What you need to know about online shopping

January 17, 2013

By Sheryl Smolkin

SHUTTERSTOCK: Online shopping. Do your research.
SHUTTERSTOCK: Online shopping. Do your research.

When I worked in a building that was linked by a tunnel to the Toronto Eaton Centre, I did all my shopping for clothes, gifts and even household items on my lunch breaks. Because I was in and out of the mall almost every day, I knew how much items I was interested in cost and when there was a great sale.

But since I started working from home almost eight years ago, shopping has become a chore. I have to get into my car and drive somewhere which wastes a great deal of time that could be better spent doing client work.

So now I am the poster child for online shopping. I particularly like that I can send orders to out-of-town family members directly without having to wrap and mail them myself.

However, if you shop online there are some basic things you need to know to ensure you get good value:

Real cost: If you are shopping online for the convenience or because there is no retail outlet selling what you want nearby, you may be prepared to pay a premium. Otherwise, before you add that great purse to your shopping cart, find out what the regular and sale prices are in a “bricks and mortar” store.

Shipping: “Free shipping” is the magic mantra of online shopping. But read the fine print. Even if you think you qualify, you could be in for a surprise. For example, Amazon.ca has free super saver shipping if you spend more than $25 but low-priced gently used books are not included. Items shipped for free may also take longer to arrive. Some U.S. vendors ship to Canada but don’t forget to factor in taxes, duty and currency conversion.

Return policy: Be very careful when you buy shoes and clothes online. I have trouble finding shoes that fit so I only order shoes online if I have tried them in a store and they are cheaper or available in a colour I can’t get locally. If there is a chance that you may need to exchange or return your order, make sure you understand how long you have, how much it will cost and whether you will get a credit or your money back. Shopping online is no bargain if unsuitable items cost more to return than they are worth or end up in the give-away bag.

Payment: Before providing your credit card number or other financial information, make sure the merchant has a secure transaction system. Most Internet browsers indicate when you are using a secure Internet link. Look for one or both of these clues:

  • An icon, often a lock or key somewhere on the outer edge of your browser window; the lock should be in the locked position and the key should be unbroken.
  • Whether the website address begins with https:// — the s indicates that the site is secure.

Personal information: Never deal with vendors who do not post a privacy policy committing them to protecting your personal information. For many Internet vendors, your personal information is as important as the money you pay for a product or service. Make sure you know why vendors are asking for information and what they intend to use it for. Ask yourself whether it is reasonable for the vendor to use your information in this way. Canadian companies are subject to privacy laws.

Online auctions: Shopping on online auction sites like eBay can be exciting and you may get a great deal. But it’s important to know what you are purchasing and get a description in writing in case the item doesn’t meet your expectations. Keep in mind that when you are buying from a private individual consumer protection laws may not apply. Better sites will keep records of customer satisfaction and should also have dispute resolution mechanisms.

Finally, if you are buying from the United States or another country outside of Canada ensure that products meet Canadian Safety Standards and that if there is a warranty, it will be honoured in Canada.

Do you have any other hints about how to maximize value when you shop online?  Send us an email to so*********@sa*********.com. If your idea is posted, your name will be entered in a quarterly draw for a gift card. And remember to put a dollar in the retirement savings jar every time you get a great deal when you shop online.

If you would like to send us other money saving ideas, here are the themes for the next three weeks:

24-Jan Home insurance What does your home insurance cover?
31-Jan Winter vacation 7 ways to protect your credit cards on vacation
7-Feb Valentine’s Day Budget-friendly Valentine’s Day ideas
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