January 01, 2017

Allen's Guide to Online Shopping

Photo of William D. Missouri Online shopping has grown to a primary means of commerce in recent years. Its importance resulted in the extension of the infamous "Black Friday" to the more recent and almost as infamous "Cyber Monday." For anyone who does not know those terms, "Black Friday" refers to the day following Thanksgiving, well established as one of the, if not the, most significant single shopping day in the U.S. Interestingly, in a recent trip to Europe, I saw ads for Black Friday specials, so it appears that the institution has spread. "Cyber Monday" refers to the Monday following Thanksgiving. Originally, Black Friday meant brick-and-mortar specials while Cyber Monday meant online specials. More recently, Black Friday specials came to include online offerings and the online special offering period grew to start before Black Friday and continue through December 24. In some cases, even to January 1.

The phenomenon of online shopping has not limited itself to the holiday season. It has grown into a year-round sport and spread from computer access to tablet and smart phone access as well. In other words, the online shopping experience has become ubiquitous and almost all of us have experienced it. If you have not yet done so, likely you will soon. To give you some perspective, a recent collaborative study published by OC& C Strategy Consultants, PayPal and Google predicted that the online retail markets in the U.S., U.K., Germany and China will reach 645 billion Euros by 2018.

Benefits of online shopping

Online shopping has a lot going for it. Some of the benefits of online shopping include:

  1. Convenience. Anyone can do it at any time that they have Internet access.
  2. You don’t have to tolerate long lines.
  3. You can more easily comparison shop.
  4. You generally have a better selection than in a local brick-and-mortar store.
  5. You will likely pay less online than in a local department store.
  6. You have access to goods from around the world.
  7. You can think about the purchase without pressure from a sales person.
  8. Online shopping saves time.
  9. Online shopping saves gas.
  10. Online shopping may save wear and tear on your nerves.

What can you get online?

This will prove the simplest section for me to write. It will take exactly three words: "DAMNED NEAR ANYTHING."

How do I get started?

If you have a device with Internet connectivity you can start any time. You have the choice of picking a store and searching through its website (assuming it has one, and most do) or picking an aggregator seller such as Amazon and searching through its vast inventory of products offered directly by Amazon or by third-party sellers through Amazon. You can also search the Internet for the product and locate vendors through the search results. You can also search for reviews and recommendations online and learn about a product’s features to help you decide what you want to get. If you have Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant as a virtual assistant, you can have your assistant help you find what you seek.

Downsides to online shopping

Although it has a lot going for it, some of the things it generates can prove troublesome. Any time you go online, you need to exercise caution to avoid the bad guys out there that would like to access your information, use your credit and/or steal your identity. In addition, not all online merchants have good reputations for the character traits of honesty and veracity, often for good cause. Simply put, if you shop online, you need to exercise reasonable caution to protect yourself from the bad guys.

How can you protect yourself while shopping online?

Online protection requires that you focus on two levels of risk. First, the general risk of an online presence and second the risk associated with vendor selection.

When you go online you risk someone accessing your information, especially if you utilize public WiFi access. You minimize that risk by not using public WiFi and using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) if you do use public WiFi. You also reduce the risk by ensuring that you have employed strong passwords for your devices, your online accounts and any network you have at your home or office. A strong password includes a combination of upper- and lower-case alphabetical characters, numeric and symbolic characters. You should also avoid using the same password for multiple accounts. Be sure to keep your computer software up to date to reduce the likelihood that you have a version of the software with a vulnerability.

In terms of vendor selection, you will generally do better with a known quantity of good repute than an unfamiliar vendor. If you want to get something from a vendor you do not know, check its reputation out on line. You can do that with the Better Business Bureau in some cases, but you can often see how other customers have found doing business with the vendor from a variety of online sources. Using a well-known supplier, such as Apple, or Orvis, or Amazon generally works very well and without difficulty. Lesser-known vendors may also work just fine, but if you do not know the vendor or know of its reputation, common sense dictates the use of additional caution in checking them out before you order. Eventually, you will likely find that most of your purchases go through a relatively small number of vendors with which you have experience and in whom you have confidence. When you reach that point, online shopping generally becomes very easy and reliably safe. For example, I use about a dozen vendors for almost all my online purchases (not counting the fact that Amazon serves as an aggregator and I buy from many smaller vendors through Amazon).

Before buying from any vendor, you should familiarize yourself with the vendor’s policy for returns. Make sure you know what policy the vendor employs and who pays for return shipping. You will also want to know the company’s shipping terms and what shippers the company uses. Verify the shipping charges as some vendors create the image of lower prices and then make up the difference by attaching exorbitant shipping charges. Ideally you will find a merchant that ships with well-known carriers (such as the USPS, FedEx or UPS) that let you easily track a shipment. You should also check to make sure that you have contact information for the vendor, in case a problem arises. Ideally, you will have a street address, phone number and email address for the vendor.

To complete the transaction, the vendor will need your credit card number, expiration date and the card’s security number. The vendor will also need the correct billing address and shipping address. The vendor will often also request your email address. Having that information allows the vendor to update you on the status of your order and you should not balk at that request. Do not provide additional information, beyond what the vendor needs to complete the transaction. Generally, a vendor has no reason to request or receive your date of birth or social security number to complete a transaction. Be sure to log out of your account after completing the transaction. Keep a copy of the receipt of transaction confirmation for your records.

When you pay for your purchase, you will want to ensure that the vendor uses a secure site. If the vendor does not, consider using another vendor. Checking the site’s URL (web address) provides a simple way to check whether a vendor uses a secure site: Sites that have addresses beginning with "http" do not offer the same security as those beginning with "https." The "s" signifies that the site has the additional security of encryption of the information you send to it.

When you pay for your purchase, you should use a credit card rather than a debit card. You should never use a debit card for online purchases. With a debit card, the money immediately comes out of your account. With a credit card, you get a bill at the end of the cycle and can challenge a charge if it does not have the right amount, the vendor has not delivered the product, or the product has some other problem. Additionally, if the bad guys steal your information, you have protection with credit cards against fraudulent transactions. As another option, you can use a well-known payment service, such as PayPal or Apple Pay to provide another layer of security.

You need to remember that the bad guys can get your information by stealing it from you or by stealing it from your vendor. We have had many instances of the bad guys getting into vendor’s records and spiriting away customer data. To give you some perspective on the scope of this part of the problem, the Identity Theft Resource Center published a report revealing that in 2016 alone a total of 980 breaches relating to major financial players, including banks, the government and private companies exposed financial data involving more than 35 million records. If you want to see the report, you can access a copy of it online.