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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?

When Will I Get My Package?

How fast will the store get around to shipping my product?
How reliable are the company's promises about when they will get the product out the door?
What shipping options do I have?
Why won't they ship to a post office box?
On a military base, what kind of shipping can I get?
How much does shipping cost?
How do I check on my order, while I'm waiting for it to arrive?
Do I have to sign for the package?
What should I do the moment I receive my package?
Does the product have a warranty?
What is guaranteed by the online store, if anything?

How fast will the store get around to shipping my product?

That depends on the way you pay the store, and on their routine for picking and packing orders.

If you send your order in electronically from the Web site, or phone with your credit card info, you get the shipping process started right away. The clock ticks from that moment.

But if you send the order by fax or email, a human has to read it, call up the credit card company, and get the OK before anything else happens; a day or so may go by before the clerk gets around to verifying the card.

Slowest of all is sending your order in by mail, because that adds another two to five days to the delay.

Once the store’s computer system receives the fully confirmed order, the staff has to read the order, pick the products off the shelf, pack them, and pile them up for a delivery service to collect. In some stores, if you get an order into their system by a certain time (from early morning until right after lunch, their time), your order is shipped that day or the next morning. For instance, most orders for flowers go out the same day if ordered before lunchtime.

Most stores take 24 to 48 hours before they actually hand the package over to the delivery service. Stores run by individuals or families may take three days to ship.

And all of these figures assume that the product is in stock.

If it’s not available, you may have to wait a few weeks (you should receive an email warning you of the delay and offering to let you cancel the order).

And if you have asked for special engraving, or customization, you may have to wait a month and a half or more before the personalized product is ready to be shipped.

If delivery times are critical, you should check the store’s policy on shipping. The best stores have a button called Shipping, taking you to this kind of information. Others put the info under Customer Service, FAQ, or Help. In some cases, you have to start ordering in order to find out when they ship.

How reliable are the company's promises about when they will get the product out the door?

Pretty good, in our experience, as long as the items are in stock.

With items that come from some other company, though, the store has less control, and you may have to wait as long as a month for "back-ordered" items.

The Federal Trade Commission has a Mail Order Rule that applies here:

1) The company has to ship whenever they say they will.

2) If they encounter a delay, they must tell you about it, and get your agreement to that delay. You have the right to cancel the order at that time.

What shipping options do I have?

Some stores ship only by ground or via the mail. But most offer a variety of methods, with delivery coming the next day, or two or three days after the product leaves the store. (Remember, the store may take a while to pack your order, which adds significantly to the total time until delivery.) Here are typical options offered by stores using delivery services:

• Overnight, in the morning or during the day

• 2nd Day

• 3rd Day

• Ground, which means about a week of business days

• Saturday (not offered very often)

And then there are the various services offered by the U.S. Postal Service, at

• International air

• Priority Mail, which may take two or three days for delivery. For a fee you can also get package tracking, insurance, and confirmation of delivery, making this almost as expensive as the services’ Ground delivery, but not quite as reliable.

• Express Mail, which generally gets to you overnight, with the added plus of being insured and having a tracking number, so you can locate the package if it gets lost (expensive)

• Parcel Post or Book Rate, which may take a few weeks

Very few stores are willing to ship for Cash on Delivery (COD), and if they do ship this way, they insist on receiving a cashier’s check or money order.

Why won't they ship to a post office box?

Two reasons:

• Delivery services like Airborne Express, DHL, FedEx, and UPS are not allowed into post offices.

• Credit card companies take a dim view of a P.O. box as a billing address, and prefer that the store ship only to the same address as the billing address on the credit card.

On a military base, what kind of shipping can I get?

You’ll have to rely on the government, that is, the U.S. Post Office, for delivery, because the brass do not like delivery services wandering around the base trying to deliver a package directly to your barracks or house.

How much does shipping cost?

Good question, because some sites refuse to tell you how much the shipping charges will be until you give them credit card info, billing address, and shipping address, all of which could take a few minutes, so you get committed to the order. Only then will they let you know. Bad practice. The best sites tell you, right in the product description, how much each kind of shipping will cost you for that product, so you can estimate your total cost, not just the price of the product.

Here are some of the ways sites disclose shipping costs:

• Some stores charge a standard amount, and just drop that figure into the order without telling you what you get for the money—that is, how long it will take to deliver, given that fee.

• Others let you pick different shipping services and delivery times, but do not tell you how much they cost until you submit the order.

• Better stores offer you the complete table of choices, and let you pick before you decide whether to submit the order.

• The absolute best stores tell you how much each delivery type will cost you, and how soon you can expect delivery that way, on the product description page, so you can factor that information into your decision to buy.

Increasingly, stores compete with each other on shipping costs, which is good, because this pressure will drive them all to advertise what a good deal they offer. The best deal, apparently, is free shipping.

But how long does that take? Usually a week, because the store is talking about shipping by ground, or at the cheapest postal rates. You always pay more for faster delivery. Charges for shipping go up when:

• You ask for faster delivery. (The cost of delivery of a CD overnight in the morning may be more than $25, whereas if you could wait a week, you might pay less than $4.)

• You order more products than are covered by their standard or flat fee. (For instance, some music stores will ship four CDs for a set fee, but start charging you a bit more if you order more than that.)

• You order a heavy product, or one that weighs more than a certain threshold amount.

• The store charges you by the item, whereas other stores charge by the whole order, which is usually cheaper.

• You ask to have your multiple-item order shipped as items become available, rather than waiting for all of them to be sent in a single shipment. (You may have to pay a separate charge for each shipment.)

So, if you can stand waiting, you can save quite a bit of money by accepting the slowest delivery, which usually takes about a week.

Also, if you get the chance, take the option that says, "Only ship when all the products are ready," because then you pay only one shipping charge, not several.

How do I check on my order, while I'm waiting for it to arrive?

If your order was shipped with a delivery service such as FedEx or UPS, the store can tell you the package number, so you can go to the delivery service’s Web site and check on the package’s progress. (You may have to wait 24 hours after the order is actually shipped to see your package on the Web site.)

Or, if you registered or became a member at the store, you may be able to log in with that name and password, go to an order tracking area on the site itself, use your confirmation code (from the store), and plug into the delivery service’s tracking systems from there.

Do I have to sign for the package?

In many cases, the store likes to have you sign a receipt to confirm that the package really reached you. The delivery services obey these requests.

But if you must go out, you can put up a note authorizing the driver to leave the package (print your name and sign it).

Or, if you get a lot of packages but you are often out, you can get a small form from the delivery service to glue to your door, authorizing them to leave packages even if you are not home. We’ve found that this little sticker often encourages drivers to ignore the requirement for a signature, so we come home to find a package on the doorstep. (Our front door is hidden from the street by a gate and an adobe wall.)

What should I do the moment I receive my package?

Try it out quickly, so you can get credit if it fails. If you wait more than 10 days, some stores refuse to accept returns. (Other stores extend the grace period to 30 days.)

Save everything, in case you have to return the product: manuals, cards, warranty, packing slip, original box, foam pellets. Don’t fill out the registration form until you know the product works.

Does the product have a warranty?

Well, we can’t say for sure, but most products that cost more than $20 have some kind of warranty, however feeble. The warranty is issued by the original manufacturer, though, not the store.

If the product has a warranty, that will come with the product, as long as you are buying a new item. (Once a product has been used, or bought in auction from the original user, the warranty may no longer apply.)

Some stores mention that there is a warranty, but only an excellent few actually show you the warranty online.

What is guaranteed by the online store, if anything?

If the store promises to ship your package out within a certain time, the Federal Trade Commission considers that a guarantee. Ditto for any statements such as "Lowest prices guaranteed." Usually any store that actually uses the word guarantee has a long legalistic explanation of what is included and what is excluded, but we have found that the sheer effort their lawyers have expended on this description indicates that the store takes the guarantee seriously. (These stores usually do have extremely low prices.)

Money-back guarantees are heavily advertised, if they exist, and usually require that you complain about the product within 10 to 30 days after receipt. Many stores charge a 10% restocking fee if you wait for 15 days to complain. If you dawdle for more than 30 days, you may find the store refuses to accept a return, or accepts a return only in exchange for another copy of the same product, and then only if the product turns out to be defective and is still covered by its warranty. You can see that if you have a problem with a product, you’d better call or email immediately. (Remember: Even if the product is an OOBF, that is, an Out-of-Box Failure, you probably will not get your shipping costs back.)


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

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