Click Here To Buy Online shopping tips from someone who hates to shop
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, December 8, 1999
I hate shopping.
Don’t get me wrong. I love buying things. And having things. It’s just the getting of things I can’t stand.
It’s annoying, for example, that most stores don’t have chairs.
They don’t want us sitting down. They want us standing up, preferably at the cash register.
And don’t get me started on those obnoxious, ubiquitous holiday music loops. When I was a kid, I hummed along with the Little Drummer Boy. These days, I’m ready to strangle the sucker.
And we haven’t even entered the prime holiday shopping season yet.
Those are some of the reasons I’m a big fan of online shopping.
You get to sit down. You can listen to whatever you want. You haven’t really lived, you know, until you’ve shopped online in your underwear while being serenaded by Jerry Garcia. Beats the hell out of the mall.
But shopping online can also be annoying. Many online retailers are still getting their acts together. And sorting through millions of online offerings by going from website to website gets tedious real quick.
But there are some ways you can get your online shopping done smartly and quickly while making sure you get the best price.
First of all, unless you’re in a dead rush and don’t care about paying top dollar, try to avoid big-name online retailers such as http://www.amazon.com/ and CDnow.com. Almost everything sold on those sites can be found elsewhere on the web at much better prices. Someone has to pay for all those Super Bowl ads, you know.
That’s why I usually start out at third-party intermediary sites.
You have to be careful when you visit such sites, however. You don’t want to get sucked into a single merchant’s online establishment, whether it’s the site’s own store or one that has a special promotional deal with that particular third-party site.
Instead, look for the links you’ll find on sites such as http://www.brodia.com/, http://www.shopping.com/, http://www.mysimon.com/, http://www.pricescan.com/ or http://www.bizrate.com/ that allow you to compare products, prices and sometimes even overall service at a variety of online retailers. At shopping.com, for example, you can easily get a side-by-side price comparison for many popular products.
But watch out. The lowest price isn’t always the lowest price.
Prices listed on the online comparative shopping services are often outdated. Just last week, for example, shopping.com told me I’d find some printer supplies at http://www.buy.com/ for under $20. When I got there, buy.com wanted an extra four bucks. Even so, the site still had the lowest price I could find for that particular item.
In the few short months they have been up, these sites have unleashed a vicious price war. Competitors have been regularly lowering their prices in two-cent increments to make sure they capture the top spot when lists are re-ordered by price (which is something you have to tell some of these sites to do since positions on the default list are frequently sold to the highest bidder).
In addition, many comparative shopping services only list data from merchants who’ve paid to be included. That’s why it makes sense to check out several comparative shopping services to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
http://www.clickthebutton.com/ is another good, last-minute way to see if you can find a better price. You’ll need to download the service’s free software first, which takes about a minute. After that, you can do a quick, comparative price check on any item you are about to buy by clicking a little icon that lives in the toolbar of your PC or Mac.
I’m often astonished at how big the price differences can be for certain things. It’s not unusual, for example, to find savings as much as 30 or even 40 percent on many products by using a comparative online shopping service.
You also need to pay attention to delivery charges, which can make what appears to be the lowest price a bad deal.
This can get pretty tricky.
Back in the old days, six months ago or so, most online retailers prominently listed their shipping and handling charges, which made it easy for the information to be picked up and listed by the comparative shopping services.
More recently, cutthroat competition over prices has led some online retailers to bury their shipping and handling charges deep within their sites. Hard-pressed online merchants are apparently trying to make up what they’re losing on the price side by jacking up the delivery charges.
Frequently, the only way you can find out the final, delivered-to-your-door price is by hitting the buy button and seeing how much the site wants to tack on.
For that reason, it’s often a good idea to do a test non-buy on a site. Pick an item you want and quickly click through the buying process, which usually involves filling up your online “shopping cart.” Once you get to the check-out stand you can always back out if it turns out the postage and handling charges are unreasonable. Just make sure you hit the back button on your browser, staying away from any button that promises to confirm your purchase.
Make a note about shipping charges and repeat the process at the next lowest-price site. Pretty quickly, you’ll see a pattern emerge that will tell you where you want to take your business.
It also makes sense, if you have the time, to do a minor test buy at a site. Pick a small item, something you need, and make a purchase. Putting an online retailer through their paces is the best way to find out how they perform. If they can’t quickly and painlessly deliver a box of ball point pens, you probably don’t want to depend on them for a larger, more significant, purchase.
Checking out reverse-auction sites, such as http://www.accompany.com/ or http://www.mercata.com/, is another excellent way to go. At present, their offerings are somewhat limited. But there are great buys to be had.
Unlike auction sites, which drive up prices by pitting buyers against each other, the reverse-auction sites drive prices down by letting consumers combine their buying power.
It’s an incredibly powerful, and still nascent, idea. The more people who sign up to buy a particular goodie, the lower the price goes. You often have to wait for the close of multi-day “buying cycles” at such sites, so it takes a little longer to finalize a purchase. It could take up to a week, or even longer, before a sale closes. But it can be well worth the wait.
On one recent day, for example, the Mercata.com site was selling a Braun juicer I recently bought at the Stanford shopping mall for about $30. When I last looked, only one person had signed up to buy the juicer at Mercata’s $16.70 list price. If one more person bites before the cycle closes, the price goes down to $13.70. If five more people sign up, the price sinks to $11.70. Better yet, everyone who signs up gets the item at the same low price, even if you signed up when the cost was higher.
At present, the Mercata service is a little more robust, with more products and easier navigation, than the Accompany site. But if you’re in the market for a big-ticket item, such as a TV, CD player or VCR, it makes sense to see if you can join a buying pool at either site. On a $400 item, savings of $100 or more are not unusual.
Although I usually start my online shopping at a third-party intermediary or a reverse-auction site, one of my favorite stand-alone online shopping sites is http://www.secondspin.com/. While there are lots of sites in the same business, the folks who put Secondspin together have their act down pat.
Secondspin specializes in used CDs, movies and DVDs which you can buy or sell. They have a great collection, always changing, excellent prices, and superb quality control. I’ve bought several recordings, some quite obscure, from the site, all of which arrived quickly in near-mint condition. I recently bought a Paul Simon CD from Secondspin for $8, for example, about half what the folks at CDnow wanted to charge. As an added bonus, I didn’t have to break my fingers getting the cellophane off the plastic case.
There are, to be sure, some problems when it comes to online shopping. Most sites, for example, have terribly burdensome and needlessly complicated return policies, so you want to make sure you really want whatever you purchase. Sending the item back, and getting the proper credit, can be like trying to find a warm beach in Siberia.
Leading online retailers could learn a thing or two from the best, most established catalog companies, many of which include a return label with whatever they ship you just in case you might want to send it back.
On the other hand, most online sites do have a customer service button you can click on to get a phone number that connects you with a real person. You should make sure that’s the case before you make any online purchase.
Shopping online, particularly this holiday season, also gives you a ringside seat at an important milestone in the history of commerce. If you believe the pundits, this will be the first holiday season where significant numbers of us take our business online.
It may also be the last holiday season where online shopping will be done this way.
By next year, the following year at the latest, a relatively new mark-up language, XML, an advanced form and distant cousin of HTML, could dramatically change the online shopping experience.
XML is expected to allow merchants and shopping services to create smarter online documents and price lists. Although the technology is a bit complicated and some details still need to be resolved, the applications it enables are mind-boggling.
It’s possible, for example, we’ll see services that allow us to enter our entire shopping list in a single place, hit a “shop for me” button and then come back a few minutes later to confirm orders for all the items on our list, or alternate items, from wherever they are available at the best possible prices.
That means we’ll be able to do our shopping lying down.
I, for one, can hardly wait.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.