We are an independent, advertising-supported comparison service. Our goal is to help you make smarter financial decisions by providing you with interactive tools and financial calculators, publishing original and objective content, by enabling you to conduct research and compare information for free – so that you can make financial decisions with confidence. The offers that appear on this site are from companies from which TheSimpleDollar.com receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site including, for example, the order in which they appear. The Simple Dollar does not include all card/financial services companies or all card/financial services offers available in the marketplace. The Simple Dollar has partnerships with issuers including, but not limited to, Capital One, Chase & Discover. View our full advertiser disclosure to learn more.
The Ultimate Guide to Online Shopping
Over 190 million people in the United States use online shopping sites, and that number is expected to grow exponentially over the next decade. The total value of the global e-commerce economy is expected to grow to $1.5 trillion in 2015 as online shopping becomes more commonplace and businesses adapt their marketing efforts to capture more online sales.
Online shopping is convenient, easy, and allows consumers to compare prices, find coupons, and check reviews in a way that can’t be done in brick-and-mortar stores. However, the immense popularity of online shopping has given rise to rip-offs, so buyers must be vigilant to avoid online shopping scams.
Some online shopping trends expected to become more commonplace in 2015 and beyond are an increased focus on mobile compatibility, more collaboration between brands’ online stores and retail locations, improved encryption technology, increased ability to shop via social media sites, faster shipping speeds, and more opportunities for consumers to get free shipping.
Even now, new developments like drone delivery, same-day delivery in big cities, and grocery and fresh produce delivery services like Peapod and Amazon Pantry are changing the face of what it means to shop online. All of these improvements will make the experience better, safer, and more convenient for buyers in the future.
Concerns With Online Shopping
While online shopping is undoubtedly convenient, many consumers continue to have concerns over the safety and security of their information, especially as mobile sales become more commonplace.
There’s even new technology from Apple called iBeacon, which amounts to mobile monitoring within brick-and-mortar stores. This type of monitoring allows retailers to track the frequency of mobile usage around certain products to notify customers of sale items or see if they’re comparing prices on their phones.
All of these trends raise concerns about online shopping security, whether you shop from your computer at home or your mobile device. Some of the most common concerns people express about online shopping include:
- Identity theft
- Releasing private location information, such as a home address
- Shipping costs
- Price inconsistencies
- Capturing the best online sales
- Knowing the best time to buy
- Online data storage, such as cookies
- Not having time for returns
- Returns not being accepted
- Important packages getting lost
- Data breaches
Many of these concerns can be remedied by shopping with reputable brands on widely known websites, reviewing returns and shipping policies before checking out, and ensuring you’re using a secure payment system. If you prefer not to enter your credit card information directly into a website, you can often use third-party payment systems like PayPal, which conceal your credit card numbers from major retailers.
Customer service and chat
Along with improving mobile compatibility and other technological improvements, online shopping sites are also becoming more focused on customer service. Many of them offer online chats with customer service agents where you can clarify their policies and ensure you get the best price on whatever you’re buying. You can also check that your items will arrive on time, and find out whether you’ll get a tracking number when you check out.
If you use online coupons, you can also ask a company’s customer service representative if they know of any current coupons or online promotions on the site that would benefit you. This would ease a common concern over whether you’re getting the best deal.
Avoid shipping costs
Want to avoid shipping costs? There are many online retailers that offer free shipping. In fact, more and more online shopping sites should, and likely will, start offering free shipping as a perk, since research shows that 88% of online customers are more likely to shop on sites that offer free shipping.
Use private browsing
If you don’t want your data stored in the form of cookies in your Web browser, remember you can use private browsing — not only on your computer, but also on your mobile devices. You can also opt out of viewing many ads if you don’t want your purchases or product searches following you around the Web as you browse from site to site.
Know your credit report
Everyone is concerned about identity theft and hacking — at least, they should be — and as high-profile data breaches at Target, Home Depot, and other major brick-and-mortar retailers have made clear, it’s not just online shoppers that need to be wary.
Be sure to regularly check your credit report online to ensure there are no mistakes or fraudulent charges. Also, never enter in your credit card information while sitting in a public place, like a coffee shop. Most reputable websites will list their security features and offer guarantees that your data is encrypted.
Online Shopping Security Tips
Of all the online shopping concerns listed above, the most important is security. It’s certainly frustrating if you lose a package, but not nearly as life-altering as having your identity stolen. So here are some tips to ensure your information is safe and the website you’re shopping on is a reputable one:
- Look for “https” in the URL and a padlock or broken-key icon, which signals your information is secure.
- The website should clearly state its return policy and shipping costs.
- Beware of sites using pop-up ads.
- The company should have an actual address and phone number.
- Prices should be reasonable, and not too good to be true (or too high).
- The site should allow you to opt out of email promotions.
- Never use a site that asks for personal information like your social security number or your mother’s maiden name.
- You should be able to use a credit card with fraud protection. Most credit cards include this feature as long as you report fraudulent activity within 30 days.
- Ensure that it’s the real, legitimate site you were looking for and not a copycat site. For example, government websites always end in .gov, not .net. Be wary of sites with similar designs, and always double-check the url before entering in sensitive information.
- Purchase high-end and luxury products from actual retailers (not resellers) to ensure you’re not receiving fake goods.
- When purchasing expensive products (like cars), use a reputable and extensively reviewed escrow service and be wary of fake escrow sites.
Generally as long as a website is encrypted and displays a padlock or broken key icon, it is safe to let a merchant store your credit card information. However, typically stores will not store your information without your approval, so if you makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it. Many people allow websites like Amazon to store their card information because they shop there regularly and it cuts down on the time it takes to enter in your credit card number with each transaction.
Benefits of Online Shopping
Although there are some risks with shopping online and many buyers have concerns over the safety of their information, there are significant tangible benefits to online shopping:
- You’ll save time and gas by not having to drive to the store.
- You can buy products outside of normal business hours.
- It’s easy to compare prices between multiple websites.
- Read user reviews of people who also purchased the product.
- You can research online coupons and sales without having to clip physical coupons.
- Receive online customer service support without the wait times associated with the phone.
- It’s fairly easy to return an item when using a reputable site.
- You’ll have an easier time buying out-of-season items, and for less money.
- No checkout lines to deal with.
- Shop sale and clearance items without flipping through large, physical sale racks in the store.
Coupons and Online Shopping: How to Get the Best Deal
Online shopping is easier than shopping in the store, but many consumers worry they aren’t getting the best deal. The conventional wisdom used to be that online shopping always provided the best deals — but in recent years, brick-and-mortar retailers have become more competitive.
Still, there are a few ways to ensure you’re getting the best deals online:
Online coupons have many advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is the ability to search online coupons using aggregator sites like Coupons.com and RetailMeNot, and then use them to save money on a purchase immediately.
By typing in a coupon code found on these sites, you can save money on your purchase and find out about other promotions and deals. Sometimes you need to click on a link from these coupon aggregator websites to get the discount, while other times you simply have to enter the code they provide.
Online coupons can sometimes be frustrating because they expire or only work for certain customers. Occasionally you might have to try a number of different coupon codes to find the one that will work for the specific item in your cart.
This can be a lengthy process, and if none of the coupon codes work, it can be frustrating. However, it’s worth trying when a few minutes of your time could save you a few dollars off of your purchase.
You can also sign up for the mailing lists of stores you shop at the most to receive coupon codes and learn about other promotions. Just remember that receiving promotional emails will increase your likelihood of buying something. So if you’re on a tight budget, searching for a coupon code when you’re about to make a purchase might be a better strategy than allowing yourself to be tempted by the sales and promotions in the store’s emails.
Also remember, the coupons you find online are often redeemable in store as well. You can search coupon sites for coupons to your favorite retailer, then print them out and bring them into the store (as long as they’re not expired).
Just go to a website like Coupons.com, sign up, click on the coupon you want to “clip it,” and then print it out. On some sites, you may have to download the coupon to your computer and print it from there.
Coupons aren’t the only way to ensure you’re getting a good deal online. There are also many online tools that allow you to make price comparisons between products and retailers.
One of the most popular is called CamelCamelCamel. This website works specifically with Amazon and can show you the price history of certain products and alert you when the price drops. So if you’re not in a rush to buy a particular product, like a new camera, you can sign up to receive an alert when the price drops and wait until it reaches the price you’re comfortable with.
Amazon also has other great money-saving options like Amazon Coupons, Amazon Gold Box, and Amazon Warehouse where you can lower the cost of your items and get some of the best deals on the Internet.
Another price comparison technique is to search using Google Shopping. Here you can type in a product you want to buy, and Google will search for the product across all stores on the Internet. It will then sort the products based on the price plus shipping cost, so you can find the best overall deal.
Don’t forget that you can also use the Internet and price comparison sites to take advantage of price-match guarantees. For example, you can look up a product you want while standing in the store, and if you find it for a lower price online or at a competitor, you can often ask the store to match the lower price.
Many stores also allow you to go back and get a price match even after you buy a product if you see it advertised for cheaper within a certain amount of time (often 30 days). So, if you bought something at Home Depot, and Lowe’s starts selling it for $20 less after you purchased it, you can go back and ask Home Depot to refund you the difference.
Subscription and Membership Sites
Some websites are set up as subscription or membership sites that offer certain perks only to their members. This has many benefits for both the buyer and the seller.
For example, Amazon’s Prime program is arguably one of the most successful membership options around. For a yearly fee of $99, you can get free two-day shipping for many items on Amazon, as well as unlimited photo storage, instant video, access to the Kindle lending library, and more. There’s also a program called Amazon Mom where you get all the benefits of Amazon Prime plus 20% off of diapers.
To get the most out of Prime, we recommend combining Amazon services — for instance, using Amazon Mom along with Amazon Coupons, or Amazon Prime with Amazon’s Visa card, which gets you an Amazon gift card worth 3% of your monthly spending.
If a lot of your shopping falls into a particular category, research niche-specific membership websites that match your spending habits. For example, if you often attend sporting events or Broadway plays, a membership site like TicketClub that offers discounted tickets and other deals could be worth the yearly membership fee.
Buying Used Goods
When buying used on eBay, be sure to read the seller’s ratings and reviews. You can often tell from customer comments if the products you’re buying are in good condition. Many people buy and sell used clothing on eBay — it’s important to look closely at the pictures to ensure there are no stains, rips, or tears.
If you have any questions about the quality of an item on eBay, you can often scroll down to the bottom of the listing to see whether other potential buyers asked the same question and received an answer. If your question is still unanswered, contact the seller directly.
When buying a used item on eBay, only purchase from sellers who have return policies so you’re protected. Using PayPal as your payment method also provides another layer of protection against scams.
When shopping for used items on Craigslist — the classified ads of the Internet age — some of the same principles apply: Inspect photos, ask questions. But there are additional risks associated with the fact that you have to go and physically pick up an item you agreed to purchase online.
It’s a good idea to meet a Craigslist seller in a neutral location, such as a grocery store parking lot during daylight hours. Remember that just because you agreed to buy a certain product on Craigslist via email doesn’t mean you have to commit to buying it if you don’t like what you see when you get there.
Amazon Warehouse is a great way to buy used items, mostly because you are backed by the reputation of Amazon. Amazon Warehouse features used and unboxed items, so you might be able to save on technology products like iPads if you don’t mind the fact that they come without their original packaging.
Amazon is well-known for their customer service, so if anything you receive is different from what was described online, you can always return it. On Amazon Warehouse, the item’s used condition is described in detail — so you’ll know if the product you’re buying has dents or is missing a piece, for example.
How to Return Online Purchases
Online returns and exchanges vary depending on the store. Some companies charge you for return shipping, while others don’t. Some even include a return shipping label with your purchase to make the process easier. Just like in a regular store, many sites do not offer returns on clearance or closeout items — but if that’s the case, they’ll explain that clearly next to the item.
If you want to return something you bought online, it’s usually a simple process. Within a certain amount of days (it differs by retailer), you’ll need to tell the company you want to return the item. Then, after following their guidelines, they’ll usually send you a shipping label. You can print it out, attach it over the original shipping label, and drop off the package at UPS, FedEX, or the post office. These returns usually come with tracking, and the company will typically email you a tracking number so you’ll know when your package has been safely returned.
As retailers try to better bridge the gulf between their online and brick-and-mortar divisions, you can sometimes (but not always) return an item you bought online to a physical store, just as you can often pick up an online order in the store to save on shipping costs.
Tips for Seniors Who Shop Online
Seniors are more susceptible to online fraud because scammers assume they are not as technically savvy as younger generations. If you’re in this age group, here are several tips that will keep you safe online:
- Never wire money when someone asks you for it. Sometimes scammers will pretend to be family members or friends and request that you wire money to specific accounts. Instead of wiring money, call the police and report the incident.
- Make sure your email password is something secure, using a combination of numbers and letters. Online hacking software can easily break simple passwords that are just one word or one date. Create a complex password, and use different passwords for different sites as well. If you have trouble remembering your passwords, keep a handwritten record of them in a safe location you can easily access.
- Be wary of clicking on any pop-up ads, especially ones that alert you that your computer may have a virus. Many of these ads contain viruses themselves that can hurt your computer and compromise your documents.
- Never access your online bank accounts from public locations, like coffee shops or public libraries.
- Always make sure that a website has the secure lock symbol or broken-key icon before you enter in your credit card number.
- Do not purchase prescription medication online.
- If you get an email from your bank, PayPal, or favorite clothing company asking you to update your password or provide other account information out of the blue, contact the company and make sure they were the ones who sent the email before you click on the links or enter any sensitive information.
- Be careful of emails saying you are automatically approved for credit cards or loans. Unless you specifically applied to those companies or for those cards, mark the emails as spam.
- Avoid forwarding or opening lengthy chain emails, as these can contain viruses.
Ultimately, if you’re careful and avoid the common risks associated with online shopping, you can have an enjoyable online shopping experience and take advantage of the convenience, low prices, and ability to compare features and prices.