Vision Thing: Bargain Hunters, Beware

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If you've ever been in midtown Manhattan, you've probably seen the Going Out of Business businesses. You know: "Lease Expired! Closing After 20 Years! Our Loss Is Your Gain!" Banners like these are spread across the windows of dozens of little shops, declaring unbelievable discounts. Of course, most of these shops have been going out of business for a decade or more. In fact, the only thing you're less likely to find in New York than a polite cabbie is a Going Out of Business business that actually has. And as for those big discounts, it's true you can save 50 percent or more–if you don't mind that the original price was double the normal retail price. These stores bank on the gullibility of casual consumers, impulse buyers, and tourists. Only in New York, right?

As it turns out, the Internet has proved to be fertile ground for its own unique breed of hucksters. With just a little bit of pocket money, a savvy designer, and a Web server, anyone can set up an electronic storefront that looks slick, professional, and credible faster than you can say Ponzi scheme. Internet newsgroups are bulging with stories of Web merchants who have overcharged customers, not delivered products as promised, or just plain taken the money and run.

Even with the Web's honest operators it can still be hard to know if you're really getting the best deal. It's amazing how many Web sites claim to have the lowest prices for a particular item. Let's say you're trying to buy a copy of The Truman Show on DVD. First you check out and find your DVD in stock for $20.99–about 30 percent off the retail price. Not bad, but at it's only $14.99.

And even at that kind of price, the Web's not necessarily a bargain. None of these discount prices include shipping and handling or taxes. At and that's an extra $4.95. That can kill your savings in a hurry.

Of course, all this assumes that the products you want are in stock. Suppose you're ordering several DVDs, and one is on back order. You have two choices: wait several weeks for that one title to arrive, or split your order in two parts and pay separate handling charges for each.

And just because all this shopping is being done via computer, don't assume there's no opportunity for human error. I've ordered products that weeks later I was told never existed. This past Christmas I used to buy my mother a book about yoga for people over 50. The company shipped her a book on modern architecture, complete with festive holiday gift wrapping.

To its credit, quickly shipped her the correct title and credited me the shipping charge. But still, imagine my mother's surprise when she unwrapped her Christmas present.

Now, you might think I'm down on Internet commerce. I'm not. What I am down on is the unqualified enthusiasm with which buying over the Net is being pushed these days. I believe shopping on the Web is a good thing, since it gives busy consumers another way to save time and money, but it's good only when used wisely. To help you avoid some of the pitfalls I've run into, here are five tips:

1. Size Matters

For now, it's too hard to tell the good guys from the bad, so stick with the big-name sites, unless you know someone who's already had a good experience with a no-name vendor.

2. Research

Go to a good newsgroup site, like DejaNews, and do a search on the name of a site. If you find 10,000 messages that start off with "Boy, these guys stink," you may want to shop elsewhere.

3. Shop Around

Even among the major brands there can be a real difference in price. And don't forget to figure in the shipping charges!

4. Start Small

Keep your first purchase from an unfamiliar site relatively inexpensive. This way, if you get stuck, you won't be out much money.

5. Click "No"

When in doubt, just click "no." You can always come back later and pick up where you left off, hopefully with a higher comfort level.

Take these few common-sense precautions, and you increase the odds that your online buying experience will be a good one. It amazes me that while people will obsess over sending their credit-card number over the Web, they won't give a second thought to the much more likely possibility that what they order will come late, broken, or not at all.

Oh, yes, and one final tip: just like those Going Out of Business come-ons, if a deal seems too good to be true . . . it is.

April 1999 page: 23

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