and other customers. Not every online store piles on the info like this, but the
best ones do.
And the rest of the Web acts as a giant clearinghouse for reviews, surveys, gossip, and
research, so if you are new to a product arena, you can learn from the stores and these
other Web sites what kind of products are available, what differentiates the good from the
mediocre, and what features you might really want. Online shoppers, in general, are better
informed than their mail-order cousins or mall denizens.
After you buy a product, you may be able to get a little (only a little) phone support
from the store, mostly about assembling or installing. But for real technical support you
have to call the manufacturer.
Can I avoid human contact?
Some people tell us that anonymity is a major attraction of shopping online.
You dont have to push past slowpokes in the crowded aisles; you dont have
to wait for a salesclerk to finish slurping a soda; you dont have to suffer
embarrassment as you buy intimate apparel or health products.
On the other hand, people build these sites, and you can definitely tell which
site-builders are friendly and which ones just dont care what you think.
Even though you are looking at the store through the screen of a computer, you get a
feeling for these people behind the site. And naturally, youre going to gravitate
toward the sites that seem to understand what you want to do, how you feel, and what
questions you might ask.
You dont have to wait while they change the cash register tape, or finish
planning dinner on the phone; but you still get a sense of their attitudes, which range
from "We always put our own convenience first," to "We have worked like
heck to make this site easy for you."
Is some stuff free?
Yes, but the amount and quality vary from one product category to another.
If you are shopping for a CD, for instance, you can often download parts of songs and
listen to them for free. (Even after you leave the site, you can listen to the snippets or
tracks again, because they are sitting on your hard disk.) Ditto for clips of video.
Also, you can download freeware (software and fonts you dont have to pay for),
shareware (software you can try out, but should pay for if you decide to use it on a
regular basis), and demo programs. For a vast collection of shareware and freeware, see
Ziff-Daviss library, at http://www.hotfiles.com
or http://www.zdnet.com/ swlib/
Also free, or almost so, are tons of information you used to have to pay for. For
instance, in the past if you wanted to get a stock quote, you phoned your broker, who
charged you an annual fee for your account, plus a commission on each trade. Now you can
get 20-minutes-old quotes free from any online broker, and many also offer real-time
quotes for free. Similarly, the information that brokerages developed (and charged high
rates for) is now available in part for free, and in part for a few bucks per report. In
the past you could also get rates and fares directly from individual airlines, hotel
chains, and car rental companies, but you had to go to a travel agent to get detailed
comparisons of the offerings of all the companies. Now you get those comparisons for free
online, and the online agencies will make your reservations pronto, also for free, or for
a small "membership" fee.
Can I just research products
online, and then go to a local store?
Sure. In fact, more people use the Web for research than for purchases.
There are some real benefits to buying locally. You have a person you can talk to if
you have a complaint; you can touch and feel and smell the merchandise; you can have a
café latte while you are resting after carrying your purchases down the escalator.
One downside to learning about products on the Web, then going to your local retailer
or mall, is that, even though you have discovered the perfect product online, your local
store may not carry that particular item, manufacturer, or type of product. The store may
have something that is a little better and a little more expensive, and several that are
cheaper or worse.
Instead of using the Web to locate the "perfect" product, use the online
information to develop a set of criteria that really matter to you. "My new cell
phone must be 900 MHz, but I dont care about any calling area outside of my city,
and I do not need voice mail, just a phone number to call back, and . . ." That way
you can see if your local stores product (whatever the vendor, whatever other
features it has) actually meets your criteria.
How private is the information I
provide to an online store?
Your credit card information is safer online, within a secure shopping area, than it is
when you give your card to a waiter at a restaurant or a clerk at a gas station. Far more
credit card fraud stems from stolen paper receipts than from hackers intercepting
transmissions to and from a secure shopping site.
But the real question is: What will the store do with your email address and street
address? Will the store sell that to other companies, so you end up getting junk email and
Recently, the Federal Trade Commission at http://www.ftc.gov/
found that 86% of online stores provided no information about how they would use this kind
of demographic data. Reasonably enough, many customers at these stores have refused to
provide such information at one time or another, and 40% have occasionally provided fake
information, which often results in the credit card companies rejecting the request to
charge a purchase. Eighty percent of Web users said they wouldnt object if the
stores would just issue a statement promising not to resell the personal data.
Many of the stores we like do provide what they call a Privacy Statement inside their
Customer Service area, the Frequently Asked Questions, or Help. Most of these statements
say that they will only use the information in the aggregate, to spot trends, and they
will only send you email about specials if you click a button indicating that you would
like to receive these messages (permission email). And most swear they will not pass along
the data to another company.
But you may not see these policies, because you have to poke around a bit to find them.
Best is when a store puts their promise not to divulge the information on the very form in
which they are asking for the data.
We think the situation is improving, particularly in the best stores. But if you have
any qualms, look for that privacy statement, and if you dont find it, or you find it
and dont like it, just exit. There are plenty of stores that really care about
privacy, so you dont have to settle for one that seems indifferent to your concerns.