How to Avoid Online Holiday Shopping Pitfalls | Reader's Digest

How to Avoid Online Holiday Shopping Pitfalls

Shop smart online and you could save yourself some serious cash during the holidays.

Stacy Johnson from readersdigest.com

With the holiday shopping season quickly approaching, we are all looking for ways to save. One of the best ways to cut costs and avoid hassles is to shop online. But not all deals are as great as they seem at first glance. Our friends at MoneyTalksNews.com share five potential pitfalls to online holiday shopping, and some ways you can address them to maximize savings and minimize stress:

Plus: 13 Things Your Salesclerk Won’t Tell You

Pricing
Risks: While the base price for an online item might look lower than the store price, you also have to factor in the cost of shipping. Sometimes the list price assumes you’ll mail in a rebate, or meet certain conditions, like buying a large enough quantity or spending enough money to qualify for a discount.
Solutions: Check out shipping costs before you buy, and see what options you have. Many retailers with local stores will allow you to ship a product to one of their locations at no charge. Also be sure to check for coupons through Google and on sites like RetailMeNot.com and DealCoupon.com — there are often codes for free shipping during the holidays, plus additional discounts that not everyone knows about. Be sure to check the conditions on those coupons as well, though.

Shipping Time
Risks: Lots of people are shopping alongside you, and item stock might drop fast. There’s always a small risk that a merchant will run out of an item and have to order more, possibly delaying the arrival of your item. Every business has different shipping policies, too – some orders can take weeks to arrive.
Solutions: Look for sites that have automated systems that notify you when an item’s stock is low or sold out – some smaller independent merchants update their product listings by hand and their stock listings might be inaccurate. If the product page doesn’t mention whether the item’s in stock or not, skip it. Likewise, make sure the ship and/or delivery date is listed – if not on the product page, at least during the checkout process. Otherwise, who knows when your gift will arrive?

Returns:
Risks: Whether you shop online or at a store, returning a purchase can be a sticky process. Sometimes items can only be exchanged, or can’t be returned at all if they’ve been opened. Sometimes there’s a “restocking fee” and you won’t get a full refund. On top of that, you often have to cover return shipping on your own.
Solutions: Read the merchant’s return policy carefully before ordering. Know if you’re responsible for return shipping, or if you can print out a prepaid return label. Also make sure you understand the policy for your specific item – in addition to a general return policy, there are also often specifics for different categories of items. Returning clothes is different (and often easier) than returning electronics or unwrapped DVDs, CDs, and video games.

Merchant Reputation
Risks: Pretty much anybody can do business online, and not everybody is professional or trustworthy. Especially on auction sites like eBay, it’s easy to misrepresent the condition or nature of a product with a stock photo or generic description.
Solution: Solution: Check out the seller’s ratings and what other buyers have said, if the website has those features. If it doesn’t, or if the merchant isn’t well-established, be skeptical and contact the seller for specifics before buying. Make sure you’re not getting a generic or knock-off product unless you’re looking for one. If it’s used, be sure to assess the condition and quality by asking questions and getting photos from different angles, not stock images pulled from Google. In short, the less you can tell, the more you should ask.

Payment Method
Risks: Identity theft and fraud are always risks online, but never more so when you’re shopping, because that’s when you’re putting your financial information out there. Online shopping allows you to screw up in other ways: like buying more or different items than you intended.
Solution: At checkout, verify the list of items you’re purchasing and make sure the quantities are right. Consider using secure checkout methods such as Paypal.com, or be aware of the protections your credit card offers in case something goes wrong. Consider using a virtual credit card for online shopping, too.

Now that you know what to look for, you might be looking for some sites to compare prices. Google is a good place to start, but it doesn’t always provide the best results when it comes to shopping. Try these, too: PriceGrabber.com, Yahoo! Shopping and NexTag.

Plus: 6 Ways to Survive Holiday Travel

Stacy Johnson is a financial expert and CPA. More articles from Stacy can be found at MoneyTalksNews.com