Online Shopping Basics--Shopping Along the Well-Paved Roads

by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, www.samizdat.com

Copyright 1999 by Richard Seltzer. All rights are reserved.

The following article is based on the introduction from Shop Online the Lazy Way, a book written by Richard Seltzer, which was published in August 1999 by Macmillan. It is available in paperback directly from our online store at http://store.yahoo.com/samizdat or from Amazon.com. It is also available in a Braille edition from National Braille Press (www.nbp.org).

Now that the rights have reverted to the author, he is free to update and revise this online version. Please send email to alert him of changes and interesting new sites that you have encountered.


The Internet is revolutionizing how we do our shopping. Thousands of companies, large and small, are racing to set up online stores. Companies that have retail outlets just down the street from where you live now offer specials and coupons online. Manufacturers that used to sell just to stores, now sell directly to you online. Brand-new online-only companies operate with no physical storefronts and little or no inventory and pass much of the savings on to you. And stores all over the world are just a click away. This new way of shopping provides you with and enormous choice of products, as well as a vast variety of detailed information to help you make the right decisions about everything from books to cars, from clothes to real estate--even money.

Also, thanks to the heated competition for your business, the situation keeps improving to your benefit. Selling online is a new experience for these companies, just as shopping online is for you. Most online stores are still learning how to attract visitors to their Web sites and how to turn the visitors into buyers. They are trying every imaginable innovation to get your attention, win your trust, earn your loyalty, and get your sales dollars. What one store sells for profit, another may sell for less than cost or even give away as an incentive for you to "join" or to buy something else. Once you learn your way around the online shopping world, you should be able to quickly find the products you want--even rare ones--and at prices that you'd probably never see in the physical world. In the process you may also find yourself engaging in and enjoying activities you never considered before--like chat, auctions, and online trading--and making friends with other shoppers who have common interests.

As you take these first steps, expect change. In addition to describing today's shopping sites, this book will provide tips and general principles to help you find newly opened stores and services, and as well as finding alternatives to some stores mentioned here that may have gone out of business by the time you read this--victims of the fierce competition.

The surviving Internet businesses will probably look different than the screen shots captured here, and they will no doubt have changed their prices and terms of sale. On the Internet, you can change your store with a few computer keystrokes--reorganizing everything, re-pricing everything, adding new and improved features. The flexibility on the Internet means that online stores can rapidly and easily respond to customer complaints and requests, continually refining and improving their Web sites. To benefit, you should be flexible as well, continually learning from your online experience.

In this chapter, we'll cover the basics of the online shopping experience and explain how to find stores by the fixed paths that merchants have laid out for you. In Chapter 2, we'll help you become more independent, introducing you to search engines, comparison shopping sites, and auctions. In Chapter 3, we'll cover advanced techniques that can help you become creative members of the online shopping community. 


It May Not Be a "Snap," But It's a Click: Mastering Browser Basics

You can easily click on choices as they are presented to you and navigate merrily around the Internet, without caring what happens in the background, without remembering Internet addresses, without knowing any of the functions of your browser except "Home" and "Back." This simplicity is what draws so many people to the Web--even people who never used computers before.

That works just fine for "surfing"--checking out Web sites for the fun of it. But for a more serious endeavor, like shopping, you'll want the control that comes from a better understanding of what you can do with your browser.

Playing Favorites

When you arrive at a page that you want to be able to return to easily, click on "Favorites" (the Microsoft term) or "Bookmarks" (the Netscape term) and then click on "add." To return to that page at any time in the future, click once again on Favorites/Bookmarks, and then click on that site name in your list.

For instance, when you are shopping for gifts for Christmas, birthdays, or graduation, you might browse through many stores before focusing on what kinds of things you want to buy and where you might want to buy them. You also might occasionally window shop for things that you cannot yet afford or don't yet have a compelling need for. In either case, you should bookmark the promising sites that you find, saving yourself the trouble of duplicating that search work later.

No sooner do you start to enjoy the power of this feature than you find the list has grown too long to be useful. Then it's time to edit your list.

If you use a Netscape browser, click on Bookmarks, then on Edit Bookmarks. The full list includes numerous pre-selected sites that were built into your browser (a form of advertising). It also includes the "personal" ones that you added in your travels. With your cursor and mouse, highlight the line or lines you want to edit, then use the commands in the pull-down File and Edit menus to copy, cut-and-paste, add blank separator lines, and even put groups of items into folders. By doing so, you are creating your own personal "shopping mall," with the URLs of the stores and other sites you particularly like, organized the way you want them. If you use Microsoft Explorer, you can also edit your Favorites list. Click on Favorites, then Organize Favorites.

Home is Where Your Default Is

If you use America Online (AOL) as your Internet Service Provider (ISP), you have the software that connects you first to their proprietary cyberworld, populated with news, stores, chat rooms, etc. From AOL, you can chose to venture forth into the Internet, with aol.com as your home base. You have no choice but to start in AOL's world.

For people who use other ISPs and have Microsoft, Netscape or other browsers, "home" is whatever site the software is set to, and most people never change the default.

If your Web browser came pre-installed on your new computer, the manufacturer may have set that page. If your Web browser came from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), that ISP may have set up your browser to display the ISP's own home page. In most cases, the default "home" is the main site of Netscape or Microsoft, which means that millions of people return again and again to those sites and depend on the navigation choices they see there. Those choices, whether for search engines or shopping sites, are paid advertising, and as such act as mini-yellow pages. Yes, the links are organized for your convenience, but they do not represent the full range of what is available or even a judicious editorial selection of sites. Even the order of the items and their position on the page sells for a price.

Of all your bookmarks/favorites, which is the one that you would really like to start with every time you launch your browser? You can make that page your "home."

Neither Netscape nor Microsoft goes out of its way to make it easy and obvious for you to change this setting. In the past, they have moved that option with each new version of their software to a location that you would least expect it. But you can track it down with "Help," looking for "preferences" in Netscape and "Internet options" in Microsoft.

With Netscape's V4.5, go to the page that you want to use as your "Home." Click Edit, then Preferences, then in the list of Categories on the left, click on Navigator. In the middle of the screen to the right, you will see the address of your current default Home page. Click on Use Current Page and that address will change to the one of the page you are now on. Click OK, and you're done. (In V3.0, click on Options, then General Preferences, then Appearance, and type in the Web address of your preferred page.)

With Microsoft's Explorer V5.0, likewise, go to the page you want to be your new "home." Click on Tools, then Internet Options, hen the "General" tab. In the Home Page area, click on Use Current. Then click on OK. (In V3.0, click on View, then Options, then Navigation).

Don't be confused by offers to "create your personal start page." For instance, in recent versions of the Netscape browser, you can click on "My Netscape." That takes you to the Netscape Web site, where you see an orderly arrangement of paid-for links to news and other Internet services. You can customize your arrangement of the pieces and some of the choices, and then click to change the setting in your browser so the resulting page will be your starting point.

Remember, you can change your "Home" again and again, as you find new more useful Web pages that you'd like to be your regular starting point. Perhaps you might even want to change back to the original default, if that suits your tastes. But you should know that you have a choice.

Two browsers are better than one

As you go from store to store on the Internet, you'll find that some sites have been "optimized" to work with either Netscape or Microsoft browsers. Whichever browser you use, there will be some things on some sites that you won't be able to access.

In their competition with one another, these two companies each added proprietary enhancements to their software, and then encouraged Web sites to design features that work only with their proprietary enhancements. Reportedly, they now both have promised to abide by a single set of standards, and over time this problem may go away. But for now, if you have the necessary disk space available, you should install both browsers on your computer. Use your favorite one most of the time, and switch when you encounter a Web site that requires the other browser.

Both browsers are free, and each can be downloaded from their respective sites--Microsoft is at www.microsoft.com and Netscape is at www.netscape.com At either site, you'll find detailed downloading instructions. But be forewarned--the latest versions of these files are large, each taking up over 50 Megbytes of your hard drive and taking a long while to download, even with a relatively fast modem. Much of the bulk consists of features you will probably never use. If you have limited disk space you might want to get an earlier version (V3.0 and above have all the important capabilities you'll need for shopping) and select the "minimum." That way you'll only have to download five-to-six Megabytes of data.

At the time this book as written, Microsoft's site for downloading Internet Explorer was set up very simply. Just click on Download in the top bar, then in the left column click on Alphabetically, then scroll down to Internet Explorer, and pick the version that matches your operating system and your needs. At Netscape, click on Download in the top line, then Netscape Browsers. The Navigator series is the browser only. The Communicator series has numerous other features as well and is far larger.

Keep in mind that there are a few banks and other financial sites in the United States that require you to use "strong encryption" to access your account information. Unless you want to do business with one of those institutions, the security features in a standard browser are probably sufficient for everything you would want to do. The United States has restrictions that prohibit export of "strong," or "128-bit" code. That is why Netscape and Microsoft both have to offer this as an option, rather than including it in every browser; and why they make you fill out detailed legalistic forms before you can download it. If you need this option, at Microsoft, select "extra security 128-bit browser"; at Netscape, select "128 bit strong encryption."

(If you have difficulty downloading or installing your browser, or if you need some extra assistance in getting started with your browser's basic operation, check out another book in this series, Surf the Net the Lazy Way, by Shelley O'Hara. That book offers step-by-step instructions for Internet beginners.)

What To Do If Your Browser "Breaks"

Sometimes your browser will stall or crash. Don't panic. Here are a few suggestions:

Learning How to Steer

When you launch your Web browser, you immediately connect to an Internet site that can serve as a launch point for all of your Internet travels--either the one that came pre-set with your software or the one you selected yourself, as described above. From that point, all you need to do is click on highlighted words (called hyperlinks or links) and a new Web page will appear on your computer screen in a matter of seconds. The new page you see may be at the site you were on before, or it might be at another company's site on the other side of the world. You can return to your starting point at any time by clicking on Home in your browser's navigation bar.

When you click on a link, whether it is just a highlighted word or a flashing graphic banner ad, the browser software automatically inserts the associated Web address or URL. When you place your cursor over the link, the URL appears on the bottom of your screen. The address you are currently at appears in a space on your navigation tool bar at the top of the page. These addresses are typically in the form http://www.someplace.com Sometimes an address can include many subdirectories (separated by a slash /), and perhaps an immense string of characters at the end. If there's a page with a long address, don't try to write it down or remember it. Rather, you should make it a favorite/bookmark, or use your History log (mentioned above) to go back to it later.

If the address is short enough that you can remember--perhaps one that a friend told you about or you saw in a TV commercial -- ou can type it in where the current address appears; then hit Enter, and you are off to the new location (presuming you didn't make a typo). (With recent browsers, you don't need to type http://)

Let's take a quick look at how these addresses are constructed.

Most major corporations have gone to great lengths to obtain the rights to all the imaginable variants of addresses that include their company names and their major brand names. Hence, you will often be able to go straight to the site of a well-known retail store by just typing in the likely address. For instance, www.gap.com stands for The Gap and www.landsend.com stands for Land's End.

Do It "Their" Way: Welcome to Portals, Directories, and Malls

A handful of companies compete with Netscape, AOL, and Microsoft trying to be your starting point on the Web--to be a page to which you return often (though not necessarily every time you turn your machine on) and from which you can follow well-organized links to get to many other Web sites, including shopping sites. These "portal" sites generate revenue from banner advertising, and also from charging for the inclusion of links and the placement of links on their main pages. The more traffic they get, the more advertising revenue they receive. They advertise themselves both online and off-line, to induce you to click to or type in their address. They hope that what you see when you arrive will be so compelling that you will bookmark their site or make it your "Home."

Every time you click to see another page on a portal's site, one or more graphic strips known as "banners ads" will appear. These ads entice you to click on their images and words and go off to the site of an advertiser. The folks in the ad business count how many times people like you see those ads, how many times they "click through," and how many times they then buy. The ad sales companies use those statistics to determine the price of advertising.

Just remember, when shopping on the Internet, you are king. Without consumers like you, the whole online shopping movement collapses. Thousands of very creative people are striving to serve you. So don't be surprised if these "portals" make your shopping experience easy and comfortable.

Some major portals, like Yahoo www.yahoo.com, LookSmart www.looksmart.com, and Magellan www.mckinley.com, began as directories--carefully edited, categorized lists, somewhat like a yellow pages or a printout of a library catalog, but organized as a cascade of menus--click on a category and see the sub-categories, until you eventually get to the link that you want. Magellan not only lists, but also reviews and rates tens of thousands of Web sites. To become "portals," these sites have added other useful services to attract and hold you, such as email, weather, news, stock quotes, chat, maps, Internet search, white pages (search for people), and yellow pages (search for businesses).

Other popular portals--such as AltaVista www.altavista.com, Hotbot www.hotbot.com, Excite www.excite.com, Lycos www.lycos.com, and InfoSeek www.infoseek.com--began as search engines. Directories collect information about hundreds or thousands of sites by hand--either hiring people to look at sites for possible inclusion, or accepting submissions of brief descriptions from Web site owners. Search engines collect their information about the Internet by sending out robot programs, known as "Web crawlers," to find all the pages that they can and add the full content of those pages (not just brief descriptions of entire sites) to their indices. The largest of the search engines, AltaVista currently includes over 140 million Web pages. No one sorts through this information to categorize it. Rather the user enters "queries"--formatted search commands--then gets back a hyperlinked list of pages that contain the words and phrases in the query. [For a more complete discussion about the differences between directories and search engines and when to use which, see related article].

We'll talk about how to use search engines in Chapter 2. For now, what matters is that these sites have added many of the same kinds of features as Netscape, Microsoft, and Yahoo. You can use their various services and links, just as you can with those of other "portals" to help guide you on your way to the major shopping sites, without ever dealing with the search engines that are at their core.

Another set of popular portals began by offering everyone the ability to create and post their own Web pages at no cost. Geocities www.geocities.com [now owned by Yahoo], Xoom www.xoom.com [now owned by NBCi www.nbci.com], and Tripod www.tripod.com now each have millions of members and offer additional free services. They also have large directories of Web sites, including online stores.

A wide variety of others sites that began by providing popular services of various kinds now have millions of users and generate major advertising dollars. These sites keep adding portal-like features to give you more reasons to come back, and to compete for your continuing loyalty. These sites include Mapquest www.mapquest.com which provides free customized maps and travel directions, and ICQ www.icq.com [now owned by AOL] which provides "instant messaging," an alternative to email and chat for connecting with your friends and colleagues online. Expect to see similar features at major news sites--like ESPN, CNN, and USAToday--and at sites that began as telephone-number search sites (white pages and yellow pages)--like AnyWho from AT&T www.anywho.com, Switchboard www.switchboard.com, Infospace www.infospace.com, and BigYellow www.bigyellow.com.

Basically, any site that draws millions of users will probably head in the same direction, trying to get the media attention, advertising revenue, and stock-price boost that comes with recognition as an "Internet portal." The opening pages of all these sites--whether they started as directories or search engines or other services--tend to look remarkably similar. All of them will provide you with organized lists of shopping choices and other useful links.

Newspapers--such as The Boston Globe www.boston.com and The Washington Post www.washingtonpost.com--often provide such services on a local scale. Their directories list local businesses. Microsoft is also competing in this arena with a series of local "sidewalk" sites for major cities, like www.boston.sidewalk.com, which serves the Boston area.

You'll also find hundreds of online "malls." These sites focus specifically on the needs of shoppers. Some consist of just linked, categorized lists of stores. In other cases, the stores are all hosted at the same site and share some common features, such as a way for you to search through them all or to use a single shopping cart and buy from them all with a single credit card transaction. General-purpose online malls (ones that include a wide variety of products) include:

Many other malls focus on a single class of products, like computers. We'll deal with those as we come to them in our "shopping tour" chapters.

The Buyers Index www.buyersindex.com extends the online mall concept to the physical world as well. They have a searchable directory of over 10,000 Web shopping sites and North American mail order catalogs, with over 66 million products for businesses and individuals.

Check out these sites, and see if one or more of them has an organization and range of choices that suits your tastes. In that case, "their way" is "your way," and there's no point in making things complicated for yourself. Just bookmark your favorites, or even make one your home/startup page.

Dealing with Electronic Shopping Carts, Shipping, and Customs

When you arrive at an Internet store or multi-store mall, as you see items that you might want to buy, you can place them in your electronic "shopping cart," a temporary online storage space assigned to you for this visit. When you are ready to make final buying decisions, you'll typically leave the main shopping area and "click through" to a "secure" area, where you can take another look at the choices in your shopping cart, their prices, and the total, and can change the quantities. (Usually, you can eliminate an item that you do not want to by at that stage by entering a quantity of "0", which the shopping cart interprets as an order of that item of nothing.) When you've made your decision, enter your name, address, and credit card information, or, if you've been there before, enter a user name and password.

Usually, one of your choices will be the shipment method, which typically ranges from over-night delivery to regular mail. Internet shopping has led to an enormous boom in the shipping business. Yes, you can download information and software over the Internet. But most of what you buy needs to be physically moved from one place to another, which takes time and costs money--your money.

Before paying a premium for fast shipping, be sure to check the vendor's promises for how promptly they'll assemble your order. The shipping clock doesn't start ticking until the product goes out the door, and some companies may take a week or two to do that.

Also, remember that while the Internet is global, and you can theoretically buy from online stores all over the world, if you are ordering a physical object (not just computer code or information that you can download), you are going to face the usual physical world hassles. Products going across international borders are subject to customs duties and delays (even when dealing with Canada, despite NAFTA). In addition, the shipping charges are likely to be high.

In any case, be sure to print and/or save the final page, with your choices and the prices before leaving the site. That will be your reference point if you have any questions about delivery or credit card payment or the product itself once it arrives. Many retail stores also put a confirmation of your purchase into your e-mail box that you can print out to keep for your records.

Are You at Risk Using Credit Cards Online?

Do you remember the first time you got cash from an ATM machine? The first time you gave your credit card information to an 800-number service? The first time you used a credit card at all?

We all went through those scary experiences--not knowing whether this new-fangled technology would short-change us.

Look over your credit card agreements, and you'll see that the terms and the limits on liability are no different online than they are in the physical world. Also, the guarantees are just as good. If a credit card company guarantees your purchases, that applies online as well. And just as in the physical world, if a charge shows up on your bill that shouldn't be there, you can go to your credit card company, rather than having to go back to the vendor. The credit card company then acts as your proxy, challenging the charge and insisting that the vendor provide proof. The online vendor, just like one that you deal with over the phone or in person, has lots of motivation to deliver the goods promised and to make sure you are satisfied because:

In other words, dealing with an online store that accepts credit cards gives you leverage that you wouldn't have if you simply mailed in a check.

So what happens when you give your credit card information to an online store? Policies and procedures differ from one store to another, and it's always a good idea to check a store's "help" or "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) files to find out just what they do. But standard practice involves the use of "encryption" capabilities that are built into your Web browser. Think of Cold War spies sending one another coded messages. Your credit card info passes over the Internet in a form that nobody but the vendor or the credit card company or a gifted counter-spy can understand.

I mention "counter-spy" because no security is perfect. The amount of effort and money you are willing to spend to protect information or property should be consistent with the value involved. If you are guarding the Hope Diamond, or are sending the breakthrough formula for cold fusion, you will take far more extreme measures than if you are buying a music CD. Using a store's standard procedures is rather like protecting your house with ordinary door locks--quite sufficient under ordinary circumstances.

Now some major Web sites are beginning to act as a middleman between you and the credit card companies, to make it easier for online stores to gain your trust and to collect money. For example, when you go to the mall-style area known as "Excite Shopping" www.excite.com/shopping, you can buy from several different stores but only have to enter your credit card information once. Other companies are starting programs to "certify" the trustworthiness and reliability of online merchants, thereby reducing your anxiety when dealing with a store you have never heard of before and that you can't physically enter.

A variety of other efforts are under way to establish online equivalents of the Better Business Bureau. For instance, Public Eye, (www.thepubliceye.com) helped organize an "Alliance of Certified Safe Shopping Sites," and has also launched a project to raise safety standards for transactions conducted through online auctions and classifieds.

Basically, wherever there is an area of online shopping that people are reluctant to dive into because of a lack of trust, companies do whatever it takes to gain your confidence by emphasizing their trustworthiness. New businesses have been built around ways to give other companies the scrutiny and certification needed to allay customer fears.

In any case, the record for online purchases by credit card is remarkably good. In fact, buying online is probably much safer than handing your credit card over to a waiter or giving the information to an operator at an 800-number service.

By the way, if you run into a problem at any stage in your shopping experience or you believe a Web site needs improvement, tell the folks who maintain that site. Many Web sites have a built-in mechanism for sending e-mail back to them. Look for a link that says "contact us" or "help" or "customer service." When you click on the appropriate spot, a pop-up email form appears. Enter your comments, criticisms, or questions, and most likely, your message will be read and considered.

If you don't see an email address anywhere that's obvious, then try sending email to the Webmaster or support at their domain name, for instance: Webmaster@store.com or support@store.com

If that, too, doesn't work, and you really want to get in touch with this store, go to www.networksolutions.com/internic/internic.html That is an online "clearing house" of that keeps track of Internet site ownership information. Enter the domain name (the address after www and before the /). You'll see street address, contact name, email address, and phone number.

If the site doesn't have its own domain name, but rather sits in the subdirectory of another company's domain, perhaps hosted for free at a site like Tripod or Xoom, then you might have considerable difficulty trying to locate the responsible people.

What Price Privacy?

Based on your visits to Web sites and your online transactions there, companies can gather information about your buying habits and preferences. In fact, that's an important incentive for them to sell online. Many companies hope to do "datamining"--using sophisticated software tools to dig through immense quantities of information about you and millions of other shoppers. From that data, they want to learn:

Ideally, they'd like to get to "one-to-one marketing," where the messages and the choices you see are tailored for you.

Is that bad? Maybe, and maybe not. It all depends on your personality and sensitivities. On the one hand, these sites may provide you with a "personalized" experience, which makes your shopping easier and more effective, saving you time and bringing to your attention bargains, special offers, and coupons that you might otherwise miss. On the other hand, some of this data gathering is involuntary. They may do it without your informed consent, which may make you uncomfortable on principle, regardless of the practical benefits.

Let's consider what the online vendor can find out about you and how.

The Online Cookie Monster--Friend or Foe?

If your browser supports "cookies" (and all the more recent browsers do), then there's a file stored on your computer which can automatically relay to sites that you visit information about your recent Web surfing experiences--for instance, what page you saw just before coming to their site.

The site you are visiting will know your "domain" (the part of an email address to the right of the @ sign), but won't know your user name and hence your complete email address, unless you provide that information, for instance, by filling out a registration form. Once they have that information, they can correlate it with "cookie" information, to learn more about your experiences and preferences at their site.

Your browser will come with the default setting of accepting cookies. You can change that. In recent versions of the Netscape browser, click on Edit, then Preferences, then Advanced. You can choose to disable cookies, which will prevent you from entering many of the shopping sites that you want to visit. Or you can have your browser warn you whenever a Web page wants to get to your cookie file. But the warnings become a major nuisance. Each page might have as many as half a dozen cookies associated with it, meaning you'd have to click separately to accept each of them before you could view the page.

As an alternative, you could sign up at The Anonymizer www.anonymizer.com for identity-free surfing even with your cookies turned on. But when you want to make a purchase, you'll still have to positively identify yourself.

Basically, the effort you put into fighting cookies might be better spent in other ways.

Besides, since vendors want to get as much information as they can about the people who buy their products and services, you can expect that new, more sophisticated techniques will soon be developed to help them gather it. For instance, when Intel announced their Pentium III chip in January 1999, one of the main features touted was that it would automatically signal to online stores even more--and more accurate--information about you and your Web travels than cookies do. The uproar from the consumer public was so enormous that within two days, Intel turned around and promised that it would ship Pentium III with the identity code turned off and would give users the option of turning it on.

If you think about this issue from a pragmatic point of view, rather than as a matter of principle, you'll probably end up volunteering far more information than automated techniques could gather.

Think of online registration forms like you do the mail-in warranty cards that come with any electronics products you purchase. On such a card, you might tell the manufacturer your age, location, salary range, line of business, and job title, as well as when and where you bought the product. In return, it is easier for you to receive service or replacements, if something goes wrong. The manufacturer will also send you information about bug fixes and other improvements to the product, news of related products, and quick notification in case of a product recall.

Depending on the application, Web sites require varying levels of assurance that you are who you say you are. For instance, banks and airlines with frequent flier accounts will require a password for access and probably have cookies to keep track of your path through account information. That way they can confidently present you with the information you want, without your having to re-enter your password with each new request for data. Magazine and newspaper sites that provide information for a fee on a subscription basis typically use your cookie file to automatically recognize you and let you in without your having to remember and enter your user name and password. Grocery stores might, on the basis of your cookie file, give you easy access to lists of your previous purchases, to help guide you in compiling this week's order. And an online mall might let you enter your personal and credit card information just once to make purchases at half a dozen member stores, based once again on your cookie file. In other words, registration plus cookies, and perhaps also the use of passwords can make your shopping experience far simpler and more rewarding.

This surrender of private information in exchange for some retail-related benefit is similar to supermarket bonus cards. The store offers you discounts on certain items if you use your card, and the card lets the store keep careful track of everything you buy at their store. Some people refuse to use such cards. But many are willing to give up some degree of privacy in exchange for a benefit. Expect online vendors to come up with a wide range of incentives to encourage you to provide more and more information about your buying preferences.

In fact, some sites use special software ("collaborative filtering") that lets you tell more and more about your preferences. For instance, you might rate the books or music or movies that you are familiar with, and that information will be correlated with the tastes of tens of thousands or even millions of others. Then instead of depending on the opinions of professional reviewers, you can get lists of suggestions based on the ratings of people whose tastes are similar to yours--not just people with the same age, race, income, or education, but people who like what you like.

The Curse of "Spam" and the Blessing of "Opt-in Email"

You may not mind a vendor collecting information about you when that information is used for your direct benefit. But what if the vendor sells your email address to others? Then we venture into territory that is still largely unexplored, where laws and rights have not been sufficiently tested and defined. The practical effect is that if you indiscriminently provide your email address to many commercial sites, it's likely that your address will soon be on many distribution lists and your inbox will be swamped with unsolicited email known as "spam." These messages will offer you instant wealth, fabulous sex, and perhaps even eternal life.

Ironically, true "spam" is the opposite of one-to-one marketing. In this case, vendors often don't know anything more about you than your email address. Their intent is to take advantage of the fact that there is no charge for sending email over the Internet. With the right list and the right software, they can quickly send their message to tens of millions of people at a time, at near zero cost. That means a very low rate of return can still be profitable. In the early days of the Internet, such behavior was immediately punished vigilante style, by bombarding the email account of the sender with numerous nasty replies. Now the spammers have grown more sophisticated, so the return email address may be phony, and the call to action is to check a Web site. Hence, some states have adopted anti-spamming laws to reduce the level of this nuisance mail and its drain on overall Internet resources. But the Internet is a global phenomenon and matters of jurisdiction can be very fuzzy, with spamming services operating from little island countries where laws let them do what they please. Don't expect this problem to be resolved any time soon. Just learn to live with it.

Not all ads by email are bad. In fact, the latest online marketing craze is "opt-in email." You would welcome certain kinds of commercial announcements that tell you about offers you are interested in. You might ask to receive particular kinds of messages from particular sites. For instance, you might want an email from Amazon.com www.amazon.com telling you that one of your favorite authors just came out with a new book or that an out-of-print book you had been looking for is now available. Or you might want to sign up at Continental Airlines www.flycontinental.com for their "Cool Travel" email alerts about last minute bargain airfares. Responsible companies promise to use your email address information only for the purpose for which you intended, and do not sell or give your address to other companies without your explicit permission.

Then, too, you might want to sign up at Bonus Mail www.bonusmail.com or My Points www.mypoints.com, both of which are run by the same company, Intellipost. These services, which already have over two million members, reward you for receiving and reacting to email ads. When you sign up, you volunteer information about yourself and your interests. You receive their email in a Web-based format, with images and links. You get rewards for clicking in response to the message. These rewards might be frequent flier miles on your favorite airline or points toward products or services of interest to you. In addition, the messages are often about special shopping offers and limited-time bargains of the very kind you are interested in. Reportedly, the members' number one complaint is, "Send me more email. I'm not getting enough."


Sidebars for this chapter

Start a shopping wish list as a document on the your PC. Add to the list as shopping-related thoughts occur to you, and keep that document open for reference as you explore and shop the Internet with your browser.

As an alternative to bookmarking a page, you can use the print function in your browser to print a page for future reference. The printout should automatically include the Web address, known as the URL or "Universal Resource Locator," to help you find your way back to that site again. Most browsers allow you to set the option to include the URL in the header or footer information on the printed page. (Defaults regarding this option vary among browsers.)

Make the investment to learn advanced features of both the Internet and your browser now, right when you begin working with them. In the long run, mastering advanced features will make your online shopping experience easier and more effective.

Keep in mind that if you dial a local number to get to your Internet access provider, and you have a separate phone line for your modem, then you could opt for low-cost phone service for that second line, one that doesn't include long distance.

Before your first online shopping trip, go to ClickRewards at www.clickrewards.com/yahoo/. After you have registered, when you shop at participating online stores, you'll earn ClickMiles, good for airline miles and other rewards.

Relax. When you begin shopping online, you aren't making an irreversible decision. It simply broadens your choices. Need a change of pace? Turn off the computer and drive to the mall today.

With today's fast and powerful computer systems, you can launch two or more copies of the same browser or even run two or more different browsers simultaneously. They all share the same phone or cable line out to the Internet. This capability comes in handy for comparison shopping, letting you see two or more competing stores side by side in small windows, or in rapid alternation.

If you have call waiting on the same phone line you use for your modem, then every time someone dials your number, your Internet connection will get cut off. That can be very annoying when you are putting the finishing touches on an order. To disable call waiting, precede the number you dial for your Internet provider with 1170 or *70.

See a great picture at a Web site? Take a break from shopping and save it. Position your cursor on the image, click the right button on your mouse, then "Save Image As." Give it a new name if you like, but use the same three-character file-type extension (e.g., .gif), so your computer will recognize the format and be able to display it. Like videotaping a TV show, you can only do this for your personal use. You don't own the "intellectual property." To use that picture in a publication or to post it on your own Web site, you would need permission from the owner.

Look before you click. The text and look of an ad may be catchy, but the site may be one you've been to before and would prefer never to return to. When you place your cursor over a hyperlink, the full address of the page that you would connect to appears, typically at the bottom of your screen. The domain name (e.g., amazon.com) is often the same as the company name.

Often companies that started on the Web--like Amazon.com--deliberately select a company name that also serves as their Web domain name. That makes it easy to remember their Web address.

Start a list of the gifts you give to relatives and friends. Keep it as a document on your Word processor and add to it as you buy gifts from the list or think of new items to add. Maintaining this list will make shopping a lot easier next Christmas, birthday, or anniversary.

You can use an online store to help you decide what you want, then drive to a physical store, or dial an 800 number, or even mail a check to complete the purchase.

To save a snippet of text from a Web page--perhaps a product description or a price list you'd like to save for reference--click the left button on your mouse, hold it down (drag it) as you move the cursor over the text you want, highlighting it. Then click "Edit" in the navigation bar, and then "Copy." Open a document in your word processing software and paste the text there. )

Don't make decisions based on discounts alone. Be sure to add shipping charges when making price comparisons. For low-priced items, the shipping might be greater than the discount, and (if price is all that matters to you) you might be better off buying locally.

Plan ahead and order early. Then you won't have to pay extra charges for quick delivery.

Some online stores, like Amazon.com, ask at checkout if the purchase is a gift, and offer to gift wrap it, enclose a personal message, and send the item straight to the recipient.

Many online stores save details from your first order and expedite your future purchases at the "checkout counter," recognizing you by your registration (with username and password). This saves you the trouble of retyping things like name and address and even credit card number, if those are the same.

When an Internet store gets so big that it carries virtually every item in its chosen realm, you can benefit from using its searchable catalog as a research too, even when you don't intend to buy. For instance, a search at Amazon.com covers not only every book in print, but also more than a million titles that are only available secondhand.

When you visit Amazon.com after you've made your first purchase there, you'll be greeted with a personalized message, addressing you by name and offering you a selected list of book recommendations, based on your past purchases and the preferences you and others with tastes similar to yours have indicated. Technology based on "cookies" and "collaborative filtering" makes this seeming magic possible.

To avoid having spam fill your mailbox, open an email account at one of the free services like Hotmail (www.hotmail.com) or Yahoo (www.yahoo.com). Use that second email address whenever you fill out forms at online stores. Then the spam email will tend to go to that dead-end account, keeping your main email account relatively uncluttered.

If blatant spam says, "Reply to this address if you don't want to receive messages like this in the future," don't. Often this is just a trick to have you confirm your email address.

Window shop online. Go through all the steps of finding and selecting something you really want but can't afford yet. Bookmark the page, or add it to your "favorites". Then relax, knowing that when you're ready, you can consummate the purchase with the greatest of ease.

For more resources, check our Online Shopping Directory www.samizdat.com/shopping.html


The rest of the book (Shop Online the Lazy Way):

Part One covers aspects of online shopping that apply no matter what you want to buy.

Part 2 covers special cases, where there are major differences in how you shop based on the kinds of things you are looking for:

This site is Published by B&R Samizdat Express, 33 Gould St., West Roxbury, MA 02132. (617) 469-2269. seltzer@samizdat.com


Please visit our online store at http://store.yahoo.com/samizdat

You may also want to check Richard's Online Shopping Directory www.samizdat.com/shopping.html, which has links to all the sites mentioned in the entire book, plus sites he has learned of since the book went into production.

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For a thorough discussion of this topic, buy Richard's book Web Business Bootcamp (published by Wiley) http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0471164194/brsamizdatexpres

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