Point Click & Shop

Although online shopping is booming, there are some things you should know before you spend a dime

Joseph Mouzon loves the convenience and power of shopping online. For more than two years he has bought books, CDs, furniture, computers, airline tickets and even shoes over the Internet. “Once you narrow it down, the Web becomes the perfect tool to do comparative shopping,” says Mouzon, who spent more than $5,000 shopping online in the past year. He also regularly sends flowers to his wife and relatives at holidays. The simplicity of ordering flowers for the entire year, and the relief of not having to deliver them himself, is well worth the lack of a more personal touch.

“Hand-delivering flowers may suffer as a romantic notion, but I’m completely hooked,” he says.

In truth, Mouzon, CEO of Imhotech (www.imhotech.com), a Redwood City, California-based company that integrates technology and black culture, is probably more technologically sophisticated than many Internet users-thus he harbors little concern about using his credit card in cyberspace. Although his level of sophistication has made him more likely to shop on the Net, it hasn’t shielded him from problems, such as poor customer service or the delivery issues that become more acute when dealing with a virtual store. Yet each day more people are embracing the power of their browser to give home shopping a whole new dimension.

Information technology research firm Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, estimates that over 9 million U.S. households spent more than $7.8 billion last year shopping online. That number is expected to increase to $108 billion by 2003. While shopping online may be the wave of the future, not every experience is as simple as pointing and clicking. To get the most from your search for online treasures, you need to know how to evaluate a shopping site, root out hidden costs that could affect your experience and get good customer service. Catching good deals on the Web is a matter of being savvy about your shopping technique.

EVALUATING A WEBSITE
Before you actually make a purchase on a site, determine if the business is trustworthy. Many people feel more comfortable with established brands such as J. Crew and Sears, but there are plenty of reputable virtual stores on the Web. If the site isn’t a top brand, check to see that it follows good business practices. Sites that carry the Trust-E, i-Escrow, American Express, MasterCard and Visa symbols are likely to be on the up-and-up.

“Most sites are safe,” says Kenneth Clemmer, an analyst with Forrester. “Yes, there is fraud out there, but there are more credit card problems at restaurants than Websites.” He offers the following tips for would-be cyber shoppers:

  • Security information and policy should be stated clearly on the home page.
  • Your browser should give you a message that you have entered a secure server that protects the information you transmit. These servers will encrypt credit card numbers and any personal information you send to complete your purchase.
  • The site should state its privacy policies. Many times people don’t read them, but it is important to know what the company is going to do
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