Product and Price Comparisons

Before making a purchase you should take a moment to make sure that you have the right product at the best price.

How can I be sure that I am getting the best price on the product I am shopping for?

If you are in the market for a particular product or service, check back with the seller (and its competitors) frequently. Deals can change quickly, and sales can have short expiration periods. Most of us are familiar with frequent price changes for airline tickets, but the same is true for many other products and services. Also, many sellers use social media to offer deals and discounts. If you know you are interested in the products or services of a particular seller, check the seller's Facebook page and Twitter posts to see if any special discounts are available.

Many online sellers offer coupons and other promotions. If you get to the checkout page and are asked for a discount code, you may be able to find a code or coupon at one of the many websites that collect them for hundreds of retailers. If you do an Internet search for "online coupons," you will find several such sites and can look for coupons or discount codes before you check out.

Can I rely on the seller's statements about the product?

Be aware that some statements about a product are just the seller's opinion and the consumer has no legal claim if it is not true. For example, if the seller advertises: "This is the best smart phone protective case for the money," that is merely an opinion. However, you may have a legal claim if an item that you buy does not conform to the seller's specific description. For example, if the seller's email or web page states that the smart phone case is designed to fit a particular phone mode, you would have a legal claim if the case that is delivered does not fit the specified model.

How can I find out about the quality and characteristics of a particular product?

Many websites purport to review or rate the quality of consumer products. Longstanding product review organizations, such as Consumer Reports, actually test products and publish their results. Other review sites do not test products, but display reviews submitted by individuals who have used the products and report on their quality. While many such reviews are opinions of unbiased product users, some reviews may have been placed by the sellers themselves or by their competitors, and it can be difficult to distinguish those posts from unbiased reviews.

Also, bloggers may comment on the virtues of particular products or services that they use. The Federal Trade Commission has guidelines that require bloggers who make an endorsement to disclose any connection they have with the seller of the product and any payments or rewards that they have received from the seller. Also, if a company refers to the results of a study or test performed by some organization that conducted research, and that research was sponsored by the company, the website or advertisement must disclose the connection between the company and the research organization.

How can I use price comparison services?

Some websites offer an "electronic agent" to identify the sites that charge the lowest price for a specified product. Electronic agents are often used on travel websites (hotels, air fare, car rental, etc.), but other comparison-shopping sites use them as well. Be aware that some sellers have taken technological steps to block these agents from gathering pricing data, so the information provided in the comparison may be incomplete. In addition, price-comparison sites usually do not take shipping costs, sales tax, or return/refund policies into account when comparing the prices.

Some examples of price-comparison sites are Shopzilla.com, Bizrate.com, Shopping.com, Nextag.com, and Pricegrabber.com. Most price-comparison services do not sell products themselves, but provide you with a list of prices from competing sellers and links to each seller's websites. This can save time and money when shopping online. Some price-comparison websites also list reviews of the products they display or ratings of various sellers. The sites may let you choose how you view products. For example, you might be able to see the results from lowest to highest price.

Does it cost anything to use a price comparison site?

Price comparison sites typically do not charge you to use the site. Retailers whose products are featured will either pay a flat fee to be included on the site, pay a fee each time a user clicks through to the retailer website, or pay every time a user buys something through the price-comparison service. Be aware, however, that the price-comparison site may feature the products of certain sellers based on the fees that those sellers pay the site. It is a good idea to check several such sites to get more accurate and complete information.

Is a "sale" price truly a discount?

One of the most common forms of advertising is to offer a reduction from the former price of something. If the former price is the actual price at which the item was sold for a period of time to the general public, the sale price is legitimate. If, however, the former price is fictitious-for example, the product was never really offered to the public at the higher price-the "bargain" being advertised is a false one. In such a case, the "reduced" price is, in reality, probably just the seller's regular price. The best course is not to believe a "sale" price unless you know that the discount is legitimate. Just ask yourself if the product is worth the seller's price regardless of the purported discount.

What should I know about shipping costs?

Shipping and handling costs vary widely among sellers on the Internet and, for low-priced items, may be almost as much as the cost of the product. Check to see if these costs are included in the price. Make sure you know what the shipping and handling charges are before you complete the sale, and consider them in making price comparisons. Check to make sure that you are not paying a premium for rush shipping unless you really want something quickly and are willing to pay the extra cost.

What about "free shipping" programs?

You may be offered "free shipping" if you agree to some kind of promotion or join a savings or loyalty club. Be aware that there may be costs associated with the promotion or club if you do not cancel your participation within a certain period of time. If you choose such a "free shipping" option, be sure to write down (or print out) the terms and conditions so you will know how to cancel your membership before charges are imposed.

Do I have to pay sales tax on my online purchases?

Many people think that if you purchase something online you do not have to pay sales tax. While that is sometimes true, many online sellers are required to charge sales tax. The most common reason is that the online seller has a physical presence (usually a store or warehouse) in the state where you live. You will not often learn about sales tax until right before you check out, but you should have the option to abandon the transaction after you see the total price (including shipping costs and tax). If you do not want to pay the tax, you could try another seller of the same product. That seller might not charge sales tax on your purchase if it does not have a physical presence in your state.

Keep in mind that most states require you to pay a "use tax" on goods that you purchase online for use in your state.

How can I tell whether the product is authentic?

Is the seller offering a real brand-name item, or just a replica? Review the site carefully for a guarantee of the product's authenticity. If the site is an auction site, you will probably have to rely on the seller. Check the terms and conditions of the auction website and those of the seller. Some auctions may offer, for a price, limited insurance.

What should I check before finalizing the transaction?

Double check the online form after typing in your order. It's easy to order "22" rather than "2" of an item if your finger stays on the keyboard a little too long.

Most electronic order forms will tell you the total price of your order before you buy. Pay attention to that total price so you can cross-check the items and quantity. Also, check any confirmation email that you receive from the seller. If it doesn't agree with what you wanted, immediately notify the seller by email or telephone.

Can I cancel an order from an online seller?

Some websites offer the right to cancel your order electronically even after it is placed-if you act within the short time period specified. If you do not act within that time period, you should consult the seller's return policy and comply with it. Some return policies even state that if the box is not opened, the seller will pay the return postage. Generally speaking, however, there is no law that requires a seller to give you a refund or exchange just because you changed your mind or the item does not suit your needs. If the seller delivered what it promised, any refund or return policy is at the option of the seller. The policy should be available on the seller's website.

For the Lawyers

The FTC's Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising can be found at 16 C.F.R. Part 255, http://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/16/part-255. There is also an FTC guidance on the Endorsement Guides, called The FTC's Revised Endorsement Guides: What People are Asking.

The FTC's Guides Against Deceptive Pricing can be found at 16 C.F.R. Part 233, http://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/16/part-233. The Guides provide guidance on advertising "sale" prices and other former price comparisons, comparable value comparisons, advertising retail prices that have been established or suggested by manufacturers (or other nonretail distributors), bargain offers based upon the purchase of other merchandise, and miscellaneous price comparisons. On advertising rules in general, see Advertising FAQ's: A Guide for Small Business.

The FTC has issued detailed guidelines on how to make non-deceptive disclosures in online marketing. The FTC guidance updates a prior FTC release from 2000 relating to disclosures in online advertising. It also provides additional information about the FTC's Endorsement Guides. See .com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising, at http://www.ftc.gov/os/2013/03/130312dotcomdisclosures.pdf.

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