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Frequently Asked Questions

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What Do I Need?

What Stores?

Where Do I Find a Store?

How Do I Find a Product?

Why Register?

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?

How Do I Find a Product in the Online Shop?

Why are some brands available at a store, but not others?
Why doesn't this store offer a paper catalog?
Why does the store offer all these lists of product categories, anyway?
What lies behind the store's search mechanism?
How can I search for a product if I don't know a brand name?
So what kind of searches do stores offer?
I got too many results.  How can I narrow down my search?
I got no results from my search, but I am sure they have this product.  How can I have better luck locating it?

What if I completely fail to discover the product using the search?
Once I find a product at a store, how much will I be able to learn about the product?
How can the store offer these discounts?

Why are some brands available at a store, but not others?

Most likely, the store has negotiated to be an authorized reseller only for certain manufacturers.

Or the store has an arrangement with a wholesaler who supplies products only from those manufacturers, at least in that product category.

How come?

Perhaps the store is concentrating on some other product category, and just puts up products with these brand names, as a gesture, to suggest that the store has a wider range of products than it really does.

Or maybe the owner believes that these brands offer the best products for customers, considering quality, availability, or price.

If you want a particular brand, you could go directly to the manufacturer’s site. But, depending on what products they sell, you may find that the manufacturer’s prices are far above those in the stores (to make their dealers look good), or the manufacturer may just refuse to sell on the Web, in order not to undermine relationships with dealers and resellers.

Best to go to another store in the product category, and try there. (In our chapter about the product category, skim the list of sample products to see if you spot the brand you want.)

Why doesn't this store offer a paper catalog?

Sometimes a store does offer a paper catalog. But companies who created their stores just for the Internet may never have published a catalog, and they may refuse to print one because a) it is so expensive and b) it is really a different business and c) they like trees, and resolutely limit their use of paper.

Companies that began life as mail-order catalogs still offer you a chance to get on their mailing list.

And so do some retail stores who have sent out catalogs for years.

And a few companies put the equivalent of a paper catalog up on their site, so you can download it and read or print it using Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft Word. Interesting ploy: they shift the printing cost to you.

Why does the store offer all these lists of product categories, anyway?

The lists should help you find a product by category when you don’t have a particular product name, brand, or phrase to enter in a search box.

These lists resemble a table of contents in a book, where you turn to a chapter that seems to cover what you want, then look at the headings to find one that seems most relevant. Searches are more like using the index.

Most sites offer a list of product categories on the welcome page. You click a category, such as telephones, and get a list of subcategories, such as 2.4 GHz cell phones, 900 MHz cell phones, 25-channel cell phones, old-fashioned analog phones, pagers, beepers, and phones for the hearing impaired.

When you spot a subcategory you like, you click that and get, perhaps, a list of brands.

You are drilling down, down, down into the store’s inventory. Eventually, when you click a sub-, sub-, sub-category, you get to a list of actual products, and when you click one of those, you arrive, at last, at a description of a particular product.

This hierarchy may be well designed or not. Bad designs force you to click, click, click, going down as many as ten levels to get to a particular product. Good designs put a lot of choices right at the top, so you don’t have to go down so many staircases.

Crummy designers think of their approach as logical, because they start with only one or two categories, and divide those up gradually, the way we were supposed to do outlining in school. The result is just as tedious as making an outline. Their hierarchy starts out very narrow and gets much, much deeper.

Good design, on the other hand, starts with a wide horizon at the top, with dozens or even a hundred categories spread out across the page, with shallow information under each category. That’s faster, because you don’t have to dig as deep.

Looking through categories in this way is sometimes called browsing, to distinguish the process from looking something up in the database directly, which is called searching.

What lies behind the store's search mechanism?

A database with a record for each product usually lies behind the search.

In the database, each record has a bunch of fields, like the columns in a table, for information such as the product name, price, manufacturer, description, and image. Like a shoe box full of index cards, the database keeps track of all the information on the store’s inventory, but because the database is electronic, it can look through all those records very quickly and come back to you with an onscreen report showing all the records that contain whatever word you typed into the search box.

Most people couldn’t care less what lies behind the search box. But if you personally are curious about the way these work, consider three kinds of database, which run the vast majority of these searches.

• The small sites may have what’s called a flat-file database, which is like your address book. Every record has the same slots to fill in, like a form. There is only one file, and, usually, that file does not contain many records.

• Bigger sites use a relational database, which has different tables for different information. So there’s a table for product descriptions, and another for the manufacturers’ addresses. The information from each table is put together on the fly and served up to you on the screen as a single page, or part of a page. The advantage to the company is that they have to update information such as the company address only once, because it lives in only one table. (By contrast, in a flat file, you have to put the company address on every record that refers to one of their products, meaning that if you want to update that information everywhere, you have to go to every relevant record, erase the old address, and type in the new one, or something like that.) The relational advantage is that with a lot of products you get quick responses.

• Fanciest of these databases are transaction systems, created to accept, record, and report on transactions— actual purchases—so quickly that the data is recorded almost instantaneously (laughingly called "real time"). Examples include airline reservation systems and online stockbroker systems. When you say where you want to go, on what day and time, the airline system paws through hundreds of thousands of flights to come up with the closest matches, usually in less than a minute. Try doing that with index cards in a shoe box!

How can I search for a product if I don't know a brand name?

Use a unique keyword.

Keywords are very important words—that is, words that most people would associate with this particular product. These words act as keys to the database, opening it up to show you a particular product, or a set of products, all of which are associated with that idea.

You can type in a keyword you think describes the product you are looking for, and the database comes back with a bunch of products that the store staff has described with that word. For instance, for a frying pan, the store folks might decide that keywords include pan, frying, cooking, fry, fries, stovetop, cast iron, the manufacturer’s name, steak, hash browns, omelets, scrambled eggs, pancakes, and griddle cakes. That way, if you type in pancakes, you get a list of products, one of which is the frying pan, because in the Keyword field on its record, the word pancakes appears.

To limit the number of products you turn up, think of a keyword that applies to your kind of product but no other. For instance, pancakes will bring up frying pans, skillets, and warmers, but not steamer baskets, microwave ovens, and ice-cream makers. Not too bad, in a big database.

Of course, you may think of a word that is so unusual that the store staff didn’t think of it either when they entered keywords for the product. Time to back off, and enter a more general term, such as pan.

So what kind of searches do stores offer?

The sophistication of searches varies from store to store.

• Simple stores offer simple searches by keywords such as the product name, the manufacturer, or, least helpful, their own number for the product (as if you had any idea what that might be). You type in one word or one phrase, and you get whatever products have that text in their descriptions.

• Bigger stores have so many products that they let you ignore whole bunches of them, narrowing your search down. Instead of asking the system to search through every field on every record for "ball," you can use the advanced search, and point out that this word should show up only in the title of a book, and that this word is not an author or publisher. Or, in a CD store, you can specify the type of music, and specify that the word you type in is part of a title, not the name of an artist, a group, or a label. Tips like these help the database ignore the other fields, and just look in the Title field, which speeds up the search enormously.

Advanced searches let you specify what field to look in, and whether or not a word or phrase MUST appear there, while another word or phrase CANNOT appear, and so on. From the designer’s point of view, these constraints let the system filter out irrelevant information, resulting in a faster search and a more focused report. In a variation of this advanced search, you go to a department and, once there, you can search for items within that department. Good aspect: Because no other department’s records are examined, the search goes faster. Downside: You won’t discover a product that happens to belong to a different department. For instance, if you go to the Electronics department looking for a hair dryer, the search may come up empty, because the store figures that a hair dryer belongs in the Personal Care department.

The best databases offer many different ways you can limit your search, telling the database what field to look in, what text to insist on, and what to ignore.

Of course, creating a database that has all those fields takes more work than a simple product list. But, when shopping online, you can judge a store by its search.

I got too many results.  How can I narrow down my search?

First look for an advanced search.

The best stores advertise their more sophisticated search mechanisms, but mediocre stores, for some reason, hide this functionality or don’t even offer it.

Advanced searches let you say things like "Find me books about Washington, but not the president, the county, or the state" or "The book I am after must have the word Architecture in the title, and Addison-Wesley as the publisher, and publication date after 1997."

No advanced search? Then get more specific.

The challenge you face is that each store’s database acts a little differently, so what forces one database to be more precise may result in another database widening its arms to include 20,000 records or more.

If you tried just one word from the CD title, type in the whole title of the CD, or the entire name of the product. If the database is the kind that imagines an and between each word you type, it interprets what you type as "To qualify, a record must have this word AND that word AND the next word, all of them." If the database thinks this way, you will get records only for that particular CD.

Unfortunately, this approach may simply get you more results than before, if the database interprets your criteria as meaning, "Find me any products whose records include any of these words." That’s OR-ing.

In other words, the database imagines you have put the word or between every word you typed, and it has surfaced any products whose records include this word OR that word OR the other.

OK, if that seems to have happened, you must get tough. Put quotes around your whole phrase. Some databases understand that to mean that the whole phrase must appear in a record before it qualifies to appear in the report you see on the screen.

And finally, if that fails, go back to a single word. But make that word the most unusual, the most relevant to the product. Non-technical note: to improve database performance, consider prayer.

I got no results from my search, but I am sure they have this product.  How can I have better luck locating it?

If the database comes back to you with some lame expression like "No matches were found," you may be tempted to say that you weren’t looking for a box of matches. But the database is just being stupid.

To help it find a record you are positive is there, try the following:

• If you are entering the name of a singer, author, or artist, try the complete name forward and backward: Jonathan Price, or Price, Jonathan, with and then without a middle name. (Some databases drop middle names, others know about them; some databases think of last name, first name, while others expect the name to be complete, and in order, a combination of first-name-and-last-name-all-in-one.)

• To cast a wider net, use a more general term. If you tried Hunan for a cookbook, try Chinese instead.

• Remember that some human being had to look at the product and come up with keywords describing it. Think of a busy person who doesn’t care very much about this product. Think of someone who puts in only the most obvious terms. Then try one of those terms.

What if I completely fail to discover the product using the search?

Well, maybe the store just doesn’t have it! (This is the most common situation.)

Stores often look as if they carry a wide range of products but turn out to focus on 10 categories, or a hundred. Inevitably, they ignore something. You may have stumbled on that something.

If you think they really have the product somewhere, or might carry it soon, email them. Many stores are set up to call their wholesalers to see if a product is available.

They should get back to you within 24 hours with the news that they can supply it, if they can. Otherwise, you should get a letter thanking you warmly for your interest and support, and admitting sheepishly that they don’t carry the product.

Once I find a product at a store, how much will I be able to learn about the product?

Product descriptions vary enormously from store to store. Sometimes you get no more than the product name, their code number, and the price. (Generally, this spartan approach is adopted only by stores that distinguish themselves from other stores by price alone.)

Ideally, a product description should include all of the following:

• An overview of the product, in brief

• Photos, small and large

• Features and benefits

• Requirements, such as what operating system and how much memory you need to run a piece of software; also, compatibility issues ("This plug will not work in Europe.")

• Customer reviews

• Samples, such as a chapter from a book, or partial tracks from a music CD, to play on your computer

• Suggestions of similar products that other customers have bought

• Constraints, such as the limitations on discount air tickets (can be used only on Tuesday, and so on)

• Warranty (yes, the complete warranty for this particular product)

• Shipping costs for delivery of this product in a week, a few days, overnight

Tip: If you are interested in a fairly common item, like a hair dryer or CD system, and you want to get some unbiased advice about these products, go to the Consumer Reports site, at for detailed reports on their testing. They give you tables comparing products. Unfortunately, you have to pay for some articles, but particularly if you’re going to pay big bucks for a product, their fee is probably worth paying, to be sure you get what you really need.

How can the store offer these discounts?

Depending on the industry, the wholesale price of a brand-new item is 20% to 55% off the retail price, so virtual stores can easily offer you 15% to 50% off retail, and still make a slight profit on each sale.

But you may wonder: How can they manage to offer discounts that go way below those offered by physical stores?

Stores that live entirely online, with no retail showrooms, no paper catalogs, and (in some cases) no warehouses can offer major discounts because their overhead is less than anyone else’s.

The lightest virtual stores accept orders electronically, relay those orders electronically to a supplier, and the supplier ships the products out, for a small fee.

A few stores charge you exactly what they pay, making not even one used dime on each transaction, because they hope to sell advertising on their sites, on the theory that extremely low prices will bring people through, exposing them to the banner ads as they buy other products.

Next up the scale are stores that must have a physical warehouse. For instance, and eToys have found they can ship more efficiently if they handle warehousing themselves, rather than counting on a big wholesaler. But suddenly these companies discover they must hire workers to run the forklifts, pour Styrofoam pellets into boxes, label the packages, and hand them over to the delivery services. So the discounts at these stores, while dramatic, are a little less than at the rock-bottom locations. And so it goes.

When a store supports retail storefronts and paper catalogs, as well as their online operation, the amount they can discount goes way down. But you should still get products for a little less than you would if you walked into the showrooms. Most of these stores also feature overstocks, discontinued items, and remainders, at even deeper discounts.

You will almost always get a product for a lower price online than you could in a retail store, so that, even including your shipping charges, you are ahead of the game.

But remember that the amount you save is only part of the incentive for shopping online. When you take into account the convenience, time-saving, and information available online, you may well find yourself ordering products even when you are only saving a buck or two over retail.


--Excerpted from our book The Best of Online Shopping, Ballantine Books

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