How to Avoid Online Shopping Pitfalls
this Holiday Season

by Cathy Zimmermann

Online shopping may seem like an easy solution to a small business owner's hectic schedule, but in the excitement of the holidays, it's easy to forget we need to be cautious when buying online. Here are a few quick tips to avoid online shopping pitfalls as the holiday season begins.

Small business owners have so many demands on their time throughout the year that when the holiday season rolls around, they can easily become overwhelmed. Online shopping may seem like an easy solution, but in the excitement of the holidays, it's easy to forget we need to be cautious when buying online. Here are a few quick tips to avoid online shopping pitfalls as the holiday season begins.

Research Prices

You can find a list of popular price comparison sites on the ProBargainHunter blog. Remember to include shipping costs (most comparison sites will do this for you.) Read all the fine print on special holiday promotions. Try to buy from companies you know.

Do Your Homework

Before you order, check online for product reviews and complaints about the vendor. Search for the brand, model number, or vendor name and add the word "reviews" or "problems." Don't order from companies that do not supply an address, telephone number, e-mail contact, and privacy policy on their website. If you must use a contact form instead of sending an e-mail, make sure you keep a record of what you wrote on the form, and when.

Buy from Secure Sites

When you go to the checkout page to enter your credit card information, the web address in your browser should read "https," not "http." This means your information is encrypted. Using your credit card will give you more fraud protection than a debit card, and using PayPal will allow you to use a credit card without giving everyone your card information. Don't use public computers for ordering. If you have no other option for ordering online, use the 800 number instead.

Read the Shipping and Return Policies

Check prices, delivery times, backorder and return policies. Pay attention to the wording. You might assume that if you are paying for overnight shipping, you will receive your package the next day, but it may take them 3 days to process your order. If you bought a product in August for the holidays, can it still be returned or exchanged? If it's a major store, can you buy online and exchange at the store? Are there restocking fees for the item you plan to purchase?

Check Your Statements

Hopefully you're checking them year-round, but it's especially important to do so during the holiday shopping season. If you find you have fraudulent charges, report them to the card company immediately. Keep your online receipts in a separate folder in your email program and/or print a copy of the final order with the confirmation/order number. You can find information on identity theft and how to protect yourself at OnGuard Online.

Beware Gift Card Fees

Gift cards can be a great last minute gift, but shop around. If you purchase a store gift card in that store, you may avoid having a service charge added to the face value, but cards purchased at other retail locations or online will likely carry a fee for purchase. Gift card and pre-paid credit card companies are allowed to charge the recipient a monthly fee after 12 months of inactivity. Check the expiration date and read the terms for purchase and redemption.

Save More Money on Your Shopping

Many major stores will send you coupons if you give them an email address. To avoid filling up your email box, consider getting a separate free email address just for this. You also can find a list of popular coupon sites at ProBargainHunter.

Your college student can get a free one-year membership to Amazon Prime by signing up for Amazon Student with a .edu email address, and parents and other caregivers can get a free three-month prime membership by signing up for Amazon Mom and earn additional free months by shopping in Amazon's Baby store. Amazon Prime offers free two-day shipping, or one-day shipping for $3.99 per item on eligible purchases to the continental US with no minimums. Even big ticket items like big-screen TVs may qualify for free shipping!

Some stores will offer free shipping to a local store for pickup. You can also sign up for "free shipping" alerts for your favorite stores at

Copyright © 2010 Attard Communications, Inc.
May not be copied, reprinted, or reproduced without express permission from Attard Communications, Inc.

Cathy is a staff writer and digital media producer at Business Know-How and a graduate student in the Stony Brook Southampton MFA program for writing and digital media.

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