Does shopping online live up to the hype?

November 8, 1999

Using your PC to make purchases can save you money and aggravation. But there are some things to watch out for.

Does shopping online live up to the hype?

It's like catalog shopping—but more

Jump to:Choose article section...What kinds of savings will you find in cyberspace?Make sure a Web merchant can say this about himselfIs it safe to divulge credit card information?Online auctions are the rage, but caveat emptorWant to know more?

The possibilities are wondrous and endless. But while usingyour PC to make purchases can save you money, time, and aggravation, youcan also get burned.

By Robert Lowes, Midwest Editor

Peter McGough, a family physician in Redmond, WA, recently went onlineto shop for a Star Wars game and a joy stick for his children's computer.He paid $77.50, including shipping, for items he'd seen advertised in localstores for $99. So he saved $21.50, and he didn't have to brave trafficto do it.

Online shopping is smoking hot these days. Volume is expected to skyrocketfrom an estimated $8 billion in 1998 to $108 billion in 2003, accordingto Cambridge, MA-based Forrester Research. While nobody expects the mallsto shut down anytime soon, traditional merchants such as Wal-Mart and theGap have seen the future. They've opened their own Web stores to cater topoint-and-click spenders.

The siren call of savings is just partly responsible for the popularityof electronic commerce. Convenience is a big factor, too. Buying onlineappeals to those increasingly harried Americans—doctors fit this bill—wholike to get their shopping done without having to step out the door. "I'vebought books for my wife—wrapped, delivered, and with a personal message,"says Springfield, MA, pediatrician Robert Gerstle. "For me, it's atime-saver." Adds McGough: "I appreciate being able to shop anyhour of the day, any day of the week." Even when online shopping doesn'tsave money, the convenience often makes it worthwhile.

Since its inception in the mid-1990s, e-commerce has gotten easier, safer,and more rewarding in terms of price and selection, says Preston Gralla,an executive editor at ZDNet, a Web site of media company Ziff-Davis. Thatsaid, this high-tech bazaar has its pitfalls. Some, such as slow downloadtimes, confusing Web sites, and computer crashes, are born of the new technology.Others reflect ancient problems such as human avarice and deceit, as victimizedbidders in online auctions have ruefully discovered.

Here's how to avoid the perils and reap the promises of online shopping.

Before appraising online shopping, let's demystify it. Buying books,vacuum cleaners, and sweaters from the privacy of your home has been anoption for more than a century, through catalogs. Online shopping merelyextends the concept immortalized by Sears and Roebuck.

But the extreme to which computer automation enhances that concept isthe real wonder of e-commerce. It puts the equivalent of thousands of catalogsat your fingertips, sparing you the trouble of handling all that hard copy.What's more, search functions allow you to zip through the catalogs to findthe one that sells a particular palmtop computer or die-cast replica ofa DC-3 airliner.

And, thanks to the Internet, electronic catalogs can serve you in waysthat ordinary catalogs can't. Before you buy a book from Amazon.com (www.amazon.com), you can often read longexcerpts from it, as well as reviews from readers and critics; the Web sitealso recommends other books that buyers of that one have purchased. Thesite of mail-order merchant Lands' End (www.landsend.com)lets women indicate their body type, then suggests outfits that might beflattering. And most major online music sellers let you hear samples ofan album before you buy.

The Web also lets you research a product before you plunk down your money.In the pre-Web world, you could subscribe to a magazine such as ConsumerReports for tips on buying cars or washing machines. Today, the Webbrings an entire library of consumer information into your home. For example,Edmund's (www.edmunds.com) revealshow much car dealers pay automakers for the vehicles on their lots—an importantnumber when you dicker with a salesman about price. Not surprisingly, ConsumerReports itself is online (www.consumerreports.com).

What kinds of savings will you find in cyberspace?

Here's the sort of deal you can score with your c