The MakeUse Of Online Shopping Guide

Online shopping requires knowing a lot more than just products. You need to know where to find reviews, how to shop safely, how to compare prices, and how to get the best deals from your favorite sites, like Amazon, Walmart, and many others.

We cover all that and more in the MakeUseOf guide to online shopping.

1. Introduction

So how do you guarantee low prices on good products?

Getting Deals Online Using the Right Tools

Shopping online is complicated. And very few people know how to do it the right way. Worse than that, not knowing the right way to shop online makes you vulnerable to advertisements. Ever seen a banner ad on a website? That advertisement is the fruit of the labor of countless individuals.

Graphic designers, psychologists, data scientists, and more all teamed up to get you to buy stuff. Marketing creates the customer, keeps the customer, and satisfies the customer. It also tricks the customer into buying something they don’t need — oftentimes at a higher price and inferior quality. Think of it this way: the more money companies spend on advertising, the less spent on more important areas, such as design, materials, and customer service.

So how do you cut through the marketing and get high-quality products at an affordable price? It’s simple.

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Credits: wengistein via Flickr

Educate yourself. The right combination of apps, websites, and research strategies will save you money and make shopping online safer.

The Goal of this Guide

This guide aims to achieve three things: first, improve your shopping experience. Second, it helps you avoid buying bad products. Third, it teaches you how to save money shopping online. In order to assist readers in shopping better, I outline the necessary steps you need to take, decisions you have to make, and tools you can use to prevent being misled by aggressive marketing.

Hopefully, you will decide to spend the money you save on something meaningful, such as an emergency fund, health insurance, or education for yourself or your kids.

1.1 Online Shopping vs. Offline Shopping

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Image Credit: ephotion via Flickr

Online shopping has its advantages. First of all, you don’t need to leave your house. You can shop anytime you want because online stores are always open. You can do thorough research, read customer reviews and objective product analysis. Furthermore, you can compare prices across multiple online shops and hunt down the best deal available — all without leaving your home.

Doing this, you also save a lot of time since you don’t have to push through crowds, find what you want, compare prices from one store to the next, and hide from overly helpful and dangerously convincing sales assistants. Last, but not least, your purchases arrive at your home, so you don’t even have to carry or transport it. Really, leaving the house to shop isn’t worth the time and cost of transportation.

To sum up, you should shop online if you:

  • want to pay less
  • are short on time
  • hate crowds
  • feel disturbed by sales assistants
  • know exactly what you want

On the other hand, shopping is a highly enjoyable activity for many people. They love to browse stores and chat with staff. Either way, old-school shopping has many advantages, besides serving as entertainment. While it may take more time to compare and get a good deal, you will obtain hands-on experience with the item you’re examining. If you have to make an emergency purchase (for example, if you forgot your wedding anniversary) don’t rely on package delivery. Amazon may be amazing, but they’re not perfect.

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Image Credit: Morning-theft via Flickr

Believe me, it’s better to spend a couple of bucks more at a physical store, than to regret it later on. Also, you won’t be alone in making your decision because that’s what sales assistants are there for. They will help you pick the right item. Should the price feel uncomfortable, you can ask for a price match against online competitors. Finally, during the holiday season, many stores grant extended return or exchange periods. So if you still made a mistake, you can undo it easily.

Taken together, you should rely on old-school, brick-and-mortar shopping if you:

  • are in a hurry to make a purchase
  • need to try the item and make sure it’s of good quality
  • need immediate gratification
  • or just want to keep your money local

2. How to Get Great Deals

To become a true professional internet shopper, you must combine offline and online shopping strategies. While a lot of the stuff on the internet is electronics, you can apply these tips to practically anything, including fresh groceries, jewelry, and clothing. And all of these things are sold online anyway, including groceries (Amazon Fresh).

2.1 Product Research

Let’s say you would like to buy a new laptop. It’s not a cheap item and you probably don’t need it right this second. No really, you don’t. But since you’re going to own it for some time, it’s worth investing a little extra time and thought in the initial research process.

Start by writing down the features available for what you’re buying. And understand how that feature works. Then evaluate which features you will really need, which ones would be nice to have, and which ones you can definitely live without. Be honest. Now you have your minimum (need) and maximum (nice to have) requirements.

For ideas about a product range, you can perform an internet search and see what it comes up with. If you need some pointers on how to search Google like a pro, check out Tina Sieber’s Master the Google Operands.

Once you have selected a couple of products, you can click the respective button in the list to compare your picks side by side. These data are incredibly useful in further downsizing your list and selecting only the products that best suit your need.

2.4 How to Shop Safely Online

Whether you buy online or offline, the best price isn’t always the best choice. Be sure to buy from a reliable shop, evaluate all extras and bonuses (e.g. warranty, return, and service options), and select a safe payment method.

Find Reliable Shops Online: My favorite tool for testing to see whether or not a shop is reliable is the browser extension Web of Trust. They do sell customer data, though. Be warned.

Return Periods of Online Sellers: Nowadays, sellers inhabiting AmazoneBay, and other online markets are covered by some kind of minimal buyer protection scheme. For example, Amazon guarantees all of their sellers for 30 days after purchase. However, for items ordered between November 1 and December 31, the return period is a full year.

Safe Payment Methods: Currently, there are many kinds of online payment methods — most of which offer excellent buyer protection policies.

2.5 Picking an Online Store

Be aware of online shopping’s pitfalls. A cheap price, for example, may turn out to be not so cheap once shipping and handling fees are added. Some products may not come with warranties. Or — in the case of refurbished products — may come with reduced warranties. In short, watch out for extra costs.

The terms of service is a touchy subject in general. No one has the time or patience to read them, but that’s where the drawbacks are hidden. Can you return the item? If yes, within what time frame? What happens if you need to have it exchanged or repaired? Will you have to pay extra for these services? How long is it going to take? Are you going to receive a replacement in the meantime? Is customer service available and how responsive are these people? And finally, how are they going to handle your private data?

In short, you must watch out for:

  • Shipping and handling fees
  • Warranties (replacement and repair policies)
  • Refund and return policies
  • Legal statements
  • Privacy policies

If you’re not able to read the TOS, you should shop at well-known online stores only. They have a reputation to lose and will most likely offer fair service. If you’re still unsure, buy from Amazon as their delivery times are highly reliable. Also, Amazon’s return policies and customer service are very generous. Surprisingly, they often have highly competitive prices and offer free shipping on top of that.

What you should really be concerned about is the method of payment and safety-related issues in using either one of these methods.

Needless to say, you must secure your computer and your browser to be protected from worms, phishing attacks and the like.

What Exactly Is Phishing & What Techniques Are Scammers Using? What Exactly Is Phishing & What Techniques Are Scammers Using?I’ve never been a fan of fishing, myself. This is mostly because of an early expedition where my cousin managed to catch two fish while I caught zip. Similar to real-life fishing, phishing scams aren’t.

2.6 Secure Internet Connection

A secure internet connection must be used when sending sensitive information, such as credit card or bank information. This technology scrambles and descrambles web traffic, protecting it from anyone trying to intercept it. These men-in-the-middle attackers rely heavily on using compromised computers (like public computers) or access points so they can intercept your data. The simplest way to avoid becoming a victim is to practice three simple rules:

  1. Use a Virtual Private Network on all networks, other than your own.
  2. Avoid conducting financial transactions on public computers.
  3. Use Web of Trust to make sure the site you’re on is legit.

Once you enter the ordering and payment process, make sure you were directed to a secure internet connection. This is not something you can initiate, it should happen automatically. However, you can easily recognize a secure internet connection. The web address should include https:// at the very beginning of the URL.

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The “s” behind “http” (hypertext transfer protocol) indicates a secure connection using SSL/TLS protocols for encryption and secure server identification. Furthermore, you should see a closed lock or an unbroken key in the status bar (typically in the bottom left) of your browser window.

HTTPS Everywhere: Use HTTPS Instead of HTTP When Possible HTTPS Everywhere: Use HTTPS Instead of HTTP When Possible

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If a vendor or payment processor does not use https for conducting financial transactions, that’s a very bad sign and you shouldn’t do business with them.

2.7 Methods of Payment Online

As of 2017, dozens of payment methods exist. However, only a few are commonly used. These include credit cards and PayPal. A handful of other services are beginning to see wide use, including Google Checkout and Amazon Payments.

Bank Transfer

This is the safest method of payment since you do not reveal your bank details to the internet or at least you restrict it to your online banking activity. Keep in mind, though, most online shops won’t accept bank transfers as payment. A bank transfer is normally for payment between individuals in the US.

Also, if you do buy something using a bank transfer, that generally your items won’t be shipped until payment has arrived. Some shops, however, may issue a bill, which may be paid after you received the delivery. In this case, you should definitely rely on a bank transfer.

Here is an article from WikiHow.com on how to pay with a bank transfer.

Buying Using a Credit Card Online

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Image Credit: andresrueda via Flickr

Federal laws make online credit card payments fairly safe. In case of abuse, a US credit card owner is liable for a maximum of $50. However, these regulations may vary depending on your country and what kind of credit card you use. Apart from that, many credit card issuers grant extended warranties or other benefits upon making payments with their cards. You should thoroughly review the terms of service of your credit card issuer to be aware of your liabilities, rights, and potential benefits.

How to Use Your Credit Cards to Save More Money How to Use Your Credit Cards to Save More MoneyCredit cards are usually seen as dangerous and a potential waste of money, but they can also help you save a lot of money if you use them correctly. 

On top of that, many credit card companies now offer their own checkout service. While many e-commerce websites offer these services, they aren’t as widespread as PayPal or credit card.

PayPal

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PayPal provides an extra layer of protection. It manages your credit card or bank data and you can make payments to online shops using your email address. In other words, you share your sensitive information only with PayPal, rather than with a dozen different merchants. You can add several credit cards, use direct debits from your bank account or pay from your PayPal balance, which can be topped up by transferring money to your PayPal account.

On top of being able to pay for things, PayPal provides buyer protection for purchases made on eBay and other merchants’ websites. If you do not receive your order, if the item is broken or doesn’t hold up to the description, PayPal will cover the full amount including postage. Here is a list of stores where you can shop safely using PayPal.

Alternatives to PayPal are Google Checkout and Amazon Payments.

Using PayPal for payments is free. Receiving money is a different story, which I will not touch within this guide. However, if you use Venmo (which is a PayPal subsidiary), transfers are free for moving money between friends (or enemies as well). Google Wallet also offers the same service as Venmo, which means you have an alternative to PayPal.

2.8 Go Online Shopping!

The final step after determining what you need, reading reviews, comparing prices, and finding the right seller, is pulling the trigger and buying something. But be aware that if you take these requirements to a shop, they may try to sell you what they have — rather than what you want. The in-store device may not necessarily be the best item for you. Truthfully, most in-store products aren’t the best deal. In an ideal world, global price and quantity should determine which of your requirements can be fulfilled, not the stock of your local department store.

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So before you head out, come up with a list of acceptable models. Select all models that fulfill your requirements and have received good reviews. Using the product reviews and recommendations of ConsumerSearch and Consumer Reports, you may have picked some favorites already. But go ahead and query some more resources to see whether your selection hold true. I recommend Amazon, Walmart, Jet, Costco, and eBay.

3. Amazon Online Shopping

Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer. Because of their popularity, many price-comparison tools exist. These tools range from fake-review-spotting websites to price-comparison browser extensions (best Chrome extensions).

How to Spot Fake Reviews on Amazon Don’t trust that review or 5-star rating on Amazon to make up your mind about a product. The only way to find a true opinion is to learn how to spot these fakes.

3.1 Find the Cheapest Prices on Amazon

Finding great deals on Amazon sometimes requires looking at the fluctuations of a product’s price over time. Such tools pinpoint when a price drop is likely. My two favorites are Honey and CamelCamelCamel.

3.2 Find the Fake Online Reviews

Fake reviews plague Amazon’s review system. That’s mainly because Amazon allows anyone to score their products, even if they purchased the item from another store — or if they were hired to provide a review. The two best tools for finding deceiving reviews is FakeSpot.com and ReviewMeta.com. Both tools analyze each review on the basis of the quality of the review, rather than its starred rating.

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3.3 Amazon Warehouse Deals

Amazon operates a warehouse with major discounts on open-box, refurbished, or gently-used products from Amazon.com. Buyers receive the same benefits and satisfaction guarantee they are used to from the main site.

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Amazon’s Warehouse Deals receive — usually, be careful though — the same warranty as their brand new, unopened products. On the downside, sometimes unscrupulous buyers scam Amazon by returning similar, but different products — instead of the product they ordered. For example, s0me smartphone buyers buy counterfeit or international models of product overseas and then order the real deal from Amazon. They then swap in the counterfeit or international model in place of their Amazon order and return it. Fortunately, this is rare and Amazon is good about returns.

Conclusion: Online Shopping Strategy

Shopping online is easier than ever — if you know of the right tricks and tools. The easiest way to get what you want for the lowest price is to have a strategy.

Determine how much you have to spend, and the features you need. Then start using a combination of review websites, price comparison tools, and browser extensions to get what you want. If you want to keep your business local, ask your favorite brick-and-mortar store for a price match. In the end, it’s worth the investment of your time.

Does anyone have any other online shopping tips? Let us know!