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Online Shopping: The Mall In Our Minds

by Marjorie Dorfman

Do you find yourself shopping less and less in department stores and more and more in the endless cybermalls online? Are your leg muscles beginning to atrophy and your fingers getting callused doing all the walking, talking and shopping across the keyboard of life? Do you keep a credit card next to the computer so that it will be handy, should you need to place a sudden order? If so, maybe you should consider this tale. Then again, maybe you shouldn’t.

We have evolved as shoppers; much like mankind came from nowhere, crossed a land bridge, multiplied, subtracted, divided and conquered. Women came along with them, or maybe even led the way. They learned to cook, comfort, make fire, set the table, vacuum, gossip and SHOP. (This is a chauvinistic, evolutionary theory, and perhaps not as Darwin envisioned The Origin of the Species, but rather as Darwin’s wife might have seen it.)

So where are we now? First there were mail order catalogues, then retail stores. The malls then found modern civilization, and now the rage is buying everything from soup to nuts online. Has shopping in department stores gone to the dogs (or wherever things go when they have passed us by?) Where do the elegant dogs of today shop anyway? Does Macys tell

Online shopping has reached gigantic proportions among its three biggest powerhouses: Amazon, E-bay and Yahoo. Online retailers have their gimmicks, just like the ones that Gypsy Rose Lee used to sing about. (In E -commerce you don’t have to get undressed as she did. I suppose every cloud has its silver lining.) Sellers provide rebates, coupons, 60-minute specials and one-day sales. Marketers understand human behavior and react accordingly. For example, the Christmas shopping season would ordinarily be over by the third week in December, but smart sellers promote gift certificates, discounts, speedy shipping (for a price, of course) and last minute ideas to stretch the season longer. Some web sites target male shoppers, you know, those creatures who are too busy to shop for presents until the stores are about to close on Christmas Eve. They feature jewelry, knowing full well that the majority of men buy such things for the women in their lives.

Many sites use Web-based tie-ins to boost sales. Tower Records, for example, a few years ago sent out 400,000 catalogues to its best customers, along with e-mails, informing them about the new catalogue and online shipping options. Macys has developed a holiday gift registry, to which shoppers can direct their friends and family. (It’s like a wedding registry, but without the rings and the reception.) And any shopper who purchases an item from a rotating gift category receives free shipping on that item, as well as anything else purchased on the site at that same time.

Shopping on the Internet is no riskier than buying by mail order or on the phone and is definitely safer that using a credit card to pay for a meal in a restaurant. This is not because restaurant personnel are any more or less honest than those who work for online retailers. It is due to the fact that once information is entered online it is encrypted and safe from sticky-fingered hackers. Despite the obvious convenience of being able to shop at home without your trousers or while wearing your pajamas, there are concerns that should be addressed.

When you shop from home you have to give out more information to the seller than you would if you were in a shop (with or without your trousers or pajamas). This could include your name, phone number, address, e-mail address and, certainly, your credit card details. Remember that information given to a seller cannot be given to anyone else without your permission. If the company you are buying from wants to pass on your details, it must give you the right to say no. This is often done by means of a tick box on the paperwork itself. Make sure you do this if you do not want your name passed around to other sellers.

There are a number of things you can do to ensure safety when paying online. For one thing, do not ever give bank account numbers or credit card details to any company you haven’t checked out. Avoid sending cash. Use checks, credit cards or postal money orders whenever possible. Keep a copy of your order and a note of when you sent it in a place where you can find it. (In my house such a detail must be ascertained beforehand.) If someone uses your credit card fraudulently, you can cancel the payment and your credit card company must arrange for your account to be re-credited in full. If you discover that someone has used your card without your permission, inform the credit card issuer immediately.

If you receive faulty goods, under your normal statutory rights even if you have signed an acceptance note, it does not mean that you cannot reject them. Please note that allowing the seller to "fix faulty goods" does not affect your rights. If the fixing or repair fails, you still maintain the perogative to reject the goods (unless in their faulty state they have eaten up the repairman or something like that.) If merchandise is faulty, you should not be charged anything, including the cost of returning the goods. If you are buying a service, it should be carried out with reasonable care and skill and within a reasonable period of time, particularly if you have not agreed upon a completion date.

Shopping from home gives the consumer the right to clear information before placing an order, documentation about a purchase, a "cooling off" period during which an order can be cancelled without explanation and a full refund made, a full refunding of goods and services if they are not provided by an agreed upon date or within 30 days of placing the order and protection against credit card fraud. These rights only apply to goods and services bought from traders who are organized to sell without face to face contact. They do not apply to financial services like insurance or banking, auctions, vending machine purchases and contracts involving the sale of land. These rights, particularly the right to cancel, do not apply to unsealed audio or video tapes, unsealed computer software, lottery or betting services, newspapers and magazines, time share and holiday packages, transport, catering, hotel bookings or concert tickets which are arranged for a specific time or date.

To cancel an order online, you must notify the seller in writing, either by letter, fax or e-mail. If you have already paid for the goods and/or services, the seller must refund your money within 30 days of the cancellation agreement. You are entitled to reject any merchandise and get your money back if such merchandise is faulty, does not match how it was described or is different in any way from that which you ordered. If it takes a while before you notice a problem, you might only be entitled to claim compensation. This could involve the cost of repair or the cost of returning the goods for a free repair. Check whether a guarantee covers the product and remember that they may add to one’s legal rights, but they do not replace them.

All in all, shopping online with credit cards presents no more or less risk than shopping anywhere else. Still, the beat does go on and there are many online scams that shoppers may encounter along the vast frontier of the unpatrolled Internet. Look out for hidden addresses. Traders who attempt to sell goods or services using an anonymous e-mail address or a post office box number and make it difficult to pinpoint their location are up to "no good goods."

Beware of capital letters shouting at you across the screen. HOW TO MAKE A MILLION OVERNIGHT just might cause you to lose that same amount within the same time period. Vague testimonials rarely ring true. "Thousands of satisfied customers" doesn’t say a word about who they are and how you as a potential one can check them out. Words like "this is not a scam" should remind one of the phrase about "methinketh thee protests too much." A legitimate business shouldn’t need to convince you of its legitimacy.

As far as promises of instant wealth are concerned, if they sound too good to be true, they probably are. Some scams will offer a "secret" moneymaking scheme available only "to a select number of people." Details are not revealed until after a fee is paid. The same goes for hidden expenses. Be wary of advertisements promising no start-up costs and then asking for a "one time fee". Avoid chain letters, moneymaking clubs, mailing lists, home working schemes, prize draws and lotteries, miracle health and beauty products and business propositions from abroad.

Don’t order impulsively. Think about what you want to buy for a day or so. Do your homework about whom you are purchasing from and all will end well for he or she who shops well.

Good luck, happy trails and much rewarding shopping online to all of you in the coming year!

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Copyright 2005