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Shopping websites

Shopping website buying guide

Last updated: December 2013

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Getting started

Getting started

No matter what a shopping website sells, it should provide value and quality, make shopping easy, deliver products on time, and provide good customer support. To see how online shopping websites stack up, we asked our readers about their experiences at 52 of the nation's largest shopping websites. We also checked out many of the websites to see what distinguishes great shopping sites from mediocre ones, and what you should expect when shopping online.

Overall, shopping websites received high marks. Survey respondents were highly satisfied with 84 percent of their purchases when visiting shopping websites. But not all sites made the cut. Lower-rated shopping websites were faulted for value, checkout, shipping and customer support.

Scores for quality, value, and price didn't always line up. For example, readers said that while the product quality at one shopping website was outstanding, that the value and prices at that same site were just OK.

The second biggest complaint among survey respondents about shopping websites overall was not knowing what their final cost would be until checkout. On 6 percent of visits, readers complained about not knowing the full cost until checkout.

What makes a great shopping experience

Navigation. You should have no problem telling what a shopping website sells, finding specific products and brands, and getting pages to load fast without pop-up windows, Flash videos, or other digital detritus. And you should be able to easily find site policies, contact information for customer service, and your shopping cart.

Checkout. Once you've shopped, you should be able to see what you've chosen and check out with little hassle. At some shopping websites, even if you don't create an account, the site places cookies on your computer so that items you select remain in your shopping cart if you leave and return. Plus you can see the total cost without having to check out.

Unfortunately at some sites, clicking on checkout takes you to a sign-in page, with no option to buy as a guest or review your order beforehand.

Shipping. On 7 percent of visits, readers complained about high shipping or delivery charges, a particular problem at flower sites, where more than one in four readers complained. Other shopping websites that got high marks for shipping don't charge extra for some items or if purchases reach a certain threshold, while still other sites provide no-cost shipping if the item is sent to a local store for pickup.

Don't assume that "free" shipping means you're getting the lowest price for a product. And add shipping charges when comparing prices among retailers.

Customer support. The better shopping websites post frequently asked questions and have e-mail notification and trackers that show the status of your order. Above all, someone in customer service should be easy to reach either by phone, e-mail, regular mail, social media, or live chat.

Important site features

Search function. On At one shopping website site our search for "Converse" found 106 items with reviews, plus pull-down menus at the top of the page that let you narrow the selection by color, price, brand, and store availability. But, we found other online shopping deals and coupon websites that have no search function, and one where we had to resort to using Google to find a deal we had seen earlier in the day.

Product-comparison tools. If you've narrowed your choice to a few similar items, it's handy to be able to compare them side by side, as we did for several specific product categories on the shopping websites that had such a tool.

On shopping websites that don't have a product-comparison tool, you can open each product page in a separate tab on your browser and compare that way.

User feedback. Some sites display an overall rating based on user feedback and the most helpful positive and negative reviews voted on by customers. Many shopping websites use a star system, with five for the top score.

On some shopping websites, the more ratings and reviews, the greater the chance of avoiding fraudulent reviews and getting an accurate idea of a product or service. But at the other extreme, some online deal websites have no user reviews, or simply take reviews from other websites and weeds out the bad ones.

Return policy. Shopping websites should have liberal return policies, preferably beyond the 30-day limit you see from many retailers. And companies should be willing to replace defective products within a reasonable period even if the return policy has ended. (Of course, what's reasonable depends on the type of product. You wouldn't expect a retailer with a 60-day return policy to brush you off if a $2,000 refrigerator it sold you breaks down after 90 days.)

Shopping tips

Here are other factors to consider when shopping online, especially when buying from a retailer you haven't tried before.

Use a separate e-mail address. To keep spam from reaching your regular e-mail account, use a different address for online purchases. Many Internet service providers let you set up numerous e-mail accounts, which you can change any time you want, or you can obtain a free account from such sites as Google. If you don't want to receive ads and promotions, make sure that the company hasn't automatically checked boxes in which you agree to receive such materials.

See products in person. Check out big-ticket items at a local retailer to see how they look and work in the real world. You can always buy online if the walk-in store won't match the best online price. If you buy clothes online without trying them on in a store, make sure the site has a liberal return policy. Factor in any return shipping charges.

Look for gotchas. Read a shopping website's FAQs, privacy policy, and terms and conditions. Find out what information will be collected, how long it will be kept, and what will be done with it. If a website shares data, see whether there's a way to limit it. Make sure that any boxes that have you agreeing to share aren't checked by default. If you don't understand something, ask, and try to get the answers in writing, perhaps by using and saving an online chat session with customer service.

See what others say. Some shopping websites let customers rate retailers who sell through them. Do a Web search with the name of the site and such terms as "review" and "complaints." Read the entire company report (if there is one) at the Better Business Bureau and look for at least a "B" rating.

Know warranty limits. When shopping online, you generally don't get an "implied warranty of merchantability," meaning the right to receive a product that is free of defects and lasts a reasonable length of time. An implied warranty can extend your protection beyond the product warranty and the store's return policy. Under state law, it automatically accompanies most new-product sales unless the retailer "disclaims" it--rare for walk-in stores but common for online sellers. Check the fine print. To preserve your basic warranty rights when making a major purchase, consider shopping at a walk-in store.

Use credit. Credit cards provide greater security than debit cards, allowing you to obtain a chargeback if there's a problem. Some card issuers let you create temporary account numbers to use when shopping online so that you don't have to hand over your actual card number.

Keep records. Once you buy something, the shopping website should send you an e-mail summary of your order. But, take a screen shot of your order, just in case.

   

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