As with most online activities, there are definite tradeoffs in online shopping between convenience, cost savings, choice, and privacy. Before you decide whether or not online shopping is for you, it is important to weigh the pros and cons of entering into the world of e-commerce.
Benefits of Online Shopping
One of the biggest benefits of online shopping is that you can buy almost anything you could imagine without ever leaving your house. Online stores are open 24 hours a day and are accessible from any location with an Internet connection.
In general, online stores are able to carry more selection than traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Because online stores don’t need to attractively display their items on shelves, they can keep a larger amount of inventory on hand. They also might only have small amounts of each item, since they don’t need to display them, and can order more from their supplier as needed.
Online shops tend to provide more information about items for sale than you would get in a physical store (unless you asked a sales associate, and that can be hit-or-miss). Product descriptions most often include a description from the manufacturer, another description from the vendor, specific technical and size details, reviews from professional magazines and journals, and reviews from people who have bought the product. Online book stores often will have excerpts of the books (usually the first chapter) for you to read. Having all this information available when you are considering a purchase makes you a more informed consumer without having to perform extra research yourself.
Because online stores don’t have to pay rent for a storefront in a nice part of town and tend to sell much larger quantities of goods, they can offer to sell products for a much lower price. Discounts online can be substantial—up to 25-50 percent off the suggested retail price. There are even some sites that only sell clearance items! However, buying online does take away from local business, so that is a consideration to keep in mind.
Disadvantages of Online Shopping
One thing that online stores can’t replace is the experience of actually seeing and touching the item you are considering buying. For example, clothes shopping can be very tricky online, since you can’t try on the clothes before you buy. There may also be small details that you decide you don’t like in a product that aren’t noticeable until you have it in your hand.
Some major online retailers now offer free shipping for their products, but many require you to meet a minimum order cost to qualify or only offer this incentive at certain times of year. In general, you should expect to pay an additional shipping cost on top of the price of the items that you order. For larger items, like furniture, this can really add up! Additionally, if you decide that you don’t like a product, you will have to pack it back up and take it to the post office to return it. Again, some retailers will offer free returns, but some do require you to pay for return postage. In that case, even if you’ve decided against keeping an item, you’ve still had to pay several dollars for the shipping.
Waiting for your item to arrive is another downside of online shopping. One of the great pleasures of shopping at a store is the instant gratification—you see something you like, you pay for it, and then you get to take it home and use it right away. In the case of online shopping, you may have to wait days or even weeks for the item to arrive at your door. Especially if you are in a time crunch, then you may want to consider purchasing your item at a local retailer.
When you shop online, you waive certain privacy rights to the online retailer. Online stores can track your purchases over time to give you more suggestions of things you might like to buy, send you e-mails with sale information, and, occasionally, sell your contact information to other companies. These days, many brick-and-mortar stores do the same thing, tracking your information through your credit card (Target is a notable example). However, it is much trickier for traditional stores to do this, as you may sometimes pay in cash or refuse to provide your e-mail address at checkout. In contrast, by purchasing something in an online store, you sign away certain privacy rights—this is why it is always a good idea to read the Terms of Service.
The Internet is a great resource and can be a powerful tool for finding information, shopping, and communicating. But, just like everything else in life, you need to be careful using it. There are some bad people who will try to steal your information online, but if you take the proper precautions, identity theft will be unlikely to happen to you.
Before You Shop Online
• Contact your bank and find out about their policies regarding identity theft. It is also important to know these policies about your credit cards. Will you be held responsible for purchases made with your information, should it be stolen?
• Consider installing anti-virus software on your computer. Antivirus software for one computer is typically less than $50, depending on the brand and protection period (i.e., some antivirus software is only good for a year). The most popular brands of anti-virus software are Symantec/Norton and McAfee. You can buy anti-virus software anywhere computers are sold. Talk with a sales associate at a computer store in order to determine which program best suits your needs.
• After you install anti-virus software on your computer, you will need to update it frequently (most programs will do this automatically). Just like real viruses, computer viruses can change quickly over time. Consider an anti-virus update like getting your annual flu shot, except needed more often.
• Be aware of the variety of scams that appear on the Internet. As a general rule, if you get an offer from an unknown e-mail address (or even an e-mail forwarded on from a friend!) that sounds too good to be true, it most likely is.
Staying Safe Online
• Shop on secure websites. When you log in with your account information, a secure website’s address will begin with “https://” instead of “http://”. This stands for a secure HTTP connection. If you are using Internet Explorer, a padlock should appear in the top right-hand corner of the address bar in your internet browser window. Many sites will also have some form of a verification symbol to show that company complies with the highest form of encryption and security.
• Legitimate websites will never ask for your credit card number or other personal information by e-mail, so never trust e-mails that request this information, even if it appears that the e-mail came from PayPal or Amazon.com. Also, don’t click on any links in the e-mail if it requests this sort of information—it’s probably a scam.
• Deal with businesses that are accredited by the Better Business Bureau. Businesses that are accredited by the BBB are committed to solving consumer complaints. These businesses assure a method of recourse if something goes wrong during your transaction.
• If you’re not sure, stick to the websites of large companies you’re already familiar with from their physical stores—they’re more likely to have a secure website. For example, you probably recognize and would trust Target.com or Bestbuy.com. Other popular online shopping sites include Amazon.com (books, music, etc.), Zappos.com (shoes), and Etsy.com (DIY apparel).
Protecting Your Identity
There are several key behaviors that can help ensure that your identity is protected online:
• If you have anti-virus software on your computer, be sure to periodically update it. This will keep newer viruses from infecting your computer.
• Do not open .exe files sent to you via e-mail if you do not trust the source. .Exe files can install spy software or other viruses on your computer that can be difficult to remove.
• Anti-virus software will sometimes remove links from e-mail messages if they have been flagged as malware (malicious software). If you occasionally get emails missing links, your anti-virus software is working!
• Do not forward chain e-mails. Chain e-mails often prey on sympathy, contain jokes, or include vague threats (e.g., “Someone will die of cancer if you do not forward this e-mail”). Computer programmers can collect e-mail addresses and information from these e-mails, so it is best to ignore them.
• Use a secure browser when making purchases online, and avoid storing passwords and personal information on your computer