R&W’s Beginner’s Guide to Online Shopping

I recently discovered that not everyone is comfortable buying and selling online routinely. Some feel they don’t have the know-how to do so. I guess when you don’t  spend 8-10 hours of your day on the internet (to the point that you feel like you’re missing an appendage when your laptop isn’t in your lap), you come to expect that others are doing the same and take some things for granted. Let’s start with the basics.

Why should I bother with online shopping? I can just go outside. You know, like a normal person.

Well, anonymous voice, there more than a few advantages to online shopping.

  • You don’t have to change out of your morphsuit/Kenny Loggins t-shirt to go shopping outside and face people in a real shop. In fact, you don’t even have to shower. Ever again.
  • Better yet, you don’t  have to worry about opening hours. The internet is always open.
  • Shopping around. Comparison websites and even just browsing for a while are a hell of a lot more economical and faster than going in person from shop to shop on the high street.
  • You can find anything on the internet. Unusual/out of production chargers or car parts, a DVD that wasn’t released in your country, exotic porn that your local establishment doesn’t sell. And so on.

What are the best websites to use?

“Best” is subjective but the two behemoths of general online shopping are Amazon and Ebay. Rule of thumb is that if you want to buy something from one big company, you go to Amazon. If you want to buy something from someone like you, go to Ebay. (There are obvious exceptions to this rule. There are independent sellers on Amazon and businesses on Ebay but at its core, this is the deal).

Amazon have warehouses dotted all over the world which they dispatch their stock from, all under the trusted “Amazon” umbrella. Known for being the giant of online book- selling, Amazon sells nearly everything you can imagine and has its own range of e-readers (the Kindle range) and mp3s. Buying in Amazon is pretty basic. You search for your item as normal, select whatever it is you wish to buy and log in to your account to seal the deal. The point of having an account is so that you have credit card and address details on file, to limit the amount of incessant form-filling you have to do.

What are some good things about Amazon?

  • You can track your order’s progress from your account.
  • Reviews. Amazon has some of the most prolific product reviewers on the internet and it’s worth checking these reviews out even if you want to buy from another website.
  • “Save for later”. If you don’t have the money right at that moment to buy something or you want to sleep on it, you can add an item to your basket and then save it to buy later.
  • Wish List. This is a nice little idea from Amazon where basically you can save a number of items to a “wish list” and have it publicly available (or private, if you want) so that if you have a big event coming up (birthday, retirement) and keep having people ask you what you would like as a present, you can direct them to your wish list using a link. This is also handy for start-ups or charities that may be in need of equipment or office supplies who can ask the public to help them out by buying these items for them rather than giving monetary donations. (Ebay also has this feature but it is not as widely utilised as on Amazon).
  • Sales. Amazon likes a good sale and finds any excuse to have one. The most well-known are the annual “Black Friday” and “12 Days of Christmas” sales. The main focus of these events are “flash sales”, which means that a certain product will go on sale at a discounted price for a short amount of time (sometimes only a few hours) or until all stock has been sold. However, there are general discounts throughout the site at these times also.
  • Amazon is a big enough seller to be held accountable for its sales so if something goes wrong with your order or during the delivery process, it is likely you will get help from Customer Service.
  • Free delivery. Amazon.co.uk offers free delivery for orders over £25 and similar rules apply to other world sites.
  • Third-party sellers. Amazon gives you the option of buying the same product from other businesses or individuals if you are not happy with their price. These items are often used, but significantly cheaper.

You’ve sold me on Amazon. Are there any bad things about it?

  • While Amazon is often the cheapest online retailer, when it is not the price difference can be significant. To counter-act this, try the “Invisible Hand” add-on for the Firefox browser, which automatically tells you if this is the cheapest price for a particular product on the web. Definitely in the top-three best add-ons available from Firefox.
  • Amazon has a slightly murky past with its penchant for “discounts”. It’s not unheard of for the website to inflate the price of a product right before a sale, so that the discount they apply looks that bit more impressive. There is an add-on (as always) called PriceDrop, which tells you the price history of a product. (How much it was a year ago, etc.) Looking at the timeline for this, you can often see a big jump in the price before a significant sale.

The world is your oyster when buying online...

Sounds great. So, Ebay works the same as Amazon. Right?

Nope. Sorry.Ebay works slightly differently. Anyone can be an Ebay seller, provided they have a Paypal account. Paypal is simply an online bank account that is partnered with Ebay and is considered to be a safer (that person you’re buying from doesn’t see your credit card details) and more accountable way of paying online when compared with using a credit card. This way if you’re unlucky enough to be scammed on Ebay (more below) you will more than likely get your money back through Paypal.

Ebay has two styles of selling: auction and “buy it now”. The “buy it now” option is the closest to Amazon that you can get. You agree to buy the item, pay with paypal and it is dispatched as soon as possible.

Auctions are different and are the lifeblood of Ebay. The seller puts up their item and suggests a starting price, or bid, for that item. This is more often than not 99c. Someone who wishes to buy the item can then bid 99c and will have the high bid. However, if there is another person who wishes to buy the item, they can outbid them. Ebay tells you when bidding to bid the highest you would be willing to pay and it then increases your bid on your behalf in small increments until it reaches your stated limit. Ebay will contact you in this case to enquire whether you want to increase your maximum bid.

It’s as easy as that?

Sort of. Tactical bidding and sneak attacks are part of the Ebay landscape, especially for hotly contested items. Examples of tactical bidding vary. Some people are aggressive and continuously up the bidding so that they are always the high bidder. Some prefer to wait until the final hours of the auction, to give the impression to other buyers that they are not interested in the item.  They hope this will keep the cost low. The logic is that if there are days left in the auction and there are half a dozen eager bidders jacking up the price, it will draw more attention from other Ebayers looking to buy. Whereas if everyone plays it cool until closer to the end there is a better chance of the sale going under the radar a bit.

Sneak attacks, a personal favourite of mine, are unashamedly cold-blooded and ruthless. The bidder waits until the very last minute of the auction (literally) and outbids the high bidder before they have a chance to  retaliate with a better offer. Not for the faint-hearted. It’s at times like those (when you’ve just jilted a rabid bidder) that you count yourself lucky that Ebay makes bidders anonymous to avoid any conflict.

You mentioned scams earlier. What are they and how can I avoid them?

Ebay is a great resource and I use it regularly. But I exercise caution when doing so. Anyone can make an account and claim to be selling 10 ipad 2s for €50 a piece, it doesn’t make it true.

Here are some basic tips to avoid being scammed on Ebay.

  • If the price looks too good be true, it probably is. Applying to “buy it now” sales, if a price is ludicrously low on something be very wary of buying it.
  • Avoid stock photos. A stock photo is a promotional shot of an item that is widely available to view or copy on the web. The seller may be legit but photos that have obviously been taken in a home are a good sign that the seller actually possesses the item.
  • Read the description thoroughly. Every now and again you will come across a great deal on a camera or laptop, only to read that it is faulty or broken and being sold for parts. Don’t buy anything without reading  everything very carefully.
  • Have a glance at the number of sales a seller has made and what their feedback score is like. The more sales and positive feedback (measured in a percentage) the seller has, the more trust you can place in them.
  • Counterfeits. This is somewhat of a problem on the site and as you don’t see the product before you buy it, it can be a risk. Seen with gadgets, designer clothes, shoes and collectibles. Basic rule of thumb is if you feel something is off about the seller (they claim to be British but their description is full of typos and English is obviously not their first language) or about the item, stay well away.

Again, totally your business what you do with this newfound talent for purchasing...ahem,stuff online


There is a whole  raft of weird and wonderful stuff to be found out there if you look for it, you never know what you might find. With a bit of research, you can save yourself a lot of money and time by buying online. Go find out for yourself.


Posted on December 4, 2011, in HUMOUR, TECH, WEB and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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