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For most people, the reason for online shopping boils down to one or both of two reasons: it's cheaper, and it's more convenient. This isn't always the case, however, and sometimes you really are better off buying from your local store. Additionally, many people are concerned about whether their personal information is safe on the Internet. Let's talk about what you need to do to stay safe and get the best deals online.
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I Want It Cheaper!
When you buy from an online-only business, they don't have the same expenses as your local brick and mortar (B&M) shop down the street. Rather than having sales people on hand to answer your questions and store space in an area that's convenient for you to get to, all they need is a warehouse and a website. Additionally, taking orders online often allows them to handle a greater volume of sales, which means they can get by on a lower profit margin than a traditional store would need to stay in business. This is one of the main advantages of online shopping: it can be a lot cheaper!
However, that doesn't mean you should get carried away. For many things, the added aggravation may not be worth the cost savings, and some things are best done in person. If you're buying a new suit, for example, you want to be measured by a professional so that it can be correctly fitted, and if you don't know exactly what you want, a trained salesperson can help you figure it out.
Buying online is best suited for commodities: things that are the same no matter where you get them. If you're looking for a book, for example, and you know which one you want, Amazon is probably the cheapest and easier way to get it. On the other hand, if you're looking for a painting to hang in your house, you'll probably want to visit local art galleries to find something you like.
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Don't Make Me Work
The other big advantage of online shopping, of course, is that you don't have to work as hard. If I need a book, I'd much rather go to Amazon's website and order it than drive all the way to the mall to buy a copy. The fact that I save a buck or two is secondary to the added convenience. This applies to other areas besides shopping, of course; who doesn't pay a few bills online and save the trouble of buying stamps?
Again, this is an area where you can get carried away. For the most part, the easiest thing to do is have a few online stores that you know are reliable and place your orders there. Otherwise, you can end up spending a lot of time hunting for the best price, which in the case of small items somewhat defeats the purpose of buying online.
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Many people are afraid to spend money online, for fear of being ripped off. It's true: there are a number of people out there who would love nothing more than to take your money. Still, with a little common sense, you can avoid most problems.
First off, always pay with plastic. Credit cards, and most debit cards, offer you protection against unauthorized charges. If someone steals your credit card number, your liability is very limited. If you see someone asking for a money order (particularly Western Union, and particularly for a large purchase), run very fast in the other direction!
The other thing you can do is to stick with retailers you recognize. Amazon, Target and Sears are not going to rip you off just because you're giving them your card information on their websites rather than in their stores. While anyone can put up a small ecommerce store (and then possibly disappear without shipping your item), you can feel confident shopping with stores owned by big names and those that have a history of successful online sales.
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Discounts, Discounts, Discounts
Even with the big stores, of course, you still have to comparison shop. Most people don't know this, but Amazon is actually more expensive than other places for many items other than media (books, CDs, DVDs). It's worth checking a couple of stores to find the best price before purchasing a big-ticket item. Support makes a difference as well; for example, some stores like Costco will add their own warranty onto the existing one for electronics you buy at their store. You may pay a little more than if you bought online, but it helps you stay protected.
In some cases, you can price match to get the lowest price at the store with the best return policy, but most B&M stores will not price match online stores (including, in many cases, their own website!).
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Is It Worth It?
Finally, consider whether you want to make the purchase online. For heavy items, it may actually be more expensive to buy online, due to shipping, and you do end up having to wait for your purchase rather than getting it immediately. You may also want to support your local businesses. For example, if you spend an hour at your local store deciding what you want to buy, you owe it to them to buy it there so they're compensated for the purchase.
In some cases, the store provides extra services that are covered by the cost of your purchase. For example, if I have a group that meets at Borders, I'll always buy something there even if it would be cheaper at Amazon, because this subsidizes the space that my group is using.
Finally, one thing to watch out for is that the ease of online shipping can lead to spending a lot more than you meant to, all while getting a great deal. Don't get carried away!
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References and Additional Resources
William Springer has been shopping online since the 90s, and has found problems to be few and far between. He is the owner of an online toy store.
William often finds online deals at bargainshare.com.
The shopping basket image has been released under the Creative Commons license.