Online Shopping

Jason Bassford, February 1999

For the past year or so I've been occasionally buying items from various Internet based online stores. There's something tempting about typing in a couple pieces of information on a Web page and then magically receiving it shortly afterwards, either in the form of a software download or a package at your door a couple of weeks later. It offers more of a sense of "control" than having to talk to a sales person face to face or on the phone. You can do it at your leisure, while sitting comfortably in a chair, listening to music, and sipping a hot drink.

I've been approached by several people who've asked me just how safe this is. Do you really want to divulge personal credit card information to the managers of some anonymous Web site? My personal opinion is that, at the very least, it's no more dangerous than passing your credit card to some anonymous waiter in a restaraunt, something that I happen to do far more often anyway. True, anybody can set up a Web site and there's no guarantee that it's somebody legitimate. However, I've only shopped from sites that have built up a reputation and which have gained customers through word of mouth. There is no reason to assume that they are any less legitimate than your local cafe - or the street corner vendor trying to sell you the latest Swiss movement watch.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as Internet fraud. I've heard several stories about people having such information taken and used by someone of ill repute for their own gain. This sort of thing happens in the "real world" all the time and it would come as some considerable shock to me if our new virtual world didn't mirror it on some level. However, I don't think that this should close the door on a burgeoning new resource. Precautions should be taken, as with anything where you give money to somebody else, but I certainly don't think that there's any reason to be concerned about the security issue of divulging credit card information to established commercial Web sites.

The issue of credit cards aside, there are some other things to be aware of when ordering a product online. Care should be taken to review the company's return policies. If you buy something in a local store and it turns out to be defective it's easy enough to return it the next day, either for an exchange or refund. It may not be so easy if you've ordered something online. Odds are the actual store isn't local to you - it's even likely that they aren't in the same region. How much is it worth to you to pay to ship something back because it's got a small crack that doesn't detract from it's functionality, or because it has a quirk that's only occasionally noticeable? Obviously, if it's delivered in pieces it's not even a question of keeping it - but if it's only a small flaw you've got to balance it against the hassle of packaging it up again and taking it down to your local post office. If you didn't spend that much on it in the first place, say it was a CD that you'd ordered, it might be even more of a hassle than writing the money off and buying it again locally. Luckily, this sort of thing isn't very common - but it does happen and is something to think about.

Another facet of online ordering is when the company is actually in a different country. It's easy to assume certain things about Web pages you get to. You can get anywhere in the world with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks - so be sure to verify exactly where you've ended up. What happens if Customs decides that you shouldn't be allowed to have the item brought into your home country? Even the most innocuous of items can sometimes be stopped at the border because of some obscure legality that no typical person would be aware of. It can get even more interesting if you order something that has a questionable status, or even something that you know isn't allowed across - but you want to gamble on it getting through anyway. (I'm in no way condoning trying to bypass Customs laws, I'm just speaking to human nature.) Before spending a lot of money on something it would be a good idea to do a bit of research and make sure that it's deliverable, or, if there's some question, to at least weigh how much you're spending against the chance of not actually getting it. Remember that it's not the responsibility of the retailer to ensure it ends up in your hands - it's only their responsiblity to ship it out of their warehouse.

There are other considerations too, but they are just as amenable to common sense as any Saturday shopping trip. I would encourage online shopping as much as I would most other common place endeavours. I don't think that there's anything inherently dangerous about it - and I believe it can be as enjoyable and worthwhile an activity as anything else of its kind.  

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