I just came back from abroad, and after weeping a little bit over my thinner wallet, I made a mental note to myself to never underestimate my spending ability when currency conversion is involved; but, that’s a post for another time.

What this post is about is what I found prior to my trip, during my annual end-of-the-year cleanup (that started in 2007). While dumping out loads of cardboard boxes containing packing peanuts from my closet, I found this little faded-out gem:

Mmm... donuts

A black, extra-large (because it was supposedly cool to wear oversize clothings back then), Homer Simpsons “Intel Inside” T-shirt. My very first online purchase.

Nearly a decade ago back in 1998, Intel started an advertising campaign featuring Homer Simpson, which included related merchandises for sale on Intel’s website. Although having never seen the actual TV commercial, while browsing the web I saw the T-shirt for sale and immediately thought about the potential cool factor in wearing the shirt to school.

Being the good 15 year-old boy that I was, I asked my mom if I could use my credit card (authorized user) to buy the T-shirt.

“Mom, can I buy a Homer Simpson T-shirt online?” I asked.

“A what T-shirt?” my mom responded.

“Homer Simpson. You know, from TV.”

“Who? And why do you need a T-shirt, you have plenty in the closet.”

About 15 minutes later, I was able to convince my mom that it was (probably) safe to buy things online with a credit card, and that Intel will most likely not steal our personal information to commit credit card fraud.

So with the aid of my trusty old Intel DX4 100 along with a ridiculously priced U.S. Robotics modem, I typed my personal information into Netscape Navigator and proceeded to make my very first online purchase — a product from a marketing campaign, no less.

What a difference it’s been since 1998. Nowadays, when I make purchases online, I expect them delivered within a week. I expect prompt responses to my email, and I expect reasonable shipping rates. (No more $7.99 to ship a damn T-shirt!) I even expect easy return policies, and little to no restocking fees. In short, I have become the fickle online consumer that was irritating me just a few years ago.

I didn’t simply start purchasing things online on a regular basis since that day, but it did became more of the norm for me as I complete one transaction after the next. Things got especially easier when I realized that federal law protects consumer against unauthorized credit card charges.

Still, even with the protection against unauthorized charges, being an online consumer still requires some amount of prudence — after all, you are providing your personal information to a third party, trusting that they will secure your information with some amount of responsibility. You are also expecting a smooth transaction, free of fraud reports and claims to make.

To add more value to this post so that it’ll be a tad bit more than a simple reminiscing post, you’ll find some tips below for a safer online buying experience.

Five Tips for a Safer, Smoother Online Purchase

  1. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
    The online marketplace is an extremely competitive field, and as such, you may occasionally come across some ridiculously priced widget. Think twice before you filled out the form and hit submit! Lower prices don’t necessary equate to a scam website, but there may be other reasons behind the great price.Take my recent holiday shopping experience as an example, where I search the web for the best place to buy a digital camera. After using the usual price comparison sites, I narrow my purchasing choices down to Amazon.com and two other lesser-known online retailers specializing in cameras. The prices on those two other sites were 10 ~ 20% cheaper than Amazon! Digging further, I found out why.

    The two other retailers employs aggressive after-sale tactics, often requiring you to call them to confirm the purchase. During that call, they will try to sell you additional accessories and packages. Was a savings of $20-30 worth the hassle? At the end, I went with the sure bet of hassle-free shopping and expected delivery time frame of Amazon.com.

  2. Use consumer friendly credit cards.
    And by this I mean credit cards with easy unauthorized transaction claim process, charge back request, fraud report, and transaction dispute. Although federal law protects you from unauthorized charges, it doesn’t mean your credit card company will make the process of claim easy. Some companies have multiple reporting methods and easy reporting process while some makes it so difficult that you’ll rather just eat the cost due to the time involved. Sub-prime cards generally have a lower emphasis on customer service compare to prime rate cards.

    Buying things with a consumer friendly card will also ensure you some level of protection when the merchant don’t deliver as promised. When I buy big-ticket items online, or stuff that I’m a bit unsure about, I always use my American Express.

  3. Use customer review websites to know the merchant better.
    Price comparison sites like PriceGrabber, BizRate, PriceWatch and many others will often have merchant ratings attach to them. If it is a big enough ticket item, read through the reviews carefully and take note of the negative ones. What problems did these people have? Do the reviews sound subjective? Is there a common trend among these negative reviews? If 10 people gave a simple “great place to shop” review while 4 others give a “bad shipping time” review, then you should most likely expect some shipping mishap with the particular merchant.
  4. Know the delivery time frame.
    Just so you don’t sit around the front porch all week long to wait for the UPS guy (for those with shady neighbors), check the expected delivery time frame before you purchase the item. What is the usual processing time frame? How long does shipping take? By what method? UPS, FedEx, DHL, or postal service?
  5. Read and understand the purchasing and returning policies.
    For purchases that warrant it, you should definitely read through the purchase and return policies carefully. What is deadline for return? Is there different return policies for different types of products? Is there a restock fee? How are exchanges handled? Sometimes, some products can be returned within 30 days while others need to be returned within 15. Some stuff such as software and media can’t even be returned if you’ve opened the packaging.

    Consider the merchant’s return process too. Do they make it easy for you to make returns? Many established retailers these days will include a return shipping label, or provide you with the ability to print one from online. Understanding and knowing the process will make it easier for you to return an unwanted or defective item — instead of simply keeping the item to avoid the hassles involved.

Got tips of your own? Or maybe stories about your very first online purchase? Do share.