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You don't have to fight traffic. There aren't any crowds. And no one's piping in that constant annoying stream of Christmas carols. And the best part? You're in your own home, sipping a little eggnog, at any hour you want.

We're talking, of course, about Internet shopping. E-commerce has come of age, and it's not just about books and records anymore. Want some name-brand or discount clothing? No problem. Shopping for a golfer or a fly fisher? From putters to muddlers, it's all online. Need to buy a food processor? Would you prefer it with or without the juicer attachment? Heck, if you're looking for vintage metal lunch boxes or rare Pez dispensers, there's just no better place to find them.

So there you are, mouse and credit card in hand–ready to click your way into a mall whose size defies imagination. But where do you start, and what should you watch out for?

You've probably developed your own set of tricks for navigating the crowded December shopping malls, including, perhaps, the location of frequently overlooked parking places. Let us share with you some tricks of our own. We not only found the best places to shop (see the sidebar "The Best Shopping Sites"), but we also figured out the best ways to shop.

After all, online buying has its own problems, from security issues to the challenge of picking the right color sweater on your old and faded monitor. But it also has its own rewards–this holiday season, you will be able to find that perfect gift without ever leaving the comfort of your ergonomic chair.

The Web is a lot like the real world, and how you approach it can vary widely, depending on how you like to shop. Do you know what you want and just need to find it cheap? Do you like to browse? Is there a store or a brand you prefer? Is customer service your biggest concern? All these factors influence you, whether you're pushing your basket down the aisles in Target or making a beeline for gap.com. But however you shop, some general principles will help as you navigate the online world.

Check Return Policies

Some things are more suited to online shopping than others. CDs are a cinch–you know exactly what you're getting–but it's tough to tell how clothing is going to fit or what colors will look like exactly. For things you'll need to try on (or see on the person you're giving the present), be very aware of the site's return policy. You don't want to get stuck with lame merchandise or a hefty "restocking fee."

Also check for interactive features that can help you make a good decision. For example, for those who are shopping for a new couch or bed, the Furniture--.com site's Room Planner feature lets site visitors arrange furniture on a virtual floor plan to see what fits. If you're looking for clothes, you may find the new "Your Personal Model" at the Lands' End site ( http://www.landsend.com ) interesting. The site asks you to answer a series of questions about your body. Then it creates a 3-D model, based on your description, on which you can try different outfits. If you're shopping for your guy friends, you're out of luck. This feature is for women only.

Notice Secure Servers

Always make sure a site has a secure server before you type in your credit-card information. So how can you check? Look for a little closed lock at the bottom of your browser window, and read the site's security procedures (any site worth its salt will have a section about this). If you want to take an extra precaution, use only one credit card for shopping online, so that you can keep track of your purchases.

Don't spend a lot of energy worrying about your card number being stolen. It's actually safer to shop online than to physically hand the card to a harried holiday-help hiree who might forget to give it back to you. And there's no chance you'll accidentally leave the card on the counter either.

Figure Real Prices

Don't assume that something is cheaper online just because it has a low price tag. You still have to add in shipping and handling. That CD that's a bargain at $11.99 isn't such a steal after you've added $3 for shipping. So when you're comparing prices, make sure you're taking the total cost into account.

Check Timing

Look carefully at the shipping dates. Some sites, such as Amazon, make it very clear whether your item will arrive within 24 hours or whether it will be three to five days before they even put it in the mail. Other sites, however, aren't so up-front. Even if you pay for overnight shipping, you may not get your item the next day if it's not in stock. This consideration is especially important around high-volume shopping times such as the holiday season.

Inspect the Wrapping Options

If you have far-flung family and friends, online shopping can truly be a balm for the holiday-shopping blues. How? By saving you the time, money, and sweat involved with wrapping, packing, and mailing your gifts. Many sites wrap presents in festive paper and include a card, but not all sites' services are created equal. Often a "personalized card" translates to a message typed on the packing slip (see the sidebar "What They'll Get").

Be Patient

As convenient as online shopping can be, it's not without its annoyances. With record numbers of shoppers expected online this year, no one knows how the computers that run the stores (the servers behind the scenes) will handle the traffic.

Your shopping spree could end up in the virtual equivalent of a bumper-to-bumper mall parking lot, with slow connections and long waits for pictures to download. If you're going to do your holiday shopping on the Net, be prepared to spend some time doing it. If you can, try to surf in the wee hours, when your competitors might be otherwise occupied.

Once upon a time, there was a big divide between "e-tailers" and the traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers. But that was way back in 1998. Today, most brand-name stores have joined the fray. Think "clicks and mortar" or "bricks and clicks."

If you have a favorite store, try typing its name into your browser. The Gap, Eddie Bauer, Victoria's Secret, Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom–just name your favorite place to spend money at the mall, and it's likely to have an online store now. In addition, you'll find traditional catalog merchants, such as REI, L.L. Bean, and Hammacher Schlemmer, online.

What if you're not quite sure what you want to buy for Aunt Mary or you don't have a favorite store? Start by window shopping.

Wander the Mall

In order to cash in on the holiday-shopping buzz around electronic commerce, all the Internet's top names have added directories that allow you to browse by category or search across sites for general items you think you might be interested in (for example, "lunch box" or "dog sweater"). In most cases, you can see a preview of items before jumping to the site where they're for sale. This is a good way to find stores you'd never run across otherwise.

There are plenty of places to do your browsing. Yahoo Shopping
( http://www.shopping.yahoo.com/ ) is classic Yahoo: it's a big directory of shopping categories, all with the Yahoo look-and-feel, and everything can be bought with one cart. America Online takes another approach with its shopping sites–Shop@AOL, Shop@Netscape, and Shop@CompuServe. AOL shopping ( http://www.aol.com/shopping/home.html ) looks like one big glossy catalog, complete with suggestions for ensembles–click on a product, and you are taken to one of AOL's merchant partners to buy it.

Excite ( http://www.excite.com/shopping ), once the king of search engines, has paired with Intel to create a huge database of vendors and items you can search for. Lycos
( http://www.lycos.com/shopnet ) has latched onto some pretty nifty shopping-comparison tools, such as Frictionless Commerce and Active Buyer's Guide, that help you decide what product will best suit your needs in a given area. And MSN ( http://shopping.msn.com ) has taken the name-brand approach, connecting you to the merchants you know and love.

When shopping around, don't forget to take a look at Amazon
( http://www.amazon.com ), which has branched off from its original mission of selling books and music. Amazon now sells electronics, toys, and videos, too. It also has links to partner sites for lots of things it doesn't sell, such as clothing, sporting goods, pet supplies, and wine. At press time, Amazon announced that it would soon expand its services to let small and large merchants sell goods through its site. Watch for these new "zShops."

Once you've found what you want, the Web makes it easy to see if you can get your item somewhere cheaper or faster, or with better customer-service policies. Some clever shopping sites can help you find just about anything you want for the best price possible.

Cruise Comparison Sites

Among the best places to see if you can get what you want for less are MySimon
( http://www.mysimon.com ), BottomDollar ( http://www.bottomdollar.com ), and Compare-it.net
( http://www.compare-it.net ), which all let you do comparison shopping.

For one-stop bargain hunting, check out Buy.com ( http://www.buy.com ), which sells many items below their actual cost and makes up the difference by selling advertising on its site. For clothing, don't miss Bluefly ( http://www.bluefly.com ), which sells name-brand apparel at a hefty discount–and includes free shipping. (Don't miss the search-by-price feature!)

Hit the Auctions

And, of course, there are the auction sites. You've undoubtedly heard about these wild-and-woolly sites where individuals sell whatever they want (barring body parts and guns) to the highest bidder.

The reigning auction king is eBay (www--.ebay.com), a great place to find unique gifts and used electronics. This site is so popular that it's sometimes hard to find true bargains ($100 computers, for example) anymore, because someone who knows their value has probably already bid on them. But the site's size does make it easier to find the rarest of items, such as an out-of-print Winnie-the-Pooh Pez dispenser sold by a guy in Slovenia.

If you're trolling primarily for bargains, check out other sites that have auctions, such as Amazon
( http://auctions.amazon.com ) or Yahoo ( http://auctions.yahoo.com ). For new electronics equipment, OnSale.com ( http://www.onsale.com ) is a good place to look. You may also want to check Bidder's Edge ( http://www.biddersedge.com ), a free service that allows you to search for items across many different auction sites.

Browser, Beware

Play it safe when auction shopping. Stick to well-established sites, read the rules, and pay for fraud insurance if the site offers that option. The built-in insurance policy at eBay will reimburse you up to $200 with a $25 deductible, but only if you meet the "Insurance Guidelines." These include following all the auction rules and require that both the buyer and seller have a good reputation (as judged by the feedback they've gotten from other auction-goers).

Auction goods are typically sold in "as is" condition, and there's little chance of a return policy or a warranty. Ask the seller to insure the shipment so at least you'll be protected while it's in the mail. One final tip: Always pay with a credit card or an escrow service. For a small service charge, escrow services (eBay recommends iescrow, at http://www.iescrow.com/ebay ) handle your payment and give the money to the sellers only after the item has arrived in satisfactory condition. Sound like a hassle? Then take note: According to the National Consumers League, the great majority of online-fraud complaints concern cash and money-order auction sales.

Online shopping probably won't save you from ever setting foot in the mall again. If you hate crowds, however, you'll appreciate the fact that you can take care of a whole hunk of your holiday shopping this way. With a little patience and the tips you've read here, shopping might even be fun this year.

January 2000 page: 88

Amazon.com ( http://www.amazon.com )

Amazon has the best customer service of any large-scale (yes, it is large-scale now!) store, real or virtual, hands down. It's even been known to mail a prepaid-return box to customers who changed their mind after a CD shipped. Plus, a quick, but by no means comprehensive, check confirmed that Amazon is usually less expensive than its main rivals in the music world (CDNow and Barnes & Noble) and adds valuable extra info about how long each item will take to ship. Amazon offers one gift-wrapping option for CDs and can include a personal message on the packing slip.

Runner-up CDNow ( http://www.cdnow.com ) does have one cool feature that Amazon lacks: you can make your own compilation CD of your favorite songs–kind of like those "mix tapes" you made in high school. It's definitely worth checking out.

Amazon.com ( http://www.amazon.com )

Amazon gets the nod again for many of the same reasons it wins in the music category. It has among the best prices on the Net, a good selection, and above all, fabulous service. Little touches such as "One-click" shopping and user ratings and reviews of books have made Amazon synonymous with online shopping.

Runner-up Barnes & Noble ( http://www.bn.com ) is nearly identical. Both sites' selections are quite comprehensive, but they're not equal in all areas. If you can't find what you want at Amazon, check here.

Bluefly ( http://www.bluefly.com )

Bluefly lives up to its promise of being an outlet mall on the Web with bargain prices on items from Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Liz Claiborne, to name just a few. Search by price range in any category–it's like making your own bargain rack. It does not offer gift wrapping. A strong runner-up is AOL's Chic Simple ( http://www.aol.com/shopping/chicsimple ). This section of America Online's shopping site acts like a splashy interactive catalog with suggestions on outfits and clothing and fashion advice. Click on an item, and you're sent to a name-brand store such as The Gap, Eddie Bauer, Dockers, or J.Crew. Sorry, guys, this site is for women only. Bluefly also sells accessories, such as hats and ties.

eToys ( http://www.etoys.com )

If you're looking for the widest toy selection online, plus a crisp layout that lets you shop by age and category, then eToys is for you. The site offers many gift-wrapping options and personalized cards. Amazon Toys doesn't offer the same variety, but it stands out for its well-written descriptions, customer rankings, and the ability to download sound files of toys that make noise.

Crate & Barrel ( http://www.crateandbarrel.com )

This site offers the same dishes, glassware, silverware, stemware, furniture, and knick-knacks as the Crate & Barrel stores. It also keeps the clean, open feel of the stores' white walls and maple display stands. Stemware ordered from the site arrived unbroken, due to the company's meticulous and elaborate packing procedures: the glasses were wrapped in paper and bubble pack and then placed in an oversize box full of Styrofoam peanuts. The site doesn't offer gift wrapping, but you can sign up to receive a "gift reminder" e-mail if you need a little help remembering important events. You can also select and send items online from Crate & Barrel's gift (in other words "wedding") registry.

Chipshot.com ( http://www.chipshot.com )

If you're shopping for a golfer, you shouldn't miss this site. It sells everything from clubs to clothing, plus it has great product information and tips on how to better your game, as well as an entire section devoted to lefties. Chipshot offers gift certificates in addition to gift wrapping for all but the largest purchases (such as golf bags and carts).

Wine.com ( http://www.wine.com )

Not only does Wine.com offer a huge selection and detailed background information on wine but it also has a sense of humor. The "Virtual Sommelier" guides you to wines that offer the best "bang for the buck," and you can send questions addressed to "Ask the Cork Dork." Search for wines by type, price, origin, or style (sweet, dry, full-bodied, and so on). You can include a card with your purchase, but the site does not yet offer gift wrapping.

One of the best things about buying gifts online is that you save the time you'd spend wrapping, packing, and taking your gifts to the post office. But will your friends and relatives actually get what you send?

We ordered a video from Amazon and two books from Barnes & Noble. Both sites said the items were in stock. We picked our wrapping paper–both sites charged an additional $2–and wrote our gift messages. We spent about $12.95 in shipping and wrapping charges (for next day delivery). Our package from Amazon came on time, but in the wrong wrapping paper. (Amazon does warn about substitutions.) Our books from Barnes & Noble came in the right paper three days late. The messages we'd included were easy to miss–typed at the bottom of the packing slips. We would have preferred an actual card, but this sufficed. Don't count on your gifts arriving exactly as you'd hoped. Your mom will never know you wanted silver wrapping paper. She'll just be glad you thought of her.

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