On-line shopping tips

by Matthew M. Lug - Newspeak Staff

Four years ago I was first introduced to the internet, a vast unfamiliar realm of educational institutions, computer enthusiasts, scam artists, and adult entertainment entrepreneurs. Today the internet, primarily the World Wide Web, is home to countless businesses, including a seemingly insane number of the previously mentioned porn sites. The internet is no longer primarily used for research and information sharing. Once its popularity began to rise, people quickly realized that the internet was perfect for making money, partly because of the immediate access to a wide variety of potential customers and partly because of the lack of regulation and tremendous supply of fools just waiting to part with their money. The internet is also not as unfamiliar to people as it was several years ago. I would guess that almost all freshmen this year had at least heard of the internet before arriving here, and that most had used it at home or at school sometime prior to their arrival. If you're reading this, then chances are that you have no trouble operating a web browser or sending e-mail. Add to that the fact that many college students have credit cards, and you have everything you need to purchase items on-line. Almost.

Let's say you're sitting in your room, eating a slice of last night's pizza and washing it down with a warm can or bottle of your beverage of choice. Now let's say you're looking around on the web and you see an ad for something that looks interesting. You click on it and are brought to the web site of a company you've never heard of that's selling something you might want to have at a price that doesn't look bad to you. What do you do? Do you reach for your Visa/MasterCard/American Express/Discover Card and complete the transaction? Or do you forget about it and click on the link that promises "Sarah Michelle Gellar Nude!" or some such nonsense?

While both of the above options could seem reasonable depending on how conscious you are at the time, it would probably be a good idea to resist the impulse buy and do some research instead. You can find a lot of good deals on the web, but you can also get ripped off in more ways than most people could ever imagine. You should first familiarize yourself with a web search engine so you can find review sites, price trackers, and other useful information. There are so many such sites that it would be impossible for me to list them all for you, and you would need to use different ones depending on what you are interested in purchasing.

The first concern of most people who are new to web shopping is, and definitely should be, usually about security. After all, you'll be sending out your credit card number and other personal information through an electronic path that isn't that difficult to tap into. So what's keeping your information safe? The answer is cryptography, but all you really need to know is that when your browser indicates that the connection is secure (usually with a lock or key symbol, consult your browser's help for the exact details), it is difficult for anyone between you and the web server to decrypt the information being sent. Professor Paar or any of the students in the CRIS lab on the third floor of AK can probably explain all of the technical details to you if you are really interested in cryptography. People looking for easy money are more likely to try to pick up wireless telephone conversations on a police scanner to get credit card numbers than attempt to intercept and decrypt random internet data, simply because it is much easier to take advantage of people who use insecure wireless phones for credit card transactions.

Ready, Set, Shop?
Now that you're convinced of the safety of on-line shopping, you're ready to start spending, right? Wrong. You still need to know what you're going to buy. With all of the products available on the web and countless companies willing to sell them to you, it can seem like an impossible task to find what you want and buy it without getting the feeling that you got a bad deal. However, with some time and a little effort, you can make on-line purchases and still get that feeling of being smarter than the guy down the hall who always pays full retail price for everything.

The first step for any purchase is to figure out what you want. Figuring out exactly what you need from a product will help to keep you from paying extra for features you don't want or getting something cheap that doesn't meet your needs. You should figure out exactly what you need the item for now, what you will likely need from it in the next year or two, and the most that you could never need in the future. Now figure about how much you are willing to spend. All of this will be your list of specifications that will be used in the next step.

Product selection
Now that you know what you are looking for, you can start looking up information on products that fit your needs. Don't worry about individual prices yet as long as everything is in your price range. Many web sites have reviews of commercial products, especially computer-related products. These reviews often list the features of different products, their prices, and how they compare with each other. The manufacturers' web sites will also contain information that will help you here. Another option is to find someone who knows about the kind of product that you're interested in and ask questions that will help you narrow down your choices. As a last resort you can always go to a local retailer and see what they have to offer. However, keep in mind that retailers want to sell what they have, so employees may be a bit biased toward what is in stock.

Where to buy
You know what you're buying, now you just need to find someone who will sell it to you. This is the most difficult part of the entire process, so be prepared to put in a little effort here. You can begin by searching for companies that have the lowest prices on the product you're looking for. There are more price tracking web sites than I would even care to know about, so you have many choices. If you try out several different ones, you can usually get a feel for how each price tracker works and what products each one is best for. Some will give you prices on specific models and some will list all models of a type of product within a specified price range. After trying several of them, you should be able to decide on one or two that you prefer. You should then be able to find a list of web companies that have what you want at a decent price.

What to watch out for
Now that you've found where to by the item, you just pick the place with the lowest price, right? Not quite. First you need to see if the item is in stock. Don't always trust what it says on their web site - if you need something right away be sure to call and confirm that the item is in stock. Smaller companies usually have discounts for web orders, so you might not want to order the product over the phone after checking on the stock. You should also check the company's policies on shipping, returns for defective and non-defective products, and refunds. You will usually be stuck with a restocking fee if you return a non-defective product, so be sure what you're ordering is exactly what you want. Check the listed part number and compare it with the manufacturer's part number if there is any doubt. Also, watch out for used, refurbished, and OEM products. These types of products usually do not have the same warranties as retail products, and may not contain everything that is included with the retail version. Used and refurbished items may also be less reliable, so factor that in with the cost. Finally, ask around about the quality of the company. Some companies can offer low prices because they have little or no customer support and are of little help if something goes wrong with your purchase. Some companies also charge your credit card before the item ships - it is best to avoid these companies. After checking all of this, you can find your total cost by adding the cost of shipping to the price of the item. High shipping costs can offset low prices, so check a few different companies before making a decision.

Place your order
That's it. If the seller's web site has a secure order form you can place your order on-line right away. It may take some time for the order to be processed, but you should receive an e-mail to confirm your order. Depending on the shipping method you choose, it could take a few days for the item to arrive. When it does, be sure to immediately check to be sure that you received the correct item and that it is not damaged. If there are any problems, contact the seller immediately. If all goes well, be sure to check your next credit card bill to see if you were charged the proper amount.

Final comments
If all of this seemed a bit complicated, that's because it is. It takes some work and some experience to keep from running into problems with web shopping. Even experienced shoppers can have trouble when dealing with incompetent employees and problematic computer systems. No matter what you do, you still have to face your credit card bill, so don't buy things you don't need just because they're cheap and easy to get. These tips will only help you if you are responsible with your money in the first place. Remember, just because you have a balance on your checking account doesn't mean you have to spend it.

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