Online Buyer's Guide

Researching Products and Vendors

Few shopping experiences are complete without a little research. When you're looking to buy something new, you may ask friends what they know about a product that interests you, or you may look for product reviews. Different kinds of information might be helpful in your decision making.

At times, the Internet makes such research easy. There are search tools, independent reviews and product recommendations, comparison shopping sites, public-reputation references, and other resources available to buyers. Types of research can include product feature comparisons on the items and models, different manufacturers, warranties, and prices.

Here are some tips to help you get started on researching products and services. Bookmark those sites you find the most helpful.

Check Manufacturers' Sites

Some manufacturers have gotten wise to customer needs and interests. Their web sites offer general sales information as well as detailed specifics about each of their products. Some offer comparison guides for similar goods, while others offer detailed reports with illustrations or schematics. In addition, manufacturers' sites often offer FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions), along with the company's warranty and return policies. Some even offer online discussion areas, and referrals to vendors carrying their goods and services.

Check Out the Used-Equipment Market

Used-equipment sites like used-goods dealers, auctions, online chats and discussions, and alternative support sites can reveal how well something was built and how long it lasts. Do you see a lot of these goods for sale cheap–as if people are getting rid of a product–or do people seem to be looking for them? Are the products in need of repair–or all as good as new?

Comparison Shopping

One way to compare prices is to visit several retailers. Another is to visit one of the price-comparison sites such as those listed below.

You might also include a visit to discounters, and be sure to watch for sales, coupons, rebates, and special deals like inclusion of shipping costs. It also might be helpful to have a back-up option in case the specific model you want is out of date or no longer available.

Many sites such as bizrate.com, gomez.com, and consumersunion.org offer product reviews, comparisons, and evaluations. Some sites require membership or payment. New comparison sites are frequently appearing on the web–beware: the newer sites may offer fair and unbiased opinions, or they may offer reviews from a few disgruntled employees or others with a biased interest.

SITES TO SEE:
http://www.consumersunion.org/
and related http://www.consumerreports.org/
http://www.bizrate.com/
http://www.gomez.com/
http://www.mysimon.com/
http://home1.bestedeal.com/cgi-bin/index.cgi
http://www.shoppingspot.com/

Dynamic Pricing

Many retailers are working with or testing systems that charge different prices for the same goods under different circumstances. Prices are based on what the retailer thinks you're willing to pay, which in turn is based on where you live, whether you're a return customer, what site "referred" you (what site you were visiting immediately before), or other profiled information. Dynamic pricing also allows a vendor to change prices rapidly in response to changing market conditions by raising the price of a popular toy the moment demand starts to overtake its supply, for example. Or, if the vendor wishes to encourage visits to a local store, he or she might lower prices of goods to customers who live or work nearby. (See "Digital Profiling" in the Privacy and Security section for more on this.)

Find Out What Others Are Saying

Reputation is just as important online as in the bricks-and-mortar world of traditional shopping. When people have something to say, they say it–good or bad. These ad hoc reviews can be very revealing! Several sites, sometimes called "reputation managers," exist to provide such independent reviews and opinions. The auction site eBay, for example, allows buyers and sellers to comment and rate each other publicly, making it easier to spot the bad guys.

SITES TO SEE:
http://www.webwatchdog.com/
http://www.epinions.com/

Additional resources might include sites that your friends have recommended or that you have researched thoroughly. Remember also to check online auctions, classifieds, third-party distributors, advertisers, and commerce-oriented search engines.

Check for Compliance with Industry Certification Programs

The White House, for example, has expressed concern that citizens have no way of telling whether an online pharmacy is a legitimate operation. To be safe, make online prescription purchases from sites certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. This organization developed the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS) program in response to public concern about the safety of online pharmacy practices. Wise shoppers will also look for reputable brands and make purchases from web sites that provide contact information, including phone numbers and street addresses. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also offers useful advice to help people evaluate pharmacy sites.

SITES TO SEE:
FDA Consumer report: Buying Drugs Online: It's Convenient and Private, but Beware of 'Rogue Sites'
http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/2000/100_online.html

The Devil Is in the Details

Before confirming your purchase, be sure to look for any extra charges including shipping and handling, rush charges, taxes, leasing arrangements, duty on imports, transaction fees for overseas buyer/sellers, return arrangement, and more.

Ask About Customer Support

Before you make an online purchase, learn everything you can about the merchant's customer support policies. Repeat business depends on customer satisfaction, so reputable online merchants will want to include information about warranties, repairs, returns, and service provisions. If you can't find this information, you may be better off buying from another online merchant. Here's a basic checklist of questions to ask before completing an online transaction.

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