Tips for smarter online shopping

I love wandering through a shopping centre or strip mall, window shopping, touching and seeing first-hand the goods I’d like to buy. It’s true, there’s something to be said about the bricks-and-mortar experience.

There’s also something to be said for the savings made when purchasing goods online.

Top those prices with skipping the crowds and avoiding parking or public transport – and online shopping can be pretty tough to beat. There are also those who have limited accessibility and don’t have a choice but to shop online. 

Of course, there are some disadvantages to online shopping that might balance out the savings and convenience. 

When you’re an invisible buyer, you can often suffer from poor customer service, be it lack of communication from sellers, high shipping costs and handling fees or maybe just disreputable sellers bullying you into leaving positive feedback (true story).

Couple these shortfalls with the fear of online fraud and credit card security issues, and shopping online can be fraught with all sorts of hassles. 

But here’s how to bypass those pitfalls:

Keep your computer software up to date
The latest operating systems and browsers are all highly advisable, as along with those updates come bolstered security protocols and protection against viruses and malware. You might also want to run anti-virus and anti-spyware scans at least once a month. 

Shop from a trusted computer or network
Don’t do your online shopping at a local library or internet café and, if it can be helped, only buy goods while accessing a trusted network, such as your home, or the wifi network of a family member or friend.

Stick to the sites you trust
Using eBay, Amazon and other big sites comes with a certain level of consumer protection. However, buying direct from smaller retailers – especially those that don’t have a physical address or contact information – can be risky. Read reviews or ask for recommendations from friends before buying from these vendors.

Only ever use secure servers
Look for secure servers when you make purchases. Look for the padlock icon at the bottom of your browser window or the top left-hand side of your browser URL address bar. An open padlock means the website is not secure and secure servers should also start with addresses that begin with ‘https://’ not ‘//’. Also, some sites will use a statement such as ‘secured with Secure Socket Layer (SSL)’ or certification logos from third party verification services such as VeriSign or Entrust.

Be guarded with the info you give out
Most shopping websites will use cookies to enable shopping carts and enhance the overall experience. You should check out the privacy policy and read the terms and conditions of using that site to see how they use your data. Also read the terms of use, legal notices and conditions of use sections, just to make sure you’re covered in case of fraudulent activities on your account.

Read and re-read product descriptions and view product photos
Make sure you know what you’re buying before you pay, by carefully reading product descriptions and checking the product photos. If information is missing, ask the vendor to fill in the details. Check product specifications, measurements, guarantees, warranties, certificates of authenticity/approval and options for materials and colours. Also, check your postal information before you hit ‘pay’. It’s cheaper to take a little extra time before purchasing than it is to fork out postage on a product return.

Check payment options
Some sellers will add a surcharge for credit card payments, while payment platforms, such as PayPal, may also charge you a fee. Sometimes calling a vendor and paying over the phone is cheaper than paying online. 

Check postage costs
Some sellers will offer you free postage for purchases over a certain amount. However, if that amount is $50 and you’ve just made a $49.95 purchase, you’ll be on the hook for a $15 postage fee, so sometimes it’s worth buying a little something extra to get you over the free postage threshold. You’ll essentially get that item free or at a discount.

Beware additional costs
Some items bought online will be cheaper in store, once you add postage and handling fees to the bottom line. And if you’re buying from overseas, many items will have GST, taxes and customs charges applied at the time of purchase. Also, keep a close eye on currency exchange rates and credit card fees.

Check return policies
Carefully check your returns policy to know your rights for damaged or lost goods, as well as the time allowed before returns will be denied, and whether you have to pay for postage on a returned item. 

Note the shipping times
Online shopping is ideal for opportunistic purchases, but not for last-minute gifts. If you need fast postage on goods then you’ll pay a premium. Slow shipping times are cheapest, so be aware of delivery dates or you will pay the price.

Check the warranty
International stores warranties are often not honoured in other countries, so take care to check if the warranties or policies for damaged or defective goods apply outside the country of purchase.

Save your purchased order confirmations
Make sure you keep a print or email version, or even a screenshot of your order confirmation as proof that you paid. Then if your product doesn’t arrive, you’ll at least have proof that you bought it, and another one can be sent.

Don’t respond to suspicious emails
Avoid clicking on any links on suspicious emails that say there’s a problem with your delivery. They’ll most likely look as if they come from a courier company or other delivery service. When in doubt, call the company from which you purchased your goods, or send them an email, but don’t include any personal or financial information in that email.

Clear out your cookies
Once you’ve finished browsing and made your purchase, clear your browser history to get rid of any cookies, passwords and information you’ve used to fill out online forms.

It’s easy to shop online and, if you follow these tips, even simpler to stay safe when doing so.


Do you enjoy online shopping? Or are you more a bricks-and-mortar shopper?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.


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