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Shop Online by Richard Seltzer

Copyright © 1999 by Richard Seltzer.

First published by Macmillan as "Shop Online the Lazy Way".  The rights have reverted to the author.

Part One covers aspects of online shopping that apply to all purchases.

Part 2 deals with information you need to shop based on what you are looking for.

Chapter One: Online Stores

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'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.

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.

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.

Online Credit Card Use 

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.

Online Cookies: 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 where you want it..

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.

Chapter Two: Use Search Engines, Price-Compare Sites, and Auctions

You can save time, hassle, and money by shopping for brand-name consumer products at the brand-name online stores prominently positioned on Internet portal sites. It's only natural that that's how you begin your online shopping experience.

Since the online world is new and strange, you are most likely to turn to the names that you trust. Confidence in dealing with other stores will come from isolated experiences--chance encounters, recommendations, and from interacting with other online shoppers.

Eventually, your curiosity will grow, and you'll crave more exotic shopping experiences. You will sense that you have just barely touched the surface and wonder: What's really out there? How do you find truly unique items? How do you find the amazing bargains? Where is the revolutionary experience?

In this chapter, we'll introduce you to some basic tools that can help you take advantage of the unexpected opportunities lurking in the chaotic immensity of the Internet--search engines, comparison shopping sites, and the places where ordinary people like us can both buy and sell from one another without stores--classified ads, newsgroups, and auctions.

Directories and Search Engines

At the large Web sites that call themselves "portals," you will probably have a choice of searching or browsing through the content of their site and/or of the Web at large. You search when you know exactly or fairly close to what you want. You enter the appropriate word or words in the syntax required by that search engine and ideally you go to a hyperlinked list of pages that probably contain the information you want. If you don't find what you want on the first try, that's either because the information isn't available, or because you need to improve your "query"--that is make your search terms more precise and make sure you are using proper syntax. Syntax is the structure for the query that this particular search engine requires, for instance the use of punctuation. (There are no standards. They all do it their own way.)

When you are uncertain--maybe you know the category, but are looking for suggestions or ideas, you should browse or surf through directory listings. In this case you look at organized lists of choices, perhaps with descriptions attached and probably with hyperlinks to more detailed choices. This is like walking into a book or music store, going to you favorite section, and scanning the shelves to see what's new and what might catch your interest.

Most people favor one style more than the other--it's a matter of personality. Beginners strongly favor directories, because they feel familiar--like yellow pages listings. Sometimes you think in categories and sometimes in specifics. If I want to find a college in Southern California, I'll go through a directory, checking under colleges, then US, then California, then Southern California, scan the list and pick the ones I want to check out. If I want to find driver software for my BJ200 Canon printer so I can run it with the new operating system I just installed on my computer, I'll use a search engine and go straight to the Web page I want. Everybody will probably use both these modes of operation at one time or another.

With a directory, you depend on the judgement and hard work of others to sort out what information is important and how pieces of information relate to one another. Using such a service exclusively would be like having someone else arrange your house, categorize your email into folders, arrange your books, organize your CD collection or your videotapes. Most people prefer to define "order" based on how their own mind works and makes associations, rather than on the tastes of someone else. At first someone else's order might seem convenient, but as you become more familiar with the Internet and what's really possible, these structures begin to get in your way.

With a search engine, if you go through the trouble of learning the commands, you can pluck whatever you want from the massive disorder of the Internet whenever you want, and quickly. And you aren't limited by the decisions of others. The search engines send out robots on expeditions of exploration and discovery, so you don't have to. But they don't make judgements of relevance or worth--that's your role; and that way the one item that is most important to you doesn't get filtered out before you learn that it exists.

The Portal Game

There are fewer search engines and directories than you probably thought. The major players keep buying up related and competing services, and they also use one another's services.

Excite, a search engine which was bought by the Internet cable service @Home, owns Webcrawler (search engine) and Magellan (directory) and Classifieds2000 (massive classified ad site). Lycos (search engine) owns HotBot (search engine) and Tripod (massive Web-hosting site).

AOL Netfind uses Excite in the US and Lycos in Europe. Netscape Search uses Excite. LookSmart (directory) uses AltaVista (search engine) for the search part of its service, and AltaVista and HotBot use LookSmart for the directory part of their service. Magellan (directory) uses Webcrawler (search engine). Search.com uses InfoSeek (search engine). InfoSeek partnered with Disney to create the GO Network www.go.com, which includes ESPN.com, Disney.com, ABCnews.com, ABC.com, and Mr. ShowBiz. Inktomi (search engine) powers HotBot, NBC's Snap, Yahoo, and iAtlas. And Microsoft's MSN just announced that it is switching from Inktomi to AltaVista for search. By the time you read this paragraph, these relationships and many others will most certainly have changed yet again.

Despite appearances, you really only have a choice of about nine major search engines (AltaVista, Inktomi, Northern Light, Excite, InfoSeek, Lycos, Webcrawler and newcomers Google and AlltheWeb).

How big are these search engines? WebCrawler covers about 2 million Web page documents, which by physical standards sounds immense, but by Internet standards is tiny. AltaVista weighs in a 140 million, while Inktomi has 110 million, Northern Light 80 million, Excite 55 million, InfoSeek 30 million, and Lycos 30 million. [NB -- These numbers have gone up considerably since 1999]

Choosing A Search Site

When you want quick and simple results, without having to learn anything about search engine syntax or commands, try Excite www.excite.com, Lycos www.lycos.com or InfoSeek www.infoseek.com. Just enter a word or two or three, and you'll get your results directory-style--with a handful of "recommended" sites at the top of the list, followed by results from a directory, then followed by general Web index results. The emphasis is on easy of use rather than precision or power.

By the way, don't be fooled at Lycos. Their search form is at the top of the page and looks likes it's part of a banner ad. You could easily miss it and think that all they had was their directory choices.

Excite adds an interesting twist known as "intelligent search". In addition to looking for occurrences of the exact words in your query, it also matches synonyms, and not just from a thesaurus, also based on what it has learned about related concepts from the documents in its index. Excite gives the example that a search for "elderly people financial concerns" would find both sites mentioning the economic status of retired people and the financial concerns of senior citizens. To use this feature, click on "Results for Other Possible Interpretations" under the query box. (NB--The need to "understand" the meaning of the content limits this approach to English language Web pages.)

Newcomer Google www.google.com ranks the results based on the number of links to a particular site. It uses that as a measure of "popularity," even though it is probably more a measure of how long the site has been active. It takes time for people to recognize how good a site is and to create links to it; and then it takes many months before those sites get indexed again by Google. As with Excite, Infoseek, and Lycos, here you are basically limited to typing in a few words. Google does, however, have one very helpful unique feature. Your results list shows the piece of text where your query words appear, so you can see the context and judge if that's what you really want.

AltaVista, Inktomi, and Northern Light www.northernlight.com give you far greater power over the results you get.

In the HotBot www.hotbot.com version of Inktomi, you can click on "More Search Options" and use pre-set forms to indicate your choices. (HotBot was created by the publishers of Wired Magazine, and retains the magazine's flashy graphic look-and-feel.)

To control your query at Northern Light, click on "Power Pearch." There you'll find pre-set forms similar to those at HotBot, however, you can search not only through Web pages, but also through over 5000 full text documents in their "Special Collection." These documents aren't available on the Web, because the people/companies who created them want to be paid for them. The cost for an article is usually in the range of $2.

You'll find Northern Light particularly valuable when you are looking for current news. News sites typically keep their stories in databases, which search engine robots can't normally access. And news changes far faster than the typical search engine updates its index. This special service at Northern Light allows you to search through 33 online news sources with a single query, rather than having to go to their separate sites.

At AltaVista, you have three different ways to search. Simple Search is what you see first. There, just like at Excite or InfoSeek, you can type a few words and get good results quickly. And once you get your results, you can choose to "refine" your search, providing you with automatically generated categories associated with your category words, and even a graphical view of your choices, to help step you through constructing a more complex query that includes some terms and excludes others. If you click on Advanced Search, you arrive at a realm where you can use a series of commands to very precisely define what you want.

For example, go to AltaVista. Click on Advanced. In the top (ranking) box, describe with a series of words what you want to buy. In the bottom (query) box, type the words "for sale" (including quotation marks). Then click Search, and you'll see a hyperlinked list of Web pages that match what you're looking for.

You can refine your search by entering dates -- to get only the most recent information. When two or more words must appear in a certain order, enclose them in quotations marks so they will be treated as a phrase.

The commands that you use in the bottom (query) box are:

Help files provide a bare-bones description of these commands and other unique elements of the AltaVista search syntax . If you'd like more detail, check the free tutorial and related articles at my Web site www.samizdat.com/search.html

AltaVista also allows you to search not just the Web, but the Internet wildlands known as "newsgroups." To get to that area, click on "Usenet" under "Specialty Searches." ("Usenet" is a term left over from the old pre-Web pioneering days of the Internet.) We'll give some examples of what you can do with Advanced Search later in the chapter when we talk about newsgroups.

Automatic Directories

In January 1999, iAtlas www.iatlas.com [later bought by AltaVista], a brand-new company, announced that it has software and services that can bridge the gap from indexes to directories. By matching the information it has about Web sites (what companies own them, what industries those companies are in, their location, etc.) with the information about the content of specific Web pages (as contained in the vast unstructured index of an Internet search engine), iAtlas can generate orderly categorized directories. By so doing, it eliminates (or speeds up) the tedious, costly, and slow process of building Internet-related directories (a la Yahoo and LookSmart). They also produces more inclusive and more pinpoint directories (city, industry, zip code, etc.)

For its initial demo, iAtlas is partnering with Inktomi. You can do a search at the iAtlas site and filter your results by industry or by city. It can also enable searches by zip code and site popularity, iAtlas says. Their approach should make it possible to create directories (for instance of a city) automatically, rather than by hand. By the time you read this book, dozens of popular Web sites will probably have adopted this approach, broadening the range of how you can find what you want when you want it.

Comparison Shopping

In your first online shopping excursions, you will probably focus on a few stores that you know through real-world equivalents, that you have heard about through advertising or from friends, and that you found easily and quickly by way of a major portal site.

As you become aware that there are a wide range of choices, and you'll gain greater confidence in the reliability of stores you might never have heard of before, you will want to compare prices--especially for brand-name, mass-manufactured merchandise, that should be identical in quality regardless of the retailer. The major portal sites are either adding software or linking to other sites that make price comparison extremely easy. There is no need to go to a dozen or more separate stores and take notes on the prices offered for the goods you want. Rather, you can go to a single comparison site that covers that class of goods, enter a specific query--the kind of product, the brand, the specific model or size, even major options--and learn which stores carry it and what they charge for it.

If you know exactly what you want -- a brand-named, mass-manufactured item -- and all that matters to you is price, then try one of the following sites. The look and feel of these sites are likely to be very similar since many use the same software, which typically sends out a robot program or Web crawler (like a search engine gathering information for its index). The difference lies in what kind of stores, how many stores, and which stores they include in their results, all of which change very rapidly.

Unfortunately, the promise of comparison shopping is much greater than the reality. Wouldn't it be great to compare prices on one item at thousands of online stores in a single search? But today, these sites typically only sample a handful of vendors in any particular shopping category. In some instances, the shopping service may have only a single vendor for a particular type of product, so your search provides no real comparison. If every search produces results from only one store and the same store every time, you'd be better off going directly to that store; or better still, to a competing comparison site that has some real content. However, you can expect that over the next year, these sites will vastly increase the number of stores they include in their price comparisons.

Note also that sites offering price comparison searches typically provide a hyperlinked "buy" buttons next to every item in the results list they display. But, in most cases, clicking that button does not add your choice to a common mall-like shopping cart. Rather it takes you to the actual vendor's page, the one who is offering that quoted price, and you have to make all your purchases separately. In all probability, common shopping carts should be introduced soon.

Site Comparisons

The farther you venture from the major portals and the sites that they point to by advertising or in select directories (of the "best" or "top sites), the more you are going to want consumer-oriented guidance that helps you compare the quality of products and also the quality of online stores.

For quality comparisons, seek sites that focus on a single category of product (like all the sites that sell books), and sites that provide easy access to information (usually more than just price) from many vendors. Some of these might use multi-stage search technology that lets you specify all the key parameters necessary to configure a complex product like a computer. The site then would provide you with a list of vendors who can deliver such a product in your price range. We'll introduce you to some sites like that in our shopping tours, which span Chapters 4 through 10.

You can also check the online version of Consumer Reports www.consumerreports.com. Casual visitors get general consumer advice. For a paid subscription fee (currently $2.95 per month or $24 per year), you get access to product and service comparisons, ratings, and recommendations.

Consider also:

Making Online Shopping Automatic

In the fast-paced, ever-evolving Internet world, you should expect innovations in both technology and business practice to make shopping increasingly easier. In the not-too-distant future, keep an eye out for "bots," "robots," "agents," "spiders," or "crawlers." These different names all refer to the same kind of technology: a program that can travel throughout the Web and automatically do all the things that a human Web surfer can do. Search engines already use programs like these to fetch the information they store in their indices, and shopping comparison sites use them to quickly check current prices on the same item at many stores.

To get a sense of what the current generation of bots can do, check BotSpot www.botspot.com. In particular, test drive the applications highlighted in their "Best of the Bots" section, as well as the shopbots list at www.botspot.com/search/s-shop.htm.

Today, the most common bots just investigate multiple search engines for you. If you have only a vague idea of what you want and would only enter a word or two as a query, that might be a useful alternative. If you find yourself in this situation, try InferenceFind www.infind.com, and you may be able to locate the item you need.

This method of searching, however, takes away your ability to take advantage of the unique and powerful search commands at such sites as AltaVista, HotBot, and Northern Light. If you have a clear idea of what you are looking for, you are better off mastering the capabilities of a single search engine, rather than using a bot to submit a poorly constructed query to dozens of separate search engines, with a single command.

In the future, bots might serve as your own personal shoppers. Securely supplied with your passwords and credit card information, a properly engineered bot could perform a wide variety of tasks for you, including not only finding goods and information at the prices you want, but actually making the purchases for you. Imagine telling a bot to keep an eye on the price of certain stocks, and giving it the authority to buy and sell for you as soon as those stocks hit certain price points. Or, imagine using a bot to continuously scan through auction and classified ad sites for hard-to-find items you desperately want, and then to buy or bid for it, at a price within your guidelines.

Recently, the increased use of a new standard known as "XML" has simplified the work performed by bots and shopping-oriented search engines. Many commercial sites will include special coding in their Web documents to identify that they have products for sale and the types of products, and at what prices. That coding will make it much easier for a bot to fetch and compare information of this kind.

In other words, these Web documents will "describe themselves" in a way that makes it possible for the entire Web to operate like a single unified database. When this standard is in widespread use, you should be able to ask detailed, structured questions, and search the catalogs of hundreds of thousands or even millions of stores with a single click.

Bargain Hunting in Classifieds and Newsgroups

The Web has its equivalent of the classified ads you see in your local newspaper. In fact, most online newspapers have classified sections, which often mirror the listings in the printed paper, with the added benefit that they are easier to search through. Other classified sites specialize in real estate or cars; and a handful, like Yahoo Classifieds classifieds.yahoo.com, Classifieds2000 www.classifieds2000.com, and Classified Warehouse www.classifiedwarehouse.com. These sites cover all of the US or the world. Keep in mind that distance adds shipping cost, makes it so you can't inspect the goods before consuming the deal, and, in general, makes it more difficult to establish trust.

For the online equivalent of yard sales, you might want to venture into newsgroups. In Chapter 3, we'll talk about how to use newsgroups and other forms of online discussion to get help and advice from other shoppers. If your main intent is to buy through newsgroups, your best starting point is AltaVista. From the area called "Specialty Searches," click on Usenet. AltaVista will then display a query box. Enter the phrase

+newsgroups:forsale +whateveryouwant

and replace "whateveryouwant" with the type of item for which you are looking. If you are entering a phrase rather than a single word, put the phrase in quotation marks and put a + sign in front of the first quotation mark. When you get your list of results, to read an entry, just click on its name. If you want to get in touch with the person who posted the information and is selling the item, click on the associated email address. Keep in mind that while you will see many tempting offers in newsgroups, be cautious. No one but the seller is providing you with any assurances about your would-be purchase. Responding to these ads is like responding to notes posted on a bulletin board at your local grocery store, except the seller probably doesn't live in your neighborhood or even your city -- he or she might even be in another country.

If you want to post your own ad in a newsgroup and have never used newsgroups before, your best place to start is at Deja.com www.deja.com. Be sure to read the general information at Deja that explains what newsgroups are, how they work,and the proper way to use them. Follow the instructions there for finding the right newsgroup(s) to post your item in, and how to do the posting from the Deja site.

Online Auctions: When Buying Means "Winning"

Online auctions combine characteristics of bargain hunting through classified ads, and competing with other buyers in live face-to-face auctions. When you bid at an online auction, you'll probably feel like you would gambling with slot machines, and you'll probably feel the rushing excitement similar to the final minute of a close-scoring football game. As with classifieds ads, you can search these sites for categories that interest you, and you can scan the auction's listings for items you find interesting.

Similar to face-to-face auctions, you are bidding against other people who want the same goods, and who, like you, are looking for a great bargain or trying to get hold of something that is very hard to find. But unlike a live auction, you don't have to be on hand at a certain time, and you don't have to wait while the auctioneer sells all the other goods on which you have no interest in bidding. With an online auction, you click from item to item and bid on any item[md]or items[md]you like, however often you like. Each item being auctioned has a certain timeframe that it will be offered for sale. As each offered item's auction deadline approaches, the online action intensifies. The name of the game is to just barely outbid the next highest bidder, as near to the deadline as possible. Then you "win," and have the honor of paying for and receiving the merchandise. At the auction's close, you[md]the buyer[md]deal directly with the item's seller to arrange payment, shipping the purchased item, and any remaining details.

At some auction sites, you buy directly from the manufacturer or from a store rather than an individuals, and the merchandise for sale is new or refurbished. These sites, designed to quickly turn overstocked inventory into cash, often go out of their way to heighten the excitement and draw buyers back. Some hold "flash auctions" -- auctions which begin and end in a very short time period, rather than lasting for days or weeks, which is common at sites where individuals sell to one another. For instance, at First Auction (www.firstauction.com) you will find numerous auctions that last just 30 minutes, and where the first bid -- even on merchandise worth hundreds of dollars -- is always just $1. Such a set up can easily create a bidding frenzy.

Like a competitive contest, participating in online auctions can become very exciting. Especially at a "flash auction," you might get caught up in the competitive thrill of the moment. If you are not cautious, you could wind up buying things you don't want or need. As with gambling, you could become addicted. But if you can manage to maintain some self control, you can find bargains and hard-to-find collectibles--along with enjoying the exhilarating experience. One additional sideline benefit is that you'll meet lots of people online who have similar interests to yours. Here is a listing of a few sites to get you started in the thrilling world of online auction activity:

If you decide to venture into the world of online auctions, make sure you have a fast and reliable connection to the Internet. Auctions are time-constrained. The delays you might put up with when you are doing ordinary shopping might prove extremely annoying or even disastrous if you are trying to buy something you "absolutely need" and the bidding goes down to the last second. You don't want to be waiting for a page to load, while your competitor places the winning bid, just one cent more than yours, in the last second of the event.

Sidebars for This Chapter

Time for a break. Check out some online coupon sites: www.supercoups.com, www.coolsavings.com, www.coupondirectory.com, and www.supermarkets.com. Print out the ones you want, drive to a nearby store and use them there.

Want to go to a physical store to see, touch, and maybe buy something you found online? Go to the Web site Mapquest www.mapquest.com, to request map and driving instructions for free to a local store that is associated with the online store.

For mail-in rebates on products from electronics to toys, check The Rebate Company www.rebateco.com. Many of their products are completely free after the rebate.

Are you finding good stuff on the Web, saving the documents, then having difficulty weeding through what you've saved? Then go to AltaVista www.altavista.com, and download AltaVista Discovery software for free. This software indexes all the content on your hard drive, and lets you find everything you want instantly, with the same look-and-feel as the AltaVista Search site.

If a page is temporarily unavailable due to system or network problems, or if the page no longer exists on the Web, Google will provide it for you. The service saves all the pages that it indexes, and can serve them up on request.

Hungry for more? If you want to learn more about recent developments in search engines and directories, check Search Engine Watch www.searchenginewatch.com and subscribe to its monthly email reports.

When considering similar product offerings at different sites, open two or more copies of your browser and reduce the browser's size so you can view two separate copies of the browser with individual product descriptions and pictures at the same time. Or, you can run two individual browsers and quickly bounce back and forth between the two or more browsers.

Put the "eGenie" to work for you. Connect to egenie.opensesame.com. As you explore this site's categories of entertainment, including TV, movies, books, and music, the eGenie "bot" will "learn" your tastes, based simply on your choices. eGenie will then automatically generate a list of Web sites and web location recommendations tailored for you.

Test drive the bots at www.wisewire.com/trialwires2.html In particular, see the "Sample Tech Toy Wires," including computer hardware, audio systems, and cellular phones. You'll see hyperlinked lists of Web pages linking you to those items. The linked sites listed by the bots are rated by visitors to those Web sites.

Clear out your attic and basement of old books and knickknacks, things that you once collected and now no longer care about. Go to eBay and put them up for sale. You'll get cash you can use on your next shopping trip, and you'll free up space to accommodate the new stuff you pick up.

Chapter Three: Advanced Techniques:Becoming a Creative Online Shopper

Congratulations. You are now ready to join the community of Internet online shoppers. Once you become part of this special group of people, then you'll begin to realize the true benefits of the Internet. By sharing openly, you gain access to the wisdom, experience, insights, and fellowship of tens of thousands of other online shoppers who have interests similar to yours.

Just tens of thousands of people? Not millions? Only a small percentage of those who shop online actively participate in the online community. Most online shoppers just pass through their shopping experience, buying one thing here and another there. But I hope that you'll aspire to more than that, wanting to achieve the truly active effortlessness that comes when you make online shopping an integral part of your life and identity. You'll live it, you'll breathe it, you'll love it. What the heck, it's fun.

What do we mean by the online shopping community? The Internet offers a variety of ways by which you can and should interact with other shoppers, and not just with shopping carts and credit-card transaction processing programs. Here is a brief summary:

Using one of more of these mechanisms, you can help and be helped by others like yourself, getting recommendations and giving advice that you will gain from your own Internet experiences.

Be A "Full Player"

When you first ventured online, you probably had some misgivings about all these stores run by unknown people. After all, how can you know where these stores are, who the people are who run them, and whether they'll actually produce the goods they promise. But you aren't alone in your online shopping experience out there in Cyberland. Rather than "buyer beware," it's the vendors who should be wary--regardless of how big or small the store, or how well-known or obscure the company happens to be. You see, the online vendors are at the mercy of active and involved customers, like you, who openly share information about their shopping experiences. If the online vendor messes up, word spreads fast among the online shopping community, and that vendor's business dries up.

Once you know how this online community stuff works, you should also consider becoming a full player:

A Word of Caution

The Internet is about connecting people to people. It also happens to allow you to make purchases and to access enormous quantities of information, but connecting people to people is the heart of the matter.

As you meet new people in newsgroups, forums, and chat sessions, you can benefit from their advice and suggestions, and you can help others as well. Just remember that people are people even in cyberspace: with all their good and bad traits. You should proceed with caution, listening more often than talking, until you've had enough online experience to develop cyber-street- smarts.

You have learned to proceed cautiously when approached by a street hawker or a door-to-door salesperson or when you get an unsolicited phone call from a stranger. You need to get used to the Internet equivalent of these encounters, to sense when you should hold back and when you should be open and sharing.

Immediacy

As you pass through portals, and browse through shopping malls, lingering at large and interesting stores, you will repeatedly see a hyperlinked phrase including the word "chat." Click on it to enter the local chat room and join in the live discussions happening there. Often these rooms are wide open 24-hours a day with people randomly dropping in and talking about whatever's on their mind. But some have scheduled events, with a host to keep the discussion moving in helpful directions and appearances by experts or celebrities. For example, Yahoo!'s forthcoming chat events include talks about fitness, heart disease, and celebrity chats with soap opera stars.

In most cases, you first will arrive at a registration page, where you apply for a password, or you can just sign in, then click to enter and immediately join in the discussion. Sometimes your browser software will suffice for you to participate in the chat room's activity. Other times, you will be given instructions on how to download special chat software. Unfortunately, there are dozens of different chat programs, and different sites use different ones. Don't sweat it. Follow the instructions you find at each chat room. Just dive in--read and react. It won't take long for you to get the drift of how it works, and when you come to the same chat room for the second time, it will be even easier to join in.

In most cases, you type your messages in a form, and in a viewing area you see what you and others have been saying. You'll also see hyperlink buttons to click on to submit what you've typed or to change the look-and-feel of the page for your convenience. If you are confused, check the chat room's Help files. Better yet, speak up. Type what you are thinking. Ask your questions and let the folks like you who are connected help you. Once you start participating in the chat, just go with the flow of activities. You'll be surprised how soon this seemingly stilted and awkward communication mechanism becomes second nature to you. You'll almost start "hearing" it. (Imagine telegraph operators in the days when Edison was young, who heard words when the uninitiated just heard clicks.)

This medium is great when you need suggestions for a gift, or advice on what is the best of this or that, or tips on the best place to get what you need. When you have a question and need an immediate answer, or just need to vent to and relate with people in the same kind of circumstances, give chat rooms a try.

Forums let you carry on discussions across barriers of time as well as space. Your crazy schedule and time zone differences needn't get in the way of your discussing recipes or disk drives with an online friend in Thailand. Because you aren't faced with the urgency of everyone being connected to the Internet at once (like you are with chat rooms), you can pause and reflect and even edit your question or answer or comment before posting it to the forum. Days, weeks, maybe even months later, you'll be able to go back and see what you said, and what was said in response, as well as whether the conversation went any further from there. You might even tell your friends about this discussion and ask them to take a look and add their thoughts.

Where do you find forums? You'll see links to some of them at portals and malls and major shopping sites.

Email Via Distribution Lists: When You Know the Subject--Not the People

Imagine sending a letter not specifically to "James and Joyce," but rather to "everybody who is really interested in antiques." That's what happens with public email distribution lists.

Many of these email distribution lists use automated software, so you sign on and off with a standard message to a particular address. The smaller distribution lists have posting addresses, and everything sent there by a subscriber gets automatically forwarded to the entire subscriber list. The larger distribution lists have one or more moderators who filter the mail and perhaps put the best postings together into "digest" messages.

A public email distribution list's audience is typically a few hundred people and sometimes as large as a few thousand. The larger the subscriber group, the more likely the list will have moderator; otherwise, you could get so many emails from the group that they became a nuisance rather than a help.

How do you find these public email distribution lists? Go to "Liszt, the mailing list directory" www.liszt.com. (That's not a typo; this site spells its name like the name of the Hungarian composer). The searchable directory includes over 90,000 public email lists that you can join. This Web site also provides a recommended subset, organized by category.

Search Liszt for "antiques," and you'll find four matches. Click on the category "business," then "shopping," and you'll find:

Newsgroups: Reach Out to an Even Broader Community

With newsgroups (known to pre-Web Internet veterans as "Usenet newsgroups"), you post a message to a group, using either a special newsgroup software, email, or a web-based service. The audience for a particular group might be tens of thousands, or maybe even hundreds of thousands of readers, but most of the postings are likely to come from the same handful of outspoken and prolific writers. The messages are stored on numerous "news servers" (computers around the world that have been set up on a volunteer basis for the dedicated purpose of acting as the hardware hosts of newsgroups. Postings are typically available for about four to eight weeks, depending on the policies and whims of the folks who run the servers. The discussions are usually "threaded," similar to forums, where the newsgroup's subject line makes clear one messages is in response to another one, and so on. The most useful messages often get posted to multiple newsgroups, forwarded over email distribution lists, and eventually posted on the Web by fans, sometimes at multiple Web sites.

Liszt also has a newsgroup directory. But the most comprehensive source of information about newsgroups is Deja.com. On peak days, this Web site processes over a million postings from hundreds of thousands of people to over 50,000 different newsgroups. [This number keeps growing.]

Click on "New Users" at the bottom of Deja's first page for information on how to get the most out of their free service. This Web site makes it easy for you to find and read the items you want and also to post items to any of these groups. Some examples of advice or information you can post requested responses for are as varied as looking for a rare collectible or seeking advice on what DVD system to buy.

Web Pages: Make Your Own and Let People Find You

Millions of people like you have created their own Web sites, using free space provided by their Internet service providers or by portal sites.. The service that gives you the free web space will also provide you with basic tools and advice for creating and posting your Web pages.

I've created my own Web site, myself; and over the last three and a half years, I've built my site to include over 900 documents, some of which are entire books. In any typical week, about 4000 people visit my site, most of whom found their way to my site by using search engines. Often, they are looking for advice about doing business on the Internet or using the AltaVista search engine; or they have read a book or author that I've read or mentioned. Some also come looking for my online shopping directory, which has links to all the sites mentioned in this book www.samizdat.com/shopping.html

But, why would you want to create and maintain your own Web site? Here are some great reasons:

By the way, if you are curious about affiliate/associates programs and how they work, check at Amazon.com. They have hundreds of thousands of associates--mostly people like you who have their own Web pages and mention books and music that they like, with links to Amazon.com for the convenience of others who might want to buy them. If those visitors do buy, the referral fee ranges from 5 to 15 percent, depending on how much of a discount the customer is getting. For details, check on Amazon.com and see Chapter 4 here, where we deal with books, music, and videos.

For ideas on what to include in your Web site and why, how to design your pages, and how to publicize your site for free over the Internet, check my book, The Social Web, which is available for free at www.samizdat.com/#social. For now, book is only available in electronic form. You can read it at my Web site, and save and print it, just like you would any other Web page. You can also buy it on diskette from Amazon.com.

Opening Your Own Online Store

Having experienced online shopping as a consumer, and having created your own Web pages, you might be tempted to open your own little online store, especially considering that the cost of starting a small online store is very little. For instance, at Yahoo! Store, running a store selling up to 50 items currently costs only about $100 a month. Additionally, Yahoo! Store charges no startup fee and no per-transaction fees, and you do not have to make any minimum time commitment.

While you can expect other companies to make similar offers, Yahoo! Store is leading the way in making it easy for ordinary people to open and run small online stores. Yahoo! Store already has over 280,000 products listed [number growing rapidly], and this mall-style collection of stores gets millions of page views per month. Shoppers can do a single search across all the stores. A single "shopping basket" keeps track of your choices, as you move from store to store within the site. And Yahoo! Store enables secure credit card transactions. As one of their store keepers, you need no special software--just your browser. The folks at Yahoo! claim you can build a store and start taking orders in "minutes."

But please don't underestimate the time and effort required to successfully run a store, even online. If you want try running an online store because you love what it is you'll sell, go for it. If you want to get rich quick, go to Las Vegas instead. Your odds of striking it rich will probably be better there. Before deciding, be sure to read the excellent article "The 10 Secrets of Selling Online" by Paul Graham.

Sidebars For This Chapter

See something you want to share with a friend? With Netscape, click on File, then Mail Document. Fill in your friend's email address and add a message, if you like.

If you can't find a store's email address (unfortunately a common occurrence these days), try the following method. If the Web address is www.greatstore.com, then send email to "webmaster@greatstore.com" or "support@greatstore.com". If that doesn't work and the message bounces back as "undeliverable," then look them up at one of the online yellow pages sites, such as AnyWho Switchboard  or Big Yellow.

If you really get into the mode of relating to other people in chat, go to Xoom and start your own free chat room. Tell your online friends about it, and gather there at pre-set times to talk about whatever interests you.

If you love the forum style of discussion, consider creating your own forum for free at Delphi (www.delphi.com).

Ever want to talk to a friend while in the middle of an online shopping excursion? Go to Mirabilis and read how their ICQ "instant messaging" software works. Download and install it. Then get your friends to do the same.

Concerned about the volume of email you might get from distribution lists? Sign up for free email accounts. You can use a different account to subscribe to each list. You can then pick up messages from a particular distribution list by going to the email account that you used when you signed up for that particular list.

Okay. You've become a shopping guru. Why not use the money you've saved to throw a party for the friends you've met online? If you live in far-flung locations, arrange to "rendezvous" at a vacation spot. To work out your travel plans, maybe hold a weekly chat or carry on your discussion in a forum. To get the best travel deals, check the sites discussed in Chapter 8. And when you get back, post pictures and notes at your own Web site.

Chapter Four:Books, Music, Videos 

Books, music, and videos are relatively simple consumer items. You can hold one in your hands, read the label, and know pretty much what you'd get if you bought it. But there are so many different books, music CDs and cassette tapes, and videos that no store could ever possibly stock them all.

Books, for example, have been traditionally sold through physical stores that have limited shelf space. Publishers battle for this shelf space,and only the best selling books are stocked. Thousands of other books don't make it and even the ones that do soon get pushed aside by new titles. The losers are shipped back to the publishers as "returns," with the store receiving for full credit for the unsold books. The returned books eventually show up as "remainders," and are liquidated at enormous discounts.

Compare this traditional book sale model with today's online book store--a "virtual" store with no such physical constraints. The Internet version of the book store can include millions of different items, storing the information in a database so that you can find what you want quickly, searching by author, subject, or title.

Choice: How Many Million is Enough?

The super-size online bookstores typically boast that they have a million or more titles. You've probably heard the Amazon.com ads with workers looking for a place that's big enough to store all the books they have for sale. Their joke underlines the fact that online stores don't need warehouse space, or don't need anywhere near as much of it as a comparable physical store would. The fact that you find a title listed there, just means that if you want it, they can deliver it. In most cases, they don't own or have on hand physically the book they are selling you, but they can get that book to you in a matter of a couple of days.

So with an Internet-based book store, where do all the books come from? Typically, the basic listings come from Books in Print, a publication of R.R. Bowker (www.bowker.com) which attempts to catalog all books published in the U.S. Their Internet edition includes more than 900,000 titles published since 1979. A would-be superstore sets up a searchable database starting with that information and makes business partnerships with one or more distributors.

Some online superstores, like Barnes and Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com) are connected with pre-existing physical stores or chains of stores. Others like Amazon.com are new to this business and will probably never go to the expense of building brick-and-mortar stores. The typical superstore will have some best-selling books in stock for very quick turnaround. They'll forward other orders to their distributors for shipment in a few days. And others they'll special order from the publisher for delivery in a few weeks. If you need a book quickly, you might want to shop around the various superstores to see which one guarantees fastest delivery for that particular title.

The highly publicized success of Amazon.com has attracted lots of competitors. Here's a list of the best known online book retailers today, but expect plenty more to join the fray.

Keep in mind that all these stores are not equal, even though they may boast similar numbers of titles. Those that base their database entire on Books in Print will have out-of-date information, depending on updates from R.R. Bowker, which come at fixed intervals rather than in real time. That means that you might search for a book and find the old edition, but not the new one. Others, like Amazon.com, get information straight from publishers, as soon as it's available, even pre-publication information. Competition should push the survivors in that direction.

How do some of these stores offer numbers of titles far greater than those found in Books in Print? Some, like Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, bolster the number of items they have for sale by including out-of-print books (for which they have finder services.) Amazon also has a program, Advantage, for small presses. This program accepts books on consignment. Those efforts make available to the general public literary and other rare works that otherwise would be almost impossible to find and difficult to purchase.


Specialty Book Stores -- Surviving the Attack of Godzilla

So why would you ever go to a small online bookstore? If the "Godzilla" stores like Amazon.com have everything and make it easy to find anything you want, why go anywhere else?

I have to admit that I'm an Amazon addict. I spend an average of $100 to $200 a month there, and a lot more at Christmas when I buy gifts. But I also regularly buy books at Daedalus and Schoenhofs.

Daedalus (www.daedalus-books.com) regularly sends me a printed catalog, which has thoughtful, well-written mini-reviews of books I would otherwise probably never have heard of and that I very often find delightful. For the most part, these are low-priced remainders--hardcovers now going into paperback or gems that for one reason or other didn't make it in the book stores.

I shop at Schoenhof's (www.schoenhofs.com) for their enormous selection of foreign language books--French, German, and Russian. But while I'll check their Web site, I'm probably more likely to phone them, because their knowledgeable sales staff can let me know about alternative editions and related titles.

Whatever your tastes, there are probably niche stores on the Internet that can make it easy for you to decide what to buy, learn about new books in your field, or find a particular book when you don't know the title or the author.

Here's a sampling of the Internet's niche book stores. You will find many others by links from related Web pages and also by using the major search engines and directories (discussed in Chapter 1).

The Rise of Pseudo-Stores Online

As you search for online bookstores that cater to your individual tastes--books on sailing or gardening or Jewish culture--you will often find that the store is an "affiliate" or "associate" of one of the superstores. Basically, many online superstores have programs that let members who have their own Web sites link to the superstore for book purchases. The resulting "pseudo-stores" (as I call them), carry no inventory and don't have to worry about collecting money or filling orders. All they do is provide links; and for that, they get paid a referral fee when visitors buy. If you find yourself buying at stores of that kind often, you might want to consider opening one of your own. It's simple, quick, and costs nothing.

I operate a pseudo-store, myself, at my Web site at www.samizdat.com/. There I have a list of every book I've read for the last 41 years (so I'm a bit obsessive), plus lists of my favorites, and reviews. Because those pages of mine are indexed at the major search engines (and especially at AltaVista), I get lots of email from other readers who have enjoyed the same books as I did. That email is my best source of recommendations for what to read next. It's also a lot of fun getting in touch with people of similar interests and sharing ideas with them. Since I'm an Amazon.com associate, I get a 5 to 15 percent referral fee on what visitors to my site buy at Amazon when they click to there from one of my links. You can do the same. It's relatively simple, and here are the steps:

1. Post one or more Web pages at a free Web-hosting site like NBCi [formerly Xoom] (www.nbci.com/), Tripod (www.tripod.com, or Geocities (www.geocities.com), as described in Chapter Five.

2. Sign up for an affiliate/associate program at one of the book superstores. Signing up typically costs nothing and takes about a day for verification that you do have a Web site and that you don't seem to be doing anything illegal there.

3. Make a list of books that you love and would like to recommend, preferably around a common theme, so your "store" will have an identifiable niche.

4. Following the instructions from the superstore, make hyperlinks from your pages to the pages at the superstore where those particular books are offered for sale.

5. Add additional content, such as reviews, to let visitors know more about the books you have chosen and to encourage them to click on the hyperlinks.

6. Anyone who clicks gets connected to the superstore, where they get more information and where they can place orders online.

7. The superstore collects the money and fills the order, periodically sending you reports about activity from your site. The site also sends you a check with a finder's fee that typically amounts to 5 to 15 percent of what the customers paid for the books they bought.

If you are considering creating a pseudo-store, don't get inflated expectations. You aren't likely to get rich this way. But if you love books and like to share your enthusiasm, this is a way to pick up a little "found money."

The difficult part is getting enough traffic to your little Web site to generate sales of this kind. For tips in doing that, you can check my book, The Social Web, which you can read online at www.samizdat.com/#social.

What Price?

Why do I buy so many books online? Is it price? No. If that were the case I would hop from store to store chasing the best price for each item. But, for me, that would be a waste of time. I'm happy if the standard discount (plus my referral fee, as noted above) off-sets the shipping charges. And when I buy many books at the same time, making the per book shipping charge relatively low, I'm inclined to spend my savings by ordering some recently released hardcovers, instead of waiting until those titles come out in paperback. But I'm very skeptical about advertised single-title bargains.

Yes, an online store may try to lure you in with ads about special prices on particular books, but so do physical stores, which heavily discount the best sellers and hope you'll buy more books once you're in the store. But shopping online you'll be hit with shipping charges, which decline the more you buy. If you only want that one item, the shipping will bring the real cost up close to list, or certainly no better than you could do at the physical store around the corner. You only get the benefit of the advertised cost savings on the one title by buying several or even half a dozen other books at the same time; however, those additional titles probably don't have the same high discount.

If you do insist on buying one book here and another there, while the nominal cost for each item might be less, the total cost, including shipping, will be much higher than if you bought them all at the same superstore.

By the way, you can't use a search engine like AltaVista and Hotbot to find out which online stores have the book or music or video you want. That's because the stores keep their catalog information in databases, and public search engines today cannot access databases. You can, however, use a comparison site like PriceScan (www.pricescan.com), or Acses (www.acses.com) to check the availability and price of particular title across a dozen or so online stores.

Logically, you might expect to get the best deal by eliminating the middleman and going straight to the publisher's site. In fact, you could use the search capability at an online superstore to find out who the publisher is and then go to the publisher's site to make the purchase. But the industry doesn't work that way.

Major publishers typically give bookstores and distributors a discount in the range of 40 to 55 percent, depending on the size of their orders. But, believe it or not, they are not set up to handle individual orders themselves and can't do so economically even though they'd get the full undiscounted price.

For instance, at Macmillan's site (www.mcp.com), you can search and browse their complete catalog (more than 2000 new titles published each year), and see a description, the table of contents, and a sample chapter of each. But you can't buy the book online there. Rather they expect you to make the purchase at retail book stores. Smaller publishers, whose books are carried by a limited number of stores, will probably include a list of those stores at their site. Only the very tiniest publishers, who sell primarily by direct mail and whose titles may not appear in stores at all, are likely to sell directly over the Internet.

That means that a superstore like Amazon.com is not in competition with the publishers, but rather works in partnership with them. In fact, Amazon.com welcomes all the information and excerpts and pictures that the publishers are willing to provide. Hence, the Amazon.com site becomes the simplest way for a publisher to sell single copies, without all the logistical headaches and cost of trying to deal directly with hundreds of thousands or even millions of individual customers.

If you know of a publisher that specializes in books in your field, you may want to check the publisher's Website for its latest catalog and browse to see what's new. Then you can go to an online superstore to make your purchase.

It's All a Matter of Taste

You buy a car maybe once every three years. As for books, music, and videos, you can consume dozens of these in a month--all different; and you have literally millions of different items to choose from. So how do you decide what you want? And how do you avoid wasting your time and money on ones that you don't like?

To help us make these decisions, we traditionally rely on best-seller lists, awards, reviews, and the opinions of friends. We also sample the goods--flipping through books in a physical store, or hearing music on the radio or TV or seeing previews of videos. Online superstores typically give you easy access to best-seller lists, award lists, reviews by professionals, and also reviews by people like yourself. (For instance, at Amazon.com you can post your own reviews of the books you've read.) And, thanks to their partnerships with publishers, they sometimes provide detailed descriptions, tables of contents, and even sample chapters.

If you are a glutton for reviews, check AcqWeb's Directory of Book Reviews on the Web at www.library.vanderbilt.edu/law/acqs/bookrev.html. This site will link you to all the major traditional sources of reviews, including Library Journal, Booklist, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Salon Magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic Monthly. It also includes links to publications that review scholarly and interdisciplinary books, children's books, and computing and Internet books.

You also could and should spend some time checking the book-related newsgroups, including the monstrously large and very active rec.arts.books, and its off-shoots (rec.arts.books.childrens, rec.arts.books.hist-fiction, rec.arts.books.marketplace, and rec.arts.books.tolkien). And science fiction lovers should consider rec.arts.sf.fandom, rec.arts.sf.marketplace, rec.arts.sf.misc, rec.arts.sf.science, rec.arts.sf.starwars, rec.arts.sf.superman, and rec.arts.sf.written. If you don't have access to a news server by way of your Internet service provider, you can search through and read and post to all of these at Dejanews (www.dejanews.com).

In any case, avid readers should definitely check Evelyn C. Leeper's home page at www.geocities.com/Athens/4824/. Evelyn has been a regular and prolific contributor to book-related newsgroups for many years. At her personal Web site, she has posted her numerous insightful reviews, along with the "frequently asked questions" (FAQ) documents from rec.arts.books. and rec.arts.sf.written, which may well answer some of your own questions. You will also find there a very complete list of physical bookstores worldwide, generated and updated by the collaborative efforts of newsgroup participants over many years.

But for buying books and music and videos, the online shopping experience is truly unique, and not just a matter of easy access to enormous quantities of information. The superstores can actually help me to better understand my own tastes and then to find the works that match. That's basically why I do nearly all my shopping for this class of goods online today, and why the unplanned, impulse purchases I make there are very often winners.

The simplest form of online personal recommendations matches you with others who have purchased an item in which you are interested. For instance, at Amazon.com, when I read the details about a particular book or music CD, I immediately see a list of the top three items that purchasers of this item also bought.

A class of software known as "collaborative filtering" takes this a giant step forward. Based on your previous purchases and on any information you provide regarding your tastes (for instance, rating titles that you are familiar with), the system learns your preferences. At the same time it is learning the preferences of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of other consumers of books, music, and/or videos. It builds a profile of your preferences and matches you with others who have similar tastes. Then your list of personal recommendations (which you can access at the store's Web site or get periodically by email) includes those items that your cyber-soul-mates have given high ratings to and that you have not yet rated. The more people provide details on their preferences, the more effective the system is in predicting everyone's likes and dislikes; so when you take the time to give your input, you not only help yourself, but also the community of others like you. You learn what others like you enjoy, rather than what professional reviewers prefer. And the recommendations are truly tailored to you as an individual, rather than to some fictitious notion of you based on statistical averages.

This approach is very different from the demographic data, used to target advertising and programming to mass audiences. Demographics are static categories of people based on factors such as age, sex, race, education, and income. Advertisers try to find correlations between those factors and what people watch and what they buy. But individuality gets lost in averages. The "average man" is a statistical fiction. Such data helps advertisers define their target audience, determine what they are likely to watch, and craft messages that are likely to appeal to many of them. But they are useless for helping you determine what book or record or video is most likely to please you.

By the way, these online preference services provide a strong incentive to return over and over again to the same superstore. For instance, once you've taken the time at Amazon.com to rate dozens or even hundreds of books or music CDs or videos, you can count on getting useful recommendations there. And as you buy more there and rate more there, the recommendations keep improving.

TheInternet: Reinvigorating the Book Industry

Before the advent of personal computers, book publishing was a moribund business. Pundits lamented that due to television and movies, fewer and fewer people read books; and book sales remained stagnant while the population continued to rise. You might have expected that computers and the Internet would further erode demand for books. But, on the contrary, we are seeing a resurgence, with particular demand for books about the Internet. (A search at Amazon.com yields nearly 5000 books with "Internet," "online," or "Web" in the title.) And book selling is the hottest segment of online shopping today.

Basically, online book shopping changes not just how you buy, but the whole economics of the publishing industry. You have far greater choice today, and even greater choice in the future, as publishers choose to keep their books in print longer, because now they have an outlet that isn't limited by shelf space. They also could publish more books because they no longer depend on large print runs and traditional distribution methods. They might, for instance, take advantage of print-on-demand technology that allows them to print a few copies or even a single copy economically, as orders come in. At the same time, very small and do-it-yourself publishers--that have no hope of making it into physical stores--can sell their books through the same online superstores that the major publishers do, giving you even greater choice.

Electronic Books: Books That Sell Without Ever Being "In Print"

In the near future, you will also be able to download many popular books in electronic form. This innovation will mean: We can see the beginnings of electronic books today. Check MightyWords (www.mightywords.com) and Fatbrain (www.fatbrain.com) Also, consider, for example, the sample chapters provided by many publishers at their own Web sites and also at online superstores.

Also, a few innovative publishers, like Macmillan (www.mcp.com/personal/) also make the complete text of selected books available to be viewed for free over the Web. Meanwhile hundreds of volunteers are making the full text of thousands of public domain classics available for free in electronic form--for the good of all--through projects like Gutenberg (www.promo.net/pg).

With computer displays the way they are today, very few people would be inclined to read an entire book online, and printing out an entire book on your personal printer is far more expensive than buying a book. So publishers who put the full text of books up on the Web are basically giving you an unlimited set of samples to consider--just like you could at a physical book store. Reportedly, the publishers who offer full texts of books free for viewing at their Web sites typically see a 20 to 30 percent increase in print sales for those same books.

The exception is the blind, who, thanks to computer-based text-to-voice converters, can and do read electronic books that are made available in plain text form (without fancy formatting and graphics).

We are just now beginning to see in the public marketplace inexpensive computer-like devices devoted to displaying electronic books. As such gadgets catch on, and as the displays for ordinary PCs improve, the market for books sold, delivered, and read in electronic form should soar, changing the standard practices of publishers and the buying and reading habits of people like you.

Music: A Sound Investment

Shopping for music online is very much like shopping for books. The selection is enormous, and so is the amount of related information. Many of the same superstores that sell books also sell music. And some of them offer useful personal recommendations, like those for books. Here are some of today's largest online music stores: Once again, this is a very competitive market. Expect lots of newcomers to join battle, with interesting new offers and features to tempt you. For example, one interesting twist offered by K-Tel (www.ktel.com) is the capability for you to build your own custom music CD. At this site, you can sample hits from the 1950's, '60's, '70's, and '80's to build your own music mix online. K-Tel then ships you your customized CD. This type of customization will become more commonplace as the features battle between music store Web sites continues.

Also, thanks to affiliate/associate programs, expect to see lots of little pseudo-stores that sell music. These pseudo-sites will also provide information and recommendations about particular kinds of music and then provide links to superstores for particular titles, in return for referral fees or credit on future purchases. As in the case of books, if you are a serious music lover as well as buyer, you may want to consider becoming an affiliate/associate yourself and setting up your own Web pages, as described in an earlier section of this chapter. (Hundreds of thousands of people like yourself have done so already.)

When shopping for music, the online search capabilities at the superstores are particularly useful here. Categories of music tend to be very subjective and idiosyncratic (is that pop or folk or rock?) While one physical store might shelve a particular CD in one category, another might put it in a different category. And if you are trying to buy music as a gift--shopping for kinds of music with which you are not personally familiar--the physical store can be very intimidating, and it can take you a long time to find what you want unless you are able to find a helpful salesperson with a moment to spare.

Those same search capabilites make it easy for you to find and learn about independent labels and artists, whose music is now for sale online, but who couldn't get shelf space for their CDs and cassette tapes in physical stores.

For you to be able to hear music samples to help you make your online music-shopping decisions, your PC needs an audio card and related software, and you also need to fetch the appropriate plug-in software for your browser. (Most music sites use plug-ins from RealNetworks, which you can download from their Web site at www.real.com.) For the best sound, you may want to get quality speakers. Then you'll be able to get the most out of the music sampling capabilities at online stores.

As with books, the trend is first to provide excerpts/samples online, and later to sell the product in electronic form, so you can download it directly to your PC, rather than waiting for delivery of a physical CD or tape. You'll find the beginnings of electronic delivery today at a handful of sites, such as Music Boulevard.

At Music Boulevard, click on "Download Music" to see the selections. A single song might cost about a dollar and take about half an hour to download. But first you'll have to download and install a free e-mod music player, which will take you another five minutes.

If you are going to buy music in electronic form, you will want a portable way of saving it. Otherwise your hard drive will get filled quickly, and you will be frustrated when you want to play the music on a device other than your PC. You might consider adding one of the new CD drives that lets you write as well as read CDs.

For music, radio stations provide samples all day; you pick a station that suits your tastes, hear some tunes that you like, and buy them. But the stations only play a small percentage of what's available. What about the rest? In the past, those options were dead: An artist or group either "made" it or didn't. Now those unknowns can sell their CDs and tapes through online music superstores. But how do you find out that the "unknown" exists? (Yes, you can search for an "unknown" by name, but you already have to know their name to search for them.)

Emerging artists now have the opportunity to take matters into their own hands and offer samples of their music or complete works online at their own Web sites. We discussed in Chapter 3 how ordinary people like us can create our own Web pages at sites like Geocities, NBCi (formerly Xoom), and Tripod, that offer free space and the tools you need for ordinary pages consisting of text and graphics. If you love music or have your own music group and are ambitious,you can take this approach a step further and build a site with audio content, as well as text and graphics, at very little cost.

Audio files are much larger than text files: a single song might take up ten times as much space as an entire book (5 Mbytes vs. 500 Kbytes). So you wouldn't want to do much, if any, audio if you were limited to just 5 or 10 Mbytes of space (which is typical with free Web-hosting accounts). But, Hispeed (http://www.hispeed.com/) currently offers unlimited Web space for as little as $19.95 per month. Hispeed is also set up to handle "streaming audio"(for a couple extra dollars a month) --where the listener hears the sounds as they arrive, rather than having to download an entire files and then play it back. With free software from RealNetworks (www.real.com), you can turn your sound files into the format needed for "streaming audio" and post them on your site at Hispeed.

If you are really ambitious, you could create many such personal files--voice as well as music--and run your offerings regularly, operating your own Internet-based radio station at very low cost and without needing FCC approval. (Keep in mind that $15/month is the base price. The more you do, the more it costs; but you'll be amazed at what is possible on a shoestring.)

To see how online radio stations work, check the RealGuide at RealNetworks (www.real.com/realguide/index.html). Some of the sites linked to from there feature music from artists who have not yet hit the mainstream. You might also want to check Musicnet's HotPicks (www.musicnet.com/hotpicks/index.html), which offers over 2000 music clips.

You can also learn about new music artists through newsgroups which you can search for at Dejanews (www.dejanews.com), and through email discussion lists, which you can search for at Liszt (www.liszt.com).

Video: Seeing Is Believing

Delivering video over the Internet depends largely on connection speed. At typical modem speeds, the best video you can see are tiny pictures that move jerkily--worse than the old-time silent movies. But if your Internet connection is a fast one, perhaps cable-based or DSL, then the video you can see on the Internet becomes the same video you see everywhere. When these faster Internet transmission speeds are common, you will be able to receive full-screen television-quality over the Internet. With ever increasing Internet data transmission speeds, ever more efficient compression technology (fitting more content into smaller files), and ever greater disk space on new PCs, you will also be able to download entire movies in the not-too-distant future.

For now, though, the Internet, is limited pretty much to buying or renting a video or DVD, and this process online is very much like buying a book. Nearly all the online superstores that sell both books and music (listed in this chapter), also sell movies, and provide the same kinds of capabilities to help you make your video choices. You will also find some sites that just specialize in movies, like Blockbuster Video (www.blockbuster.com) and Reel (www.reel.com).

Reel has an enormous selection of new and used videotapes to buy, DVD movies to buy, and videotapes to rent. With over 35,000 movies for rent, the Reel Web site is where you get hard-to-find films (foreign, cult, rare, classic, offbeat) and independent movies, as well as all of the mainstream ones. Blockbuster, a relative newcomer to the Internet, is rapidly catching up.

Keep in mind that "finding" is not necessarily the same as "receiving." Online vendors typically work through distributors, and some are better than others are providing realistic estimates of how long it will be before the item ships. The fact that a video appears in an online catalog is no guarantee that you'll receive the goods in reasonable time. Over time--and forced by competition--service should improve.

If you are addicted to movies, Reel has an affiliate program (similar to those discussed above for books and music), which will let you "build your own video store."

If you need more info to make your choices, check the Internet Movie Database (www.us.imdb.com), which is owned by Amazon.com. This database is purportedly "the ultimate movie reference source and covers everything you could possibly want to know about movies." Continuously updated, it also has hyperlinks to thousands of related external Web pages. It currently covers over 170,000 titles.

If you are interested in recent releases, check at the search sites like AltaVista--these days nearly every major new motion picture has it's own Web site, packed with graphics and multi-media effects, and info for fans.

If you are really into movies, and might even consider writing one yourself, be sure to visit these Web site locations:

For information on all aspects of the movie business, as well as fan reactions to your favorite movies, check the movie-related newsgroups, such as: In addition, of course, you can search across all the newsgroups at Dejanews (www.dejanews.com) and AltaVista (www.altavista.com).

Finally, for a personal view of movies that are worth watching, check the Web site of Mark R. Leeper (husband of Evelyn Leeper, mentioned earlier in this chapter) at www.geocities.com/Hollywood/6960. He has been a long-time active participant in movie-related newsgroups, and he posts at his site helpful and informative reviews of the many movies that he sees. To see my own fledgling effort along the same lines, check All about movies.

Sidebars for This Chapter:


Chapter Five: Computers and Software

At first, I was reluctant to buy computer products completely online. Many of the online computer stores used to sell exclusively through printed catalogs, addressing the needs of the technically astute. I found those printed catalogs intimidating and confusing, and preferred to go to a physical store, where knowledgeable sales people could guide me through the maze of choices, explaining the benefits and risks and costs.

When Egghead, the prominent software retailer, closed its physical stores and decided to operate solely on the Internet, I was shocked and disappointed. I had shopped regularly at the local Egghead store and depended on explanations and advice from their sales people whenever I needed either hardware or software.

Also, I greatly valued the fact that when I bought new add-ons or upgrades for my PC, I could pay to have them installed on the spot.

When I didn't have a store like that any more in my neighborhood, I had to go online, which meant I could no longer rely on someone else's expertise and judgment. I was forced to learn more about computers than I ever wanted or expected to learn. As it turns out, that's probably a good thing, both for my budget and myself.

Basically, when it comes to computers, you should learn before you shop, especially before you shop online. The products are complex assemblies of standard commodity parts made by multiple manufacturers. The more you understand about your choices and their implications, the better you'll be able to take advantage of the opportunities available on the Internet.

Today, the computer industry is a commodity, standards-driven marketplace. Computer "manufacturers" are really just assemblers. They buy processors from one source, software, disks, memory etc. from other sources, and assemble them into systems. The competition is fierce and the profit margins are slim. In terms of the basic specs--speed, memory, and storage--what we now define as a "complete system" for home use would have made a wealthy technical guru tremble with envy ten years ago. This dream system now sells for about what it would cost to buy a wooden table for your kitchen. Does this make sense?

And this dream system has barely enough capacity to perform what we now perceive as basic tasks because the latest versions of the software we depend on, and even the games we play, require the latest and greatest of hardware to run properly. Does this make sense?

Did you ever hear of "built-in obsolescence"? We are seeing the computer-equivalent in action.

Fifteen years ago, it seemed inconceivable that an ordinary individual would ever want or need a 100 MHz machine with 1 gigabyte of disk storage space. Yes, we could forecast that such machines would be available and at reasonable cost, because of predictable improvements in technology. As a rule of thumb (known as "Moore's Law"), the speed of commercially available processors doubles about every 18 months. Typically, the new model sells for about what the old one did, and the value of the old one drops in half. While, at some point, technology must meet barriers that will slow the pace of change, the computer industry has been adapting at this incredibly rapid rate for more than two decades now, with great regularity. And the software industry has been keeping in lock step with these hardware developments by making each new version of the common applications that people depend upon more and more complex and bulky, requiring the full capacity of the latest and greatest hardware. I don't believe this software inflation results from a conscious conspiracy. Rather we're seeing the consequences of human nature--software expands to fill the capacity available for it.

That means that even if you don't want to do any more with your system in the future than you do right now, to stay compatible with other people with whom you have to share files, sooner or later you will have to upgrade your software. And the new versions of software will make your equipment seem painfully slow in two years, and obsolete in four.

In other words, in defiance of all logic, even though your computer could probably function well for another 10-15 years, and could do everything you really need to do with it, you will find yourself compelled to make major upgrades or buy a complete new system every two to three years.

Considering the enormous resources available today, I'm amazed at what we were able to do back in 1983-84. Back then, my Atari 800 with no hard drive and 48 Kbytes of memory seemed lightning fast and capable of miracles. Today, my year-old 266 MHz laptop with 2 gigabytes of storage and 96 Mbytes of memory (2,000 times more than that old Atari) feels sluggish and limited.

Basically, "Moore's Law" plus software inflation mean that the computer system you buy today, no matter how well chosen, will not last. You'll be back shopping for add-ons and upgrades and new systems again and again. In other words, you should invest some time learning about these gadgets and the commodity upgrades you can buy for them so you can make full use of the shopping resources on the Internet, and save again and again.

Read What's Published, or Perish

You can only take advantage of the best deals if you understand your choices--why you might want to buy what, the key criteria, what works well with what, how to use what you have, how to cope with problems. Without that knowledge, you depend on brand names (at premium prices) and complete packaged systems (where you pay for pieces you'll never use).

You don't need to learn to program. You don't need to learn the skills of a technician. But you should familiarize yourself with each of the major commodity pieces that can go into a system and which you can later add or upgrade. You should understand the terminology and the measures of speed and capacity and how they relate to your needs. And you need to keep up to date on major new options as they become available.

Impossible task? Hardly. There are thousands of people making a living providing information like that for people like you, in the form of articles, magazines, books, and courses. This information is available in traditional form and/or over the Internet. Here's a sampling of the resources available to you:

What's in Store for You?

The computer hardware and software marketplace changes at a dizzying pace. You buy a great computer today, and tomorrow you see another even better one advertised at a lower price. That means that you should always delay buying computer gear until you actually need it--until the last moment. Except under rare circumstances, such as the shortage of a key part like a popular processor or memory chip), or a highly publicized launch of a radically new product), computer equipment is not in short supply. When you are ready to buy, you'll find numerous vendors anxious to sell you functionally similar products. Use the extra time to learn more.

Also, with your inevitable need for upgrades, you should think of your computing capability not as a fixed asset, but rather as a regularly recurring expense for a consumable. You will periodically refill your system box, rather like refilling the oil tank for your furnace. Hence you should seriously consider creative financing arrangements, such as leasing, and/or guaranteed future trade-in agreements.

When considering leasing, the length of the lease is critical. If, for your use, the system is likely to become obsolete in two years, you don't want to be saddled with it (and its payments) for three or four years.

When considering a pre-arranged trade-in/upgrade agreement (such as that now being offered by Gateway), remember that while you will be able to get back some of the value of the system you buy today, you are at the same time locking yourself into a particular vendor. In this volatile industry, by the time you need to upgrade, there may well be better choices elsewhere -- including free PCs.

Also, look for and invest in extended warranties and service contracts. Sooner or later you will need help, either to pick the right product or to install it or fix problems later on. So make sure that as part of your purchase, you are going to have access to experts who can help you either online or by phone. If it is by phone, the company should provide a toll-free number and assurances that you won't be stuck on hold for endless hours, if you are lucky enough for your call to ever get through.

You also should look for online stores that offer not just the ability to search for the best price and performance on all the different pieces that can go into a computer or an upgrade, but also tools designed to help you "configure" your system. In other words, you want to make sure that pieces made by different manufacturers or by the same manufacturer at different times will really work well together, and make sense. (What's the point of a part that's ten times faster than the rest of the system can handle?) Only if you have that kind of information can you really take advantage of commodity prices and price comparison tools and even auctions. And you want this online decision-support program to be organized and worded in ways that make sense for your level of knowledge--not just for the eight-year-old computer guru who lives next-door.

The creative financing, warranty, service contracts, and online configuration tools can come from either the manufacturer/assembler or an independent store (which may also assemble a system to your custom requirements). The cross-company search capabilities at various online superstores might help you determine which make and model you want. Then you might go to the manufacturer's site to use the configuration tool there, as a check against the store's recommendation and price; and you might also want to see if the manufacturer is offering better deals on financing and service.

Price Comparison

If you know what you want, need no further help, and price is your main selection criterion, you want to start at a price-comparison site. Even if you don't know exactly what you want, you might want to do some trial searches for products in the general category you are interested in, to see which online stores consistently offer the best prices.

At Pricescan www.pricescan.com you can search for the hardware, software, and computer supplies you need across dozens of online stores. You enter the features, parameters, and price range you want. The results list includes the model number, the vendor name, and a selection of dealers, along with their prices.

With the online service Price Watch www.pricewatch.com, you can click on a category of computer product to get all the prices, or enter a customized search. You can also search for the best price on a particular product from a particular manufacturer.

Covering hardware, software, and components (such as generic memory, StreetPrices www.StreetPrices.com "sniffs out the best consumer prices on the Web." They update their index hourly.

Killerapp www.killerapp.com calls itself "a shopping channel for computers." It helps you pick the right product at the best price and most convenient location. You can select a product area, then enter your keywords to drill down to exactly what you want. You can see lists of the hundred most popular products in a wide variety of categories. You can get detailed contact information on hundreds of computer dealers nationwide. Killerapp also lets you create your own personalized page for tracking prices of products that you are interested in buying.

Online Computer Superstores

The online computer superstores may have some related editorial content, or point you to reviews, but their main function is to make it easy for you to buy computer items after you have already decided what you want.

The Makers and Shakers

The computer retail business is incredibly competitive. Anybody can assemble a system from parts made by many different sources--not just companies that are known as computer manufacturers. Computer stores, too, can assemble and sell their own complete computer systems. Everytime you pick up a computer magazine, you'll see advertisements from new sources selling complete computer systems.

For instance, just before Christmas 1998, a new company soared out of nowhere to grab a significant chunk of the PC market. emachines (www.e4me.com), as shown in Figure xxx.18, currently sells new, fully equipped, powerful 300Mhz computer systems (including the monitor, 24X CD-ROM, 56K modem, 3+G hard drive, and 32 MB RAM) for less than $500--less than half the cost other competitors were selling comparable systems for at that time.

You might be reluctant to deal with a newcomer, because of questions regarding reliability and support -- will they be around if and when it breaks? But if the system is built from standard commodity pieces, any computer fix-it shop should be able deal with it, and third-party service contracts (such as those offered by some computer stores) should be able cover it. If you have any doubts about a particular company or system, ask for advice from the people you would normally turn to for fix-it help.

With prices dropping at that rate, don't be surprised if some of the old established computer system manufacturers with easily recognized names soon disappear. (I worked for Digital Equipment for 19 years. Ten years ago, Digital was second largest computer company in the world. Today, Digital doesn't even exist anymore, have been swallowed up by Compaq.)

However, you should still check not just the online stores, but also the computer manufacturer Web sites, where you may find better special deals on select products. Also, the larger, Internet-savvy computer makers, like Dell and Gateway, are likely to have a wide range of products available directly through their Web sites. You may want to use their configuration tools, have them put together your dream system, and take advantage of their creative financing options.

If you visit an online superstore and find an attractive system made by a company you know little about, you should definitely go to the manufacturer's Web site to do some additional checking before making your purchase. What else does this manufacturer offer? How does the company represent itself? How does it try to differentiate itself from competitors? Also, be sure to check how easily you will be able to get follow-up information and service, should you decide to buy a computer from this manufacturer.

Dell (www.dell.com) seems to be the current online computer sales leader, both in terms of volume of business and its Web site's ease of use. This PC manufacturer has a lease program that's available for individuals as well as businesses, with a calculator to figure out if leasing a PC is the right option for you. Dell has "employee purchase" agreements with corporations, schools, and federal agencies; so you might be able to get a special price on your personal purchase if you work at the right place. Dell also sells refurbished and guaranteed products at substantial discounts. You can buy online, or call a toll-free number. Dell's advertisements appearing in magazines typically include an "E-Value" code that you can enter at Dell's Web site to take advantage of advertised offers.

Dell provides clear explanations of delivery time and shipping options so that you have a good understanding of what to expect when you purchase a PC. After you place an order for a computer with Dell, its online order status system lets you check continually to see what's happening with the custom computer they are assembling for you until the time you receive your PC.

If you click Dell's "contact" option, you'll see an extensive list of choices organized by the types of questions you might have, each of which has an email address and phone number.

When you enter Dell's site, the choices you first see are arranged by how you might want to use their products. If you click on the "home" option, then Dell displays a Web page that lists notebook computers, desktop PC systems, software, and accessories. Go another level deep into these nested options, and you will be able to pick a "recommended" configuration, or choose to build a PC customized to your needs. With Dell's configuration tool, you can select your basic PC style, and then add all the options you might want: processor speed, hard disk storage space, modem, amount of RAM, etc. With each selection, you will be able to see how each choice changes the computer's overall price. If the components you choose might not work well together, the configurator displays a symbol to alert you to that possibility. Then, if you are an expert, you can research the details and make your own decision; or, if you are an ordinary shopper, you can select other components to remedy the problem. Once you put your choice in the "shopping cart," you also can click on "request sales help," and someone will--if you like--step you through your final purchasing steps to make sure what you are ordering matches what you want and need. No wonder Dell reportedly sells over $10 million worth of products per day over the Web.

Gateway (www.gateway.com), as shown in Figure xxx.21, offers an option to trade in your PC after two years, and provides financing so you can pay monthly rather than all at once. This computer manufacturer has had a successful mail and phone-order business before the dawn of the Web. Recently, they opened a nationwide chain of stores at which you can see, touch, and test the products you are interested in buying. (Gateway opened its physical stores at the same time that Egghead closed its stores.) Gateway also now makes good use of the Internet to provide technical support for its customers. Before the Web, if you called Gateway for technical support, you would most likely have to stay "on hold" for over two hours, waiting to talk to a support person. (Oftentimes, you might not be lucky enough to get through to Gateway at all). Now you can get answers to many of your questions with quick searches through the Web site's Q&A section.

Because of competitive pressure, expect other computer makers, like those in the following listing, to imitate and improve the kinds of features and service that Dell and Gateway offer today.

For links to sites devoted to every imaginable computer-related specialty--from handheld computers, to storage devices, to internal components--check the lists at major directories such as Yahoo www.yahoo.com and LookSmart www.looksmart.com.

Think Small

A new submarket recently emerged for palm-sized computers, dominated today by 3Com's PalmPilot. The PalmPilot comes with a docking station and infrared port, so you can synchronize your files with those on your desktop or notebook computer. And two of these gadgets can link with one another by way of their infrared ports to "exchange business cards."

PalmPilots have no keyboard. You input information using a touch screen that understands a shorthand code. You "scribble" what you want to remember, with a pen-like device. The palm-sized computer later displays the information in a neat and readable font. It can even come with a modem, for connection to the Internet.

These machines don't replace desktop or notebook machines. They are so small that you carry one in your pocket and pull it out when you need it to check phone numbers, appointments, and reminders. Some people even use these little PCs to keep track of golf scores, while on the course. These palm-sized PCs are yet another class of product that eventually you'll probably "need." For details on palm-sized PCs, visit the Web site www.palm.com.

The popularity of palm-sized computers has fostered an entire range of specialized software and related gadgetry. If you are looking for palm-PC-related products, you will usually find these items listed separately at computer superstores. PalmPilot Gear HQ www.palmpilotgear.com currently sells over 2000 different software packages for PalmPilot machines. You can buy an expense report desk accessory, an aviator pocket reference, programs to keep track of your bank accounts, arcade-style games there is an immense variety of applications.

Going Soft

Many of the online computer superstores, previously mentioned in this chapter, also sell software. Some online stores, like Beyond.com, even specialize in software. In addition, another set of sites operate as software download centers. The online stores sometimes give you a choice of buying software in tangible form (such as CD ROM) or downloading it from their site. You could, in some cases, get the same products at either an online store or a download center, but the download centers cater to the folks who are more technically inclined, and usually don't handle tangible media. With a software download site, you won't put your choices in a "shopping cart" and pay for your selection by credit card. Instead, you immediately download to your computer a trial copy of the software you want to buy. After using the trial version of the software, if you decide you want to buy it, you then pay the software publisher through an online transaction. Typically, trial software versions have built-in time limits, which make the software fail to operate after 30 or 60 days, unless you either pay to license the software, obtain from the publisher a code to unlock the version in which the timer has expired, or get authorization to download a registered version.

You can also get what's known as "shareware," which is software you try out first and then pay for later, if you like the product. With shareware, your trial version won't time out, but it may come with limited functionality--just enough to whet your appetite and make you want to buy the full-blown version. Or the version you download for free works very well indeed, but to get support and future upgrades, you'll need to pay to register your copy. One fine example of this type of product is the award-winning WinZip file archiving utility (www.winzip.com), written and distributed by Nico Mak Computing, Inc.

Other software, called "freeware," is completely free. The authors of freeware write the software for the fun of it, for the general good of computer users, and for the chance to demonstrate their software writing skills. Often, the developers insist on having their names attached, and restrict the software to noncommercial use, then retain the intellectual property rights, while letting people freely copy the software. With terms like that, if the freeware turns out to have potential, then the author retains the right to turn it into a commercial product. Still other developers place their freeware in the public domain, and welcome others to develop improvements and create variations of the original freeware, with all the freeware developers working together as part of an online community.

You'll find try-it-before-you-buy-it software, shareware, and freeware at the same download sites.

Keep in mind that whenever you download software, you are at risk of bringing a virus into your computer, which could cause a nuisance, erase files, or completely disable your computer. Imagine your computer is about to have sex with another machine, and exercise appropriate precautionary measures. You are most likely, but never guaranteed to be safe downloading software from trusted sites. You should also have anti-virus software on your PC that automatically checks any new programs before you run them. Ideally, you would want anti-virus software which automatically updates itself over the Internet as new viruses are discovered, , like Norton AntiVirus from Symantec.

If you are new to downloading software, you should read the introductory article "Free (and Nearly Free) Stuff and Where to Get It," by Gail Shaffer. You can find this article at PC Magazine's Web site (www.zdnet.com/pcmag/pctech/download/best/index.html).

If you are interested in finding out what shareware and freeware is available in any particular category, use Softcrawler (www.softcrawler.com). (When you enter this URL, the site displays a page for you to first select your language selection.) This site searches simultaneously across eight major download sites. You just enter what type of software you are looking for and get a list of what's available from these sites:

Also check DownloadShareware.com www.downloadshareware.com, Tucows www.tucows.com, and Newapps Software Archive www.newapps.com, all of which have an enormous number of downloadable software programs available.

For the Advanced Computer Buyer: Newsgroups, Classifieds, and Auctions

Folks who are knowledgeable about computer hardware and software can find the best bargains in new and used computer gear through newsgroups, classified advertisement Web sites, sites that focus on used equipment, and auction sites.

The pricing of computers is based on rapid advances in technology, which lead to predictable improvements in computer speed. As a rule of thumb, a machine that's 18 months old should be worth only half what it originally sold for, because you could buy one twice as fast for the same price today. One that's three years old should be about a quarter its original value. And many people with perfectly good equipment feel compelled to sell their old machines and buy new ones to run the latest and greatest new software. So if the computing tasks you want to accomplish do not require the latest and greatest computer hardware, and if you know enough about computer hardware to be confident about making purchasing decisions and evaluating used hardware, you could come up with some serious computer hardware bargains.

As you try to navigate your way through this difficult and complicated territory, turn to newsgroups and email discussion lists for advice and tips, as well as announcements of items offered for sale.

As discussed in Chapter 2, there are literally thousands of computer-related newsgroups, each focused on a different area of interest. Go to Deja.com www.deja.com, and search for items directly related to your computer and software shopping questions. Then get involved in that newsgroup's discussions yourself--asking for help when you need it, and providing help to others when you can. Similarly, check and become involved in email discussions-a list of which you'll find at Liszt www.liszt.com. Also, check the major classified sites, like Classified2000 www.classified2000.com.

For used and refurbished equipment, consider the Advantage Computer Exchange www.computerpricing.com. This site features both PC and Mac price indexes, which reflect nationally tracked used computer sales, indicating low (the average buyer's bid), high (the average seller's ask), and close (the average sales price) for every item. Computer Exchange also provides links to PC and Macintosh user groups. (User groups are geographically centered organizations of computer users with common on-going computer interests. These groups can be drawn together by a common hardware platform-PC or Macintosh-or by a particular software interest, for example, an operating system like Windows or UNIX, or a particular software application, like FrontPage, QuarkXpress, or Office. These user groups usually conduct physical meetings on a regular basis.)

Also consider the refurbished offerings of major computer companies like Dell and Compaq. Last summer, I bought a notebook computer for my daughter at Compaq Works www.compaqworks.com at an excellent price, with an extended warranty and service agreement. Some configurations and special deals are in short supply, and Compaq Works updates its offerings throughout the day. I found it best to check the listings online, then call Compaq Work's 800 number and talk to a knowledgeable sales person who understood what each hardware package actually included. The sales person may also know of other choices which have not yet appeared in the Web site listings, and may alert you to a better deal than the one about which you were inquiring.

The Boston Computer Exchange www.bocoex.com works primarily with companies that want to buy and sell excess inventory and idle assets. Continually checking with this Web site can result in a bargain or two.

Some computer auctions sites sell only new and refurbished equipment, and deal directly with you, the buyer. Each computer is offered for bid online for a certain length of time. When the specified bidding time has expired, the person with the highest bid is notified by email and pays the company running the Web site by credit card. The auction site then ships the hardware.

In Spring 1994, the Internet Shopping Network www.internet.net was the first store to sell computer products directly to the public over the Web. After just a few months, Barry Diller, of Home Shopping Network fame, purchased the company. Today the Web site points visitors who are looking for a computer superstore to the Cyberian Outpost. But the Internet Shopping Network still sells computers and related gear auction-style at First Auction www.firstauction.com. This auction site offers "flash auctions" throughout the day-auctions in which the bidding starts at just $1, and the total bidding time is less than 30 minutes. After the 30-minute bid time expires, the highest bidder gets the product offered through auction, and the merchandise is new, not used. First Auction also has less frantic 48-hour auctions, with a wider selection of goods for sale. If you are lucky, you might pick up a complete, well-equipped, new computer system for $200-300.

Other auction sites of this kind include:

Other auctions link up buyers and sellers of new, refurbished, used equipment, like a dynamic version of classified ads. For instance, the Used Computer Exchange www.usedcomputerexchange.com runs an auction site that links sellers and buyers of used computer equipment. This business is designed to foster the trust that is essential for them to succeed as liaisons between buyer and seller. The Used Computer Exchange can act as an auction agent to hold the buyer's money in trust, while running diagnostics on the seller's computer. It also guarantees that sellers get their money, and the site carries a 30-day warranty on every computer that is sold.

Sidebars For This Chapter

For Windows 95 tips and training, and Web wisdom of all kinds, check Tracy Marks' Windweaver site www.windweaver.com.

You can also learn about the latest and greatest computer products at trade shows. If you might be interested in checking out a local one or taking a vacation computer-shopping trip, check Trade Show Central (www.tscentral.com). Nearly all the major shows are listed there.

Some Internet businesses are giving away PCs to customers who make long-term commitments to them, for example, if you sign a long-term agreement with an ISP. Keep an eye out. Opportunities of this kind are likely to multiply.

Need computer supplies, like a printer cartridge? Try the Web sites of office supply stores like Staples www.staples.com or OfficeMax www.officemax.com, or go straight to the site of the manufacturer.

A wide variety of simple, inexpensive gadgets designed just to get you connected to the World Wide Web are just now becoming available. If accessing the Web is all you want to do, check out WebTV (which uses your television set instead of a monitor), and also take a look at televisions that have Web access built into them.

Microsoft provides valuable enhancements to its current products for free download from its Web site www.microsoft.com, but when they release a new version of the base product, they delete the software patches. However, if you know the name of the patch or its file name, you can go to AltaVista www.altavista.com, enter that name in the query box and find dozens of sites that still offer it for free.

If and when you install a new operating system (such as Windows 95 or 98), you'll find that you need new driver software for your existing printer to work properly. Go to AltaVista www.altavista.com, and enter in the query box the model name of the printer and the word driver (e.g., +bj200 +driver*). You are likely to find the software you need at one of the pages near the top of your results list.

Free-PC has joined forces with Compaq to offer free computers to "people who agree to share personal data about themselves and be exposed to Internet advertising." Consumers must agree to use the free computers at least 10 hours a month and allow the machine to download advertising that is displayed in a strip on the right side of its screen. For details, check www.free-pc.com.

Puzzled by an error message on your PC? Go to AltaVista www.altavista.com and enter the error number/name in the query box. One of the Web pages near the top of your results list will probably explain what it means and what to do about it.

Did you enjoy playing the old arcade games like PacMan and Missile Command? Would you like to play them on your PC? Go to MonroeWorld www.monroeworld.com or Dave Central Shareware Archive www.davecentral.com and download either Retrocade or Mame (free emulator software) and the game programs that go with it.

For information about computer-related flea markets that are held in the physical world, perhaps near where you live, check KGP Productions www.pcshow.com.

You could save yourself some money by asking around the office or your neighborhood to see if you can find a friend, neighbor or relative who just upgraded to the latest and greatest computer and wants to unload his old one. Stick with someone you trust who can also help you as you get started.

Chapter Six: Travel

Are you planning a trip? If so, your plans trigger a set of related needs: transportation, a hotel room, maybe a rental car, and probably information about local entertainment and other activities. Because anyone shopping primarily for one kind of travel service is likely to need others as well, the companies' providing these services tend to ally with one another (that is, when they don't directly compete).

In addition to wanting to catch your attention when you are thinking about travel, these companies have a lot in common. They sell time-contingent services, rather than products. The seats on planes, the rooms in hotels, the cars at the rental lots, even seats at a theater are all limited. You need to reserve the space in advance to be sure you'll have it when you need it. And if a given space is not taken for a given time slot, the vendor will get nothing for it.

A time slot is an asset before the time arrives. The value rises with the scarcity. Then once the time has passed, the asset simply disappears.

Hence the travel industry is subject to wild time-contingent shifts in supply and demand. The vendors would love to be able to change prices rapidly to take advantage of fierce competition for the last few seats, or to sell off remaining inventory with special offers before it becomes worthless.

"Travel" is a business model--the business of matching limited, time-dependent resources with customers, (as opposed to businesses where the availability is unlimited, such as pay-per-view TV). The short-term car rental business has more in common with the airline business than with a car sales/lease business. The time-share condo business and the vacation home rental business have more in common with the hotel business than the buying and selling real estate.

What matters is not the physical product, but how customers relate to the product in a time-limited way. The vendor sells the time slot, not the physical product. The vendor sells an intangible--"ownership of time," or "the experience of your life," whichever way you perceive it.

The Internet's ability to match remote buyers and sellers can help the vendors maximize their profits, while at the same time enable shoppers to find lower prices than they might ever before have imagined.

In the past, a major constraint on the ability of the market to operate efficiently was the difficulty involved in getting the right information and then making the necessary transactions. Especially with airlines, the information was so complex that only a limited set of trained specialists (travel agents) had access to the schedules and pricing of all vendors, along with the authority to make reservations and issue tickets. Now ordinary travel shoppers like you can access all that information in simple, easy-to-understand form, and can make reservations and buy tickets over the Web.

As more and more people realize that they have this direct power, travel agents need to redefine their role and provide services that today's travelers will be would to pay them for providing.

At the same time airlines and other travel service companies are scrambling to create alliances, including special package offers, and interlocking reward programs. These programs are aimed at repeat customers, and tied in with efforts to balance demand (like seasonal pricing) to avoid empty seats and rooms. Travel agencies may take the packaging to another level, including deals with resorts and entertainment events--for the Super Bowl or Disney World, or guided tours, or a scuba diving, golfing, or skiing vacations.

With travel, rewards programs not only encourage customers to come back to the same vendor to accumulate points, they also create opportunities to create different classes of service. Your repeat patronage can earn you gold or platinum membership which qualifies you for special privileges and also insulates you from the common hassles and inconveniences of travel. With the right membership, you'll get first shot at the best seats or rooms, you'll get to board your airplane first, and you'll even earn more points each time you return than the ordinary customer does. In the past, long lines, poor service at airports, and crowded coach compartments on planes might have prompted you to fly another airline the next time. Today, when airline conditions seem awful in general, the annoyances serve as an incentive to concentrate your travel on a single airline, or go out of your way to earn credits from their allies, and thereby earn the right to better service in the future.

As you enter into the world of online travel shopping, remember that every "deal" is also a temptation. Yes, if you planned to travel, shopping online can help you get the best prices, perhaps allow you to get the reservations you want at the time that you want, and arrive at your destination so armed with information that you needn't waste time on logistical nuisances. But by opening yourself up to all this information about opportunities you otherwise would never have heard of, you may well end up traveling more often and spending more (albeit more effectively) than ever before.

Do-It-All Travel Sites

Web sites that provide information and services related to one aspect of travel naturally expand, through alliances, to cover them all, bringing all your travel options to your attention at once. Today's major "do-it-all" travel Web sites include: Let's take a look at what they have to offer.

When you enter Microsoft's Expedia Travel expedia.msn.com, you are presented with three main choices: book a flight, reserve a room, or rent a car. To get full access to all of the site's features, you need to fill out a registration form, and get a user name and password. Then you can search for flights by lowest published airfare or by preferred travel times and airline. If you sign up for "fare tracker," this site will send you email messages about best price offers for specific trips that you are planning. Expedia's hotel lookup feature provides detailed information on over 38,000 hotels. The map area provides driving directions, as well as local maps. Expedia Magazine has travel-related articles. "Communicate" is an area where you can discuss matters of common interest with other travelers in forums (bulletin-board style), or live chat. The car rental section includes nine companies: Advantage, Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz, National, Sears, and Thrifty.

In Expedia's "vacation shopping" area, you can check out vacation packages, cruises, resorts, sports and adventure, and special deals. But these sections could use more content. There are only five resorts and eight cruise lines. And the section labeled "trains, buses, and charters" actually has no buses, just Amtrak and AirCharterNet.

For information about local events and attractions, Expedia points you to Microsoft's Sidewalk City Guides expedia.msn.com/daily/sidewalk. These sites cover Boston, Denver, New York, San Francisco, Sydney, Chicago, Houston, San Diego, Seattle, Twin Cities, and Washington.

Travelocity www.travelocity.com claims its site provides "access to more travel providers than any other Internet site." This site includes the flights of over 700 airlines (400 bookable online), 50 car rental companies, and 40,000 hotels. Travelocity processes your airline reservations through SABRE, the same system used by 40,000 travel agents. When you buy a ticket, you have three delivery choices: electronic ticket (you just have to show your ID at the airport), postal mail, or travel agent.

Keep in mind that each of these major travel sites will have its own "special deals" section, with some overlap. So if deals are what you are looking for, you should keep checking rather than latching on to the first one you see.

Travelocity also has a destination guide with details about all countries and major cities. This site's bed and breakfast section profiles 19,000 individual Bed and Breakfasts and inns in North America, and another 1700 in the rest of the world. The listings call out "ski resorts" separately and provide details on dozens of them. Additionally, this site provides maps, weather, a currency converter, frequent traveler information, and seat maps for a dozen airlines.

Yahoo Travel travel.yahoo.com provides the same basic services (plane, rental car, and hotel search and bookings), but it looks like an excellent place to window shop--to poke around for ideas when you know that you want to travel, but aren't sure where you want to go. Here you can search by "lifestyle," which includes: business, family, lesbian/gay/bisexual, Jewish, naturalist/nudist, singles, seniors, special needs, women, and vegetarian. You can also research your trip by destination, including by country or activity of interest (arts and education, cruises and adventure tours, resorts, and sports and outdoors). You'll find tremendous variety here--from safaris to whale watching to paranormal phenomena. Here, too, you can join scheduled chats on travel topics or open-ended chat sessions, or participate in message boards (forums) organized by activities and interests, destinations, and lifestyles.

Travelbase Internet Travel Planning www.travelbase.com lets you search or browse through its database of 30,000 hotels, 1500 of which have Web sites. You can click on a state and then on a city or area; then select either only hotels with Web sites or every local hotel. Some of the hotels allow you to book online. This is a good place to check if you want to see the Web site of a hotel but don't know if it has one or what the Web address is. You need to sign up and get an ID and password to use Travelbase's airline and car rental system. This Web site also has a toll-free phone number to call for help.

In addition to the usual do-it-all travel-site capabilities, The Trip.com www.thetrip.com has some very interesting "guides and tools." For instance, with its "flight tracker," you can pick a particular flight that is now in the air and see its plotted course on a small-scale map, then view its current position over a large-scale map, and also see its present speed, heading, and altitude, together with the takeoff time and scheduled landing time. You can also request email notification when a particular flight lands.

Trip.com's "airport guides" offer airport maps, regional maps, and terminal views for all major airports. You can sign up for "trip.com," a free weekly email newsletter with tips, trends, and deals, or for "Deals-2-U," which is email notification of special low fares on routes in which you are interested.

A downloadable "world clock" makes it easy for you to display on your PC the current time at any cities of ongoing interest to you. For travel-related information and articles, you can check its online magazine, "The Complete Traveler," or Trip.com's "news and community" section.

Preview Travel www.previewtravel.com claims to have over 6 million registered users, which is probably due in large part to its extensive destination guides. This travel site makes available online, for free, lots of content from Fodor's Travel Publications. For each major destination, you can read about: attractions and activities, accommodations, restaurants, when to go, arriving and departing, getting around, practical information, and special interests. In addition, you can take a look at a photo gallery, a video clip gallery, and related vacation packages for each destination. Preview Travel also lets you create your own custom mini-guide, with selected portions of its online content packaged neatly for you to print out and take with you on the trip. (By the way, you can also go directly to Fodor's at www.fodors.com).

If you aren't sure where you want to go, you can use Preview Travel's "vacation finder" to help make up your mind. You can check a wide range of vacation and cruise packages by region.

Getting ready to go, you can check Preview Travel's packing list suggestions, for each of about a dozen categories of trips. If you want to buy any clothing or luggage online or toll-free by phone, you can do so from the site's TravelSmith store (travelsmith.previewtravel.com). Preview Travel's "business" travel section provides you with a different arrangement of the same underlying tools and options.

Are you getting a little overwhelmed with the wealth of possibilities? It's not over yet. Take a look at Travel.com www.travel.com. There you'll find the usual 500 airlines, 33,000 hotels, 50 rental car companies, 3,000 bed and breakfasts, and miscellaneous cruises and vacations. But here, too, you'll find links to other travel-related Web sites, carefully arranged in 3,500 categories. You'll also find links to non-Microsoft guides to New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, and St. Louis. From this site, too, you can access the "discounted hotel inventory" provided by Hotel Reservation Network. And, of course, you can access maps, get email notification of drops in airfares, and read an online travel magazine.

Atevo www.atevo.com offers "content, community, and commerce," including the usual suspects (airlines, hotels, and destination information). This site's National Parks section, organized by state, provides a wealth of detail on U.S. parks. Atevo also makes it easy to interact with fellow travelers, offering you free personal Web space to set up as "Your Travel Page," in addition to the opportunity to participate in travel-related message boards (forums).

Flifo www.flifo.com has an international flavor. This site gives you a choice of having your tickets delivered in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, or Australia. With this site, too, you can book flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars; but Flifo offers very little else--none of the usual destination information and related links. Flifo, however, does offer discounted rates on flights abroad.

TravelScape www.travelscape.com is a subsidiary of Las Vegas Reservation Systems, and has special relationships with hotels in that city, in addition to offering the typical do-it-all travel-site services.

Travel Quest www.travelquest.com has all the usual services, plus a Rail Services section with links to Amtrak, to the train that links England and France through the Chunnel, and to specialty train services. Don't be intimidated by the registration form on the home page. If you are still window- shopping, just click on one of the choices in the left column, and you'll bypass the registration area.

The Internet Travel Network www.itn.com boasts over 4 million registered users. Along with vacation packages and deals, they offer travel guides to over 4,000 destinations, known as "Rough Guides." From there, you can choose "Rough Takes," which consists of biweekly updates on travel events and trends. Why does the Internet Travel Network get so many users when there are so many other sites providing similar services and information? By offering a variety of reservations systems, designed for both large companies and small companies--making it easy for employees to book travel and get the best corporate discounts. It also offers reservation services to other companies that operate networks of travel agencies. In addition, the network partners with non-travel companies that want to offer travel-booking services from their Web sites. If you run a Web site, just plug in their reservation services and you're in the travel business. Visitors to your site can book their flights and hotel rooms without leaving your site. Apparently, Uniglobe, CNN, and Ticketmaster all use this service.

The biztravel.com site www.biztravel.com acts as a do-it-all site for the frequent business traveler. This site helps you maximize your frequent flier miles and your credits in frequent "stayer" programs by guiding your choices in booking flights, hotels, and rental cars. It also helps you keep track of all your credits in those reward programs in one place. The Cityinfo section serves as a guide to hotels, restaurants, airports, weather, etc. in major U.S. and international cities. If you need to plan meetings, conferences, and shows, "Event Source" lets you search through a database of 9000 meeting hotels and sites worldwide.

Biztravel.com's "Pager Alert" service lets you receive flight status, gate info, and weather conditions at your destination by email delivered via any pager service that provides an email interface. You can sign up to receive automatic upgrades from coach if and when you are eligible. You can also use its services to track flights in route, plan a group event, find a trade show, charter a flight, and read world travel warnings. It also has a page of great travel-related links with useful descriptions. To access these travel-related links, click on the Other Valuable Sites option from the Biztravel home page.

More? Yes, don't stop now. The variety and richness of these sites is amazing. 1travel.com www.1travel.com provides a large collection of classified ads posted by travel agencies and travel providers. You'll be delighted at choices you never knew you had. Want to stay in a log home? Want a tour to the Seychelles Islands or to the Czech Republic? How about an Alaskan cruise or language study trip or a casino vacation? This site offers discounted fares on international reservations departing from 21 countries, from a database of over 3 million fares. They also offer special service if you are planning a multi-city (five or more, multi-country (three or more) trip.

How would a newcomer ever hope to get a foothold in a market so remarkably well served as this one? When Travelzoo.com www.travelzoo.com launched its "do-it-all" travel site in April 1998, the Travelzoo management offered visitors part ownership in the company, just for visiting. As the company's senior management explains, "Travelzoo.com soared in popularity this summer (of 1998) by adopting a unique, never-before-seen ownership concept. Netsurfers were invited to become co-owners of the Travelzoo.com site. And within three months, 700,000 people had signed up. And with that, the company's ownership goal was reached. As co-owners, these 700,000 netsurfers have an incentive to visit the site again and again, and to encourage others to do the same. This has led to a major boom in visitor traffic to Travelzoo.com. And as the number of hits increases, so do the advertising dollars the site can command." www.travelzoo.com/Story.htm

Online Travel Agencies

The Internet is transforming the role of travel agents. With travelers able to do extensive research, and book planes, hotels, and rental cars quickly and on their own, why use an agency? TravelHUB www.travelhub.com answers, "Do you know that... airfare prices change daily? That great deal you found on your own today may be old news tomorrow! A difference of one day in departing or arriving dates can save you hundreds? Certified travel agencies will often work for you for FREE? Travel agencies often have first-hand experience with the places they recommend? Certified travel agencies have a lot more leverage than individuals when settling disputes with airlines and travel suppliers? You can have a team of "insiders" working for you."

TravelHUB hosts a worldwide directory of travel agencies, categorized by specialty. The specialties include: airfare only, adventure, business, cruise, eco tours, family, alternative lifestyle, handicap, seniors, singles, sports, student, specialty travel, and by geographic location. (If you want to travel in New Zealand, you might want to have a local agency plan the details for you.) They provide the address and phone number of each agency, plus a link to the agency Web site, and a button to click to bring up a form to request their services.

TravelHUB also brings together in one place the travel specials of over 500 travel agencies, and lets you sign up to receive daily travel-special alerts by email.

In addition, TravelHUB purports to have the "largest online database of international discounted airfares (consolidator fares)." According to TravelHUB, "consolidator fares" are airline tickets purchased by airline wholesalers and resold to travel agencies at discounts of up to 70% off regular rates. Some of these fares are for charter flights, but most are with regular airlines. They recommend that you first check the latest deals on scheduled fares, then come here to see if you can do better with a consolidator rate. They also warn that cancellation fees for consolidator fares are high--up to 50% of the fare price; so make sure your plans are definite before buying tickets this way.

Uniglobe Travel www.uniglobe.com runs a retail travel franchise with 1100 locations. The Web site allows customers to book their own flights, pick vacation packages, etc., with the local agencies getting credit for the sale. Visitors can search for affiliated agencies in their area. Uniglobe also runs a proprietary intranet Web site, which links these agencies, so that they can work together to assemble unique travel packages.

Some of the larger agency Web sites, like Global Online Travel www.got.com provide the same kinds of services as the do-it-all sites, letting you book your own flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars. But they focus on their special deals, vacations, and cruises; and they also provide phone numbers for you to talk directly with travel professionals, if you'd like. (Global is backed by Signature Travel Services, a chain of travel agencies). The do-it-all sites list specials and packages, too; but with nowhere near the variety of choice that the agencies offer, and without the option of direct contact that the agencies are equipped to provide.

Traveler's Net www.travelersnet.com provides do-it-all site type resources, acts as an agency, and gives you a rebate on agency fees that they receive from travel providers. As explained at the site, "When you do the planning and furnish us with the information necessary to book your trip, we share the commission that is paid to us by travel suppliers." They have detailed tables showing you how much you get back on the purchase of airline tickets and vacation packages, based on the price. The sums are not princely--but this is "found money" -- money back after you paid the best price you can find. Their lists of travel links www.travelersnet.com/links are also quite rich, and well worth exploring.

Many agencies seem to focus on vacation travel, putting together a unique variety of packages in which they have worked out all the details and negotiated discount prices with all the vendors.

Bon Vivant www.bvt-usa.com is a travel agency headquartered in Pennsylvania. It specializes in vacation packages, and has a wide variety of offerings. For instance, under "exotic," you can choose among Africa, Galapagos Islands, and Antarctica. Under Africa, Bon Vivant has 16 safaris to choose from. And under Antarctica, you choose from among four different itineraries. Bon Vivant provides preferred discount rates at 12,000 hotels and inns.

Internet-Travel Services www.internet-travel.com is an online travel agency that specializes in "dream vacations" and "hassle-free business trips." When you click on "air travel," you connect with Priceline for airline tickets and hotel rooms. Major areas of this site focus on: the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean, cruises, Florida, Hawaii, Mexico, and singles.

The Travel Network agency www.travelnetworkinc.com operates out of Florida and has a franchise business in 15 countries. Their site includes: cruises, honeymoons, packages and tours, and specials.

For escorted tours at discount rates, check Pennsylvania Travel www.patravel.com. On its opening page, it is explained how the discounts work--basically, you get back part of what would have been the booking commission.

For a two- to four-week European vacation based in "your own private apartment or house," check Untours www.untours.com. According to the site, "Before your trip, our well-trained staff helps you select the right country, area, apartment, and length of stay, (and) reserves and purchases the most convenient and economical air and ground transportation... Upon arrival our carefully-selected European staff meets you at the airport upon arrival (standard group arrivals only), escorts you or gives you detailed self-escort directions, to your apartment, invites you to a group orientation session to help you decide what to do during your stay and how to do it, host a special group event..., and is available by telephone throughout your stay if you need additional assistance.

Is the Price Right?

Several large travel sites have tried to carve a niche for themselves in the area of low rates. Both Lowestfare.com www.lowestfare.com and Cheap Tickets www.cheaptickets.com focus on that end of the market.

Priceline www.priceline.com takes a unique approach to pricing. You post a request for air travel with them, indicating where you want to go and when and how much you are willing to pay. You guarantee your offer with a major credit card. Then Priceline seeks a seller willing to fill that request. With Priceline "there is no auction, no bidding and no back and forth. Simply name your price and let Priceline find a seller." Recent advertising blitzes by well-known personalities like William Shatner and Rush Limbaugh have made Priceline a well-known online travel service. Priceline has also recently added hotel rooms to its online offerings.

Check the Airlines

Don't presume that you will always get the best deal from a travel do-it-all site or a travel agency site or even Priceline. If you are interested in air travel, check the airlines as well. They, too, have their specials; and many also give extra discounts or other benefits for buying your ticket online at their site. Some, like Continental and American, offer email alerts of special deals. Many will let you check your frequent flier miles and cash them in for travel directly at their site. In addition, you can read at these sites all the complex rules about how you can use your miles, how you can earn bonus miles, and what kinds of added benefits you get from accumulating enough miles to become a higher class of travel citizen (e.g., Gold or Platinum). Also, the recent trend toward "ticketless" systems makes buying and changing tickets online far easier, since you don't need a physical printed ticket to board your plane.

Here are the addresses of the major U.S.-based airlines. You'll note that unlike most stores, where the address is basically the company name, these companies tend to have unexpected URLs that you probably couldn't guess.

To find the Web sites of other airlines, go to www.yahoo.com and enter "airlines" in the search form.

Playing the Incentive Game

Frequent flier miles have become a kind of alternative currency. Hotels and car rental companies offer credit on airlines and visa versa. Businesses of all kinds make deals with airlines to offer frequent flier miles as an incentive to do business with them. You get offers for thousands of miles as a bonus for switching phone companies. You can sign up for credit cards which include a promotion whereby every dollar you spend is worth a frequent flier mile.

If you are a collector of frequent flier miles, then you can and should consider a few new reward programs linked to your online behavior. On the Internet, you can get credits, which can be exchanged for frequent flier miles, by signing up at ClickRewards www.clickrewards.com and shopping at associated online stores. You can also sign up at Bonus Mail www.bonusmail.com or My Points www.mypoints.com and earn rewards (exchangeable for frequent flier miles) for receiving and reacting to email ads.

Sites that Strive to Do One Thing and Do It Well

While the do-it-alls cover everything, some travel sites focus on particular niches--based on the kind of activity, or characteristics of the traveler (such as age or occupation). For instance: There are literally thousands of such specialized travel-related Web sites. To explore further, check the links at such do-it-all sites as Travel.com www.travel.com and Travelnet.com http://www.travelernet.com, or go to LookSmart www.looksmart.com and click on Travel and Vacations.

Any Room at the Inn?

The do-it-all sites seem to have hotels well covered--with tens of thousands of listings and online bookings. But, especially if you are collecting frequent "stayer" credits with a particular chain, you should check that company's Web site to learn about their latest special deals. To learn their Web addresses, check Yahoo http://dir.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/Companies/Travel/Lodging/Hotels.

Also, there are a few hotel specialty sites that offer unique services. For instance,

Hotel Wiz www.hotelwiz.com lists 43,000 properties worldwide and offers up to 40% discounts on 15,000 of them. It has an easy-to-use search engine, and allow online booking. It also provides hotel reviews.

Hotel Express International www.hotel-discount.com/anglais/index3.htm operates as a hotel discount club, offering 50% off on accommodations in 3,500 hotels in 72 countries. Membership currently costs $200/year.

All Hotels www.all-hotels.com boasts links to tens of thousands of hotels worldwide--virtually all the hotels on the Web.

Don't Forget Your Traditional Sources

As you explore the new online travel resources, don't forget the companies you've often turned to in the past for similar services and information. With very few exceptions, you'll find them on the Web. Consider, for example:

The large local branches of AAA Travel Services have their own Web sites, and some of them (like California at www.aaa-calif.com/travel/services.html) offer a wealth of information on line, such as local traffic reports. Call your local branch to find out if they are online, or do a search at AltaVista (www.altavista.com for AAA Travel Services and the name of your state, e.g.

Also, consider the travel magazines, both the online versions of print ones and the new ones that have been exclusively created on the Web. For a list of these sites, go to LookSmart www.looksmart.com, and click on Entertainment & Media, then News & Magazines, then Magazines by Subject, then Travel Magazines. Near the top of the list you'll see a hybrid magazine--Epicurious Traveler. This is an online magazine with content gleaned from half a dozen print publications (Conde Nast Traveler, Brides, Gourmet, Allure, and Vogue). And if you are into exotic travel and love great photography, check the online version of National Geographic National Geographic www.nationalgeographic.com.

The Last Word

While not technically a magazine, About.com www.about.com/travel provides similar information and advice. Like a magazine, this site is supported by advertising, rather than by selling you travel services directly. Volunteer guides/experts scour the Web for interesting news and sites in their area of interest and share their findings with you in the form of articles and categorized lists of links. In their "resources" section, you can find eco-tourism, travel with kids, United States National Parks, elegant resorts, etc. And in their "vacations" section, you'll find backpacking, bicycling, birding, camping, canoeing/kayaking, cruises, fly fishing, freshwater fishing, gold, honeymoons, hunting, power boating, sailing, saltwater fishing, skiing, spas, and theme parks. The approach here is direct and personal, rather than "corporate;" and there are opportunities to share your thoughts and insights with other travelers.

Sidebars For This Chapter

All travelled out? Want to enjoy a few cartoons about the hassles of travel and maybe email them to your friends? Go to 1travel.com www.1travel.com/postcard/card.htm.

Would you rather go by bus? Surprisingly, bus companies get short shrift or no shrift at all at travel-related Web sites. If you want to check this low-cost alternative, you can get a list of bus company Web sites at Yahoo dir.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/Companies/Transportation/Buses/Bus_Lines

Want to see some background on the travel company you are about to do business with? Then check the "scorecard" on 22 top travel sites at Gomez www.gomez.com.

Do you like ghost movies? If so, maybe you'd like a night at a ghost-infested hotel. travel.yahoo.com/Destinations/Activity/Cruises_and_Adventure_Tours/Paranormal_Phenomenon/

Want a list of all the essential numbers to help you do currency conversion in your destination country? Go to Cheat Sheet* for Travelers www.oanda.com/converter/travel

Need to phone home? Rent cellular and satellite phones, worldwide, at Action Cellular Rent-a-Phone www.globalphone.net.

Do you want the toll-free phone numbers of airlines, hotels, cruise lines, rental car companies, and tour operators? Go to the list of travel-related links at Traveler's Net www.travelersnet.com/links.

Might you be interested in a train ride through South Africa with a steam locomotive? Check a site run by individuals who want to preserve the tradition of train travel in South Africa www.ru.ac.za/departments/iwr/staff/daf/tt/timetabl.html.

Want to plan some special nights out at restaurants during your vacation or business trip? Check DineNet Menus Online www.menusonline.com for a national restaurant directory, with full menus.

Are you planning on traveling with kids? A few words of advice might turn a potential nightmare into a wonderful experience. Check the articles and tips at About.com travelwithkids.about.com. And from there, check their recommendations for "Top Family Vacations."

Are you over 50 and interested in exchanging your home with another family for a vacation? Then check Senior Vacation and Home Exchange www.seniorshomeexchange.com. They currently have over 600 listings in 30 countries.

Would you like to see wildlife in its natural habitat? How about an excursion to Mongolia? Check World Wildlife Fund Travel www.wwfus.org/travel.

Do you want to save postage on postcards? Go to Travel Preview (www.travelpreview.com) and send digital postcards for free from their site. The recipient gets email saying to check a specific URL where they'll find the photo you chose, together with your personal message. To be wickedly lazy, send the postcards before you leave on your trip--take care of your social obligations quickly and easily, and then you can forget everyone but yourself while you're gone.

Chapter Seven: Food

The major online grocery supermarkets are set up to provide the most benefit to those who buy a lot of items at a time and return frequently. They offer convenience and time savings, at reasonable but not cut-rate prices. And, typically, delivery charges more than wipe out the savings from any "specials" unless your order is large enough to qualify for free delivery.

If you are the sort of person who doesn't put much value on time savings, uses lots of coupons, and goes to two or three different real-world grocery stores a week in order to chase the lowest prices, don't bother with the online supermarkets. Do it your way.

If there are gourmet treats that you crave for yourself or would like to buy as a gift, and that aren't available locally, check the online specialty food shops. Once again, you aren't likely to find bargains. A discount of 20 percent off doesn't mean much for relatively low-priced items if you then have to add shipping charges. But you might be able to quickly and conveniently purchase merchandise that otherwise would be very hard to find, except by catalog or while traveling.

Getting Started: Indulge Yourself With A Gourmet Treat

An online shopping trip for hard-to-find foods would be a good way to get started. Once you've bought a few items of this kind, you will probably feel far more comfortable trying an online supermarket for your regular weekly groceries.

For the cheese lover, consider International Gourmet's World of Cheese www.igourmet.com. There you can sign up for the Cheese of the Month and get "a different, exciting world-class gourmet cheese at the beginning of every new month!" You can also order individual items, check cheese-related recipes, and chat with other cheese lovers.

For fresh or smoked seafood shipped overnight from Florida, check Shore to Door Seafood www.shoretodoor.com. That's where you can find Atlantic salmon, swordfish, yellowfin tuna, etc. Shore to Door also offers almost every type of fresh seafood you could ever crave, from stone crab claws in season, to Gulf-fresh shrimp, to live Maine lobster. All items are shipped fresh to your door for a truly gourmet treat. What's your preference?

If you are more interested in health than taste, and if you are particularly concerned about the use of pesticides and other chemicals, you should take a look at the vegetables and fruits available from Diamond Organic www.diamondorganics.com. There you can take a guided tour of the family farm, and meet the family as well as view the produce. To get started, you can order a variety of samplers for about $50, including overnight Federal Express delivery.

Do you crave the perfect cut of beef? Then consider specialty grocers Dean & Deluca www.dean-deluca.com. At this Web site, you can find a 12-lb., bone-in rib roast for $150 or six 10-oz. filet mignon steaks for $80. You'll have to add on shipping, of course--$10 for standard 7--10 day delivery of that filet mignon and $30 for UPS next-day delivery. Dean & Deluca also offers caviar, smoked fish, cakes, pastries, fruits, and many other items. If you are a connoisseur of fine apples, perhaps you'd like their apple sampler (10-lb., 12 apples) for $45, plus shipping.

Are you just dying for goat cheese in oil or white truffles? Then try the "Delicacies" area at Balducci's www.balducci.com. You can also get canned anchovies in their "Specialties" area and a wide variety of homemade pastas and sauces in their "Pasta" section.

In addition to pastas, Balducci's also offers completely prepared entrees, like rack of lamb or chateaubriand, ready to put into your oven and complete with the necessary instructions to finish cooking the entrée items. Buying ready-to-cook gourmet items changes the whole process for busy people who like to entertain.

For more exotic recipes, like potato-and-goat-cheese galette, check Cooking.com www.cooking.com. This site provides complete cooking instructions, including steps and related details, as well as nutritional analysis. Unfortunately, you'll have to shop for the ingredients elsewhere. While the site does sell some specialty foods, including pastas, herbs, salsas, and dips, these ingredients are not correlated with the recipes. Cooking.com's main line of products appears to be cookware, tableware, and cookbooks.

Frieda's www.friedas.com offers Asian and Latin produce, along with exotic fruits and nuts from around the world.

GreatFood.com www.greatfood.com lets you browse by category, brand, review, or meal occasion (such as "back packing, barbecue, beach party[el], cocktail party). This site also has a gift finder where your choices are arranged by price range, in case you'd like to send some Beluga caviar to your aunt in Poughkeepsie.

For herbal tea, including a Tea of the Month offer, visit Snowbound Herbals www.sbherbals.com. This site's related products include herbal oils, salves, and massage oils. Here you'll also find lots of articles related to herbs and teas and how they can benefit your health.

If you want to buy wine or beer online, keep in mind that all deliveries will require an adult signature. As they say at Virtual Vineyards www.virtualvin.com, "Someone of legal age must be at the shipping address during the day to sign for and accept the packages. Packages cannot be left without the signature of an adult." This procedure is intended to prevent minors from buying alcoholic beverages online, and is necessary to comply with state laws. Other online wine dealers include K&L Wine Merchants www.klwines.com and SendWine www.sendwine.com which are set up primarily to handle gift purchases and corporate or multiple orders.

To find an online store that offers the specialty that meets your individual taste, try going to Yahoo! www.yahoo.com; in the query box on the opening page, type the name of the item you want. For instance, enter "Amish food" and then click on the first link, and you'll get three choices--one in Pennsylvania Dutch country and the other two in Illinois. Or enter "lobster" and click on the first link, and you'll get a list of dozens of suppliers. As an alternative route, you can go through the cascade of menus at Yahoo!, clicking first on Business and Economy, then Companies, then Food, and continue down whatever path strikes your fancy. To browse for gourmet, special food, wine, and beer stores at Looksmart www.looksmart.com, click on Shopping, then Food & Wine.

Buying Your Weekly Groceries

Why would you ever want to do your regular grocery shopping on the Internet? The store you always go to is only half a mile away, and you know where--aisle and shelf--to look for just about everything you are likely to buy. You could dash over there, fill up your cart with a week's worth of groceries, get through the check-out line, load the bags into your car, get home, and unpack everything in just an hour or two (depending on how crowded the store was and how long the lines were).

An hour or two? What else could you be doing with that time? And how often do you end up making quick trips to the store to pick up items you forgot the last time or things you ran out of unexpectedly? For me, it's about two or three times a week. Of course, those short trips don't take as long as the main one. But that does add up to a total of over three hours a week, every week (even when I'm on vacation!), just grocery shopping. And every time I walk into a supermarket, I end up coming out with more than what I intended to buy. I'm a sucker for well-packaged, well-placed, and well-priced impulse items.

What's the alternative? Shopping online, of course. Some Internet-based grocery services are nationwide and use shipping companies for delivery. But most are local or work in partnership with local supermarkets. Today, your choices will depend largely on where you happen to live.

The Grocery Shopping Network www.groceryshopping.net/storelocator.htm, which recently merged with eGrocery, provides a service that helps existing grocery stores with physical sites to also do business online. With their store locator, you can browse through a list of hundreds of stores, scattered across most states in the U.S.

Once these services reach volume, they are likely to thrive and spread rapidly. This business is tough. The vendors are ramping up for what should become a very lucrative market ($85 billion by 2007, according to articles at the Grocery Shopping Network). But at the moment, they all seem to be losing money. They need to attract enough customers to reach the volume that will make them profitable. In the meantime, if you are fortunate enough to have a local service, try using it immediately. These new companies are doing everything they can to attract and keep customers like you.

The online-only businesses buy food at wholesale prices, just like the local grocery stores do, but operate with far less overhead than physical stores, which have to invest in and maintain attractive store space and have higher payrolls, with cashiers and others involved in face-to-face customer interaction. Hence, online grocery service could become extremely profitable. But to reach volume, they need to induce ordinary people like you to change long ingrained grocery-buying habits. That's difficult, despite the promised convenience and time savings.

So expect the online supermarkets to keep coming up with new services and tempting special offers and discounts. Now is a great time to be an online consumer.

Today's Top Choices

Let's take a look at a few of today's services to give you an idea of what's available and what's typically involved. Remember, on the Internet, details change often. Check specific Web sites for the most up-to-date information.

Tomorrow's Choices

Complete grocery services--ones that will provide you fresh produce and meat along with everything else--tend to be local. To find one that could work for you, check your local shopping sites for links. Typically, this would be through your local newspaper, or at one of Microsoft's sidewalk sites (such as www.boston.sidewalk.com). And stay alert for ads in traditional media.

You can also check the major directories--LookSmart www.looksmart.com, and Yahoo! www.yahoo.com--and browse through their lists of food stores in hopes of finding one or more in your area.

The Service That's Right For You

Select an online grocery service for convenience. The meaning of "convenience" depends on your lifestyle. While one service may be perfect for you, another might end up being more hassle than it's worth. If you don't find one that seems right for you today, check again in a couple months. New services are opening at a rapid rate. Look carefully at the details:

Delivery

Ease of Composing An Order

You've been buying groceries in supermarkets all your life and probably take for granted all the time-consuming steps involved. Now that you're shopping a totally new way, you'll be going through new steps that will feel awkward until you've repeated them often enough for them to become routine. That's when you will begin to see the real time savings.

You'll find that the different services, under the pressure of competition, tend to provide similar shopping experiences. Nearly all will provide you with a choice of ways to find the items you want. For instance, you should be able to search by generic names of foods and by brand name. You should also be able to browse through categorized lists of items. Choose a method that matches your way of thinking and remembering, and build your new routine around that. Given your style, you may find it particularly important to be able to:

Types of Food Carried

Do they offer fresh produce, or only canned and packaged foods? Much of the convenience of online shopping comes from getting everything or just about everything from a single service. Watch out if there's a category of food that the online services don't carry and that you need all the time. These are some good questions to ask:

Try it, and you'll like it--unless you are extremely difficult to please. Remember, these outfits desperately want to win and keep your business. The people they have selecting fresh food for you are likely to be far more selective than you are. Will the service level decline when these businesses reach volume? I don't think so. As more people like you get used to online grocery shopping, you can expect all physical supermarkets to open online services. They'll need to for survival. And you can also expect lots of newcomers to the business, with much lower barriers to entry since they don't need to build fancy stores. That means you can expect to see lots of competition for the foreseeable future, and your satisfaction will be essential for their success.

Make Up Your Mind

If you decide to grocery shop online and pick a service that works for you, stick with that service. For other kinds of shopping, it may make sense to hop from one online store to another, aiming for the best price. For regularly weekly groceries, the best strategy is to find one service that works for you and learn how to get the most out of it.

You might want to store-hop and comparison shop for specialty and gourmet items, but for your standard milk, bread, soda, snacks, meat, and vegetables--the foods that are on your shopping list week after week--stay put, unless the store has done something that undermines your loyalty. You have made an investment of time to figure out how their Web site works and learned to find and order the things that you want. Don't throw that away by trying out one service after another. Rather, learn to use one very well, and take advantage of all the convenience features.

Grocery shopping isn't a matter of buying one or even half a dozen items and lingering to make sure that each is "just right." Rather, you need dozens, perhaps even a hundred items every week. You are not a professional shopper. You have a life to live. You want to get this over with, quickly and efficiently. And because you will incur service and delivery charges if your order is below a minimum (typically around $60), there's not much to gain from item-by-item price comparisons from one store to another. In fact, being too choosy about prices will end up costing you not only time but money, since you'll have to pay for multiple deliveries.

Coping With Online Catalogs

The first time you try to place an order for a week's worth of groceries, you'll curse me. "What kind of nonsense is this?" you'll say. "What idiot put this catalog together? I don't think this way. I don't shop this way. I've been sitting here for over an hour, clicking from one blankety-blank list to another, and I still don't have my whole order in. Where's the convenience? Where's the time savings? I've been ripped off."

Actually, the experience is not that different from your first time through a new supermarket "superstore." You are faced with aisle after aisle after aisle, and nothing seems to be organized the way it was at the store you used to go to.

In both cases, there's a learning curve. It's far easier the second time. And eventually the organization of the store becomes part of the map of your mind, and you know without even thinking about it just where to find what.

Actually, an online store is likely be very systematic, following a strict hierarchy of categories. In contrast, a0 physical store is laid out for efficiency of the operation (such as placing refrigeration units next to the wall), and to tempt you with impulse items up front near the check-out counter.

But there is no getting around the fact that newcomers will find it tedious to fight their way through the online grocery catalogs. This is a major barrier, and the vendors are scrambling to find solutions.

For instance, NetGrocer let's you type in your shopping list, however is natural to you, and tries to automatically match what you've typed with what it has in its catalog.

HomeRuns prints its complete catalog and periodically sends it to customers by snail-mail. They do that in part because their business isn't only on the Web--you can also phone (800 number) or fax. But the printed version of the catalog can come in handy for online shoppers as well. The organization is the same as on the Web, and you can flip through and get a feel for the whole thing, rather than stepping through one Web page at a time. You can check off the items you want while on the train or subway to and from work, while waiting for an appointment, or during a boring meeting. Then, once you've made your choices, transferring the information to the Web is a breeze.

Return to the Corner Store or Local Supermarket When That Makes Sense

Remember, choosing to go online, you don't sign a contract. You don't make a vow to be forever virtual. Do what's natural and convenient in every instance.

If you suddenly run out of a couple items, like milk and bread, or you unexpectedly learn you'll be having guests for dinner, forget the Internet. Just pick up what you need at a local store.

The Internet makes sense for groceries:

Otherwise, the lead time from when you place the order to when it's delivered is simply too long to be convenient. (Remember, you are doing this for convenience, not just so you can brag to your neighbor that you are Internet-savvy.)

Exception--if and when there's a convenient pick-up point (e.g., your company's parking lot) and your Internet grocer lets you pick up the same day you place your order. Eventually, that kind of service may be commonplace; it may take service like that to move large numbers of grocery shoppers to the Internet. But today, that kind of service is very rare.

Using the Internet to Avoid Shopping

Maybe you don't really need to shop today. Take a quick look at what you have in the refrigerator; maybe you could quickly combine those miscellaneous items into a tasty meal. Of course, you'd never be able to find the recipe in a cookbook, because you would never know the name of it (or at least I wouldn't). So let the Internet perform a little magic for you.

Go to AltaVista Search and click on Advanced Search. Then in the top box, enter the word "recipe" (without the quotes). In the bottom box, just type in a list of an ingredients. Don't worry about punctuation--just enter the words. Click on Search. In a second or two you should see a list of Web pages that mention the word "recipe" and that also have those ingredients, with the pages that have all those ingredients at the top of the list. Click on the ones that look interesting. With a little luck, that could be your next meal--without your having to go to the store.

Sidebars for This Chapter

Shopping online, you aren't tempted by the impulse items. That means lower food bills and less junk food. You'll put on less weight, so you won't have to spend as much on diet foods and health clubs, and won't need to spend as much time exercising to shed extra pounds.

Some online stores offer enormous selection--more brands and sizes than you are likely to find in a typical supermarket. Just once, take the time to consider options you've never tried before, and add the good ones to your regular list.

Find and buy all the cookbooks you could ever imagine at Amazon.com, or at an online store that specializes in your favorite kind of food and style of cooking.

Consider the value of time saved--especially in mid-winter when the weather is horrendous and the traffic impossible, or in the fall and spring, when your kids are heavy into school activities and you just don't have time to go to the store. Or when you are just plain too tired.

Having easy access online to lists of what you've bought each week, you can see what you've spent and what you've spent it on, helping you to better plan and manage your money over extended periods of time.

It's time to count your blessings. Shopping online, you won't bump into your mother-in-law or that neighbor down the street who talks forever when you run into her. You also won't face the inevitable delays at the check-out line--trainee clerks who aren't sure what to do, price checks, and people who insist on writing checks in the cash-only line.

At most online supermarket sites, you can see the total of your order as you go along by taking a look at your "shopping cart." That is the page that summarizes the choices you have made. At that page, you can easily delete or substitute products to stay within budget and see the adjustment to your total each time, rather than guessing as you typically have to do at your neighborhood store.

It's going to take awhile to learn what's where, and how to click your way through to a completed order. So make your first trial runs when you have time to spare--for instance, when you call for service and are put on hold, when you have to wait for a repair person to arrive, or while waiting for your 6-year-old to complete his video game and get ready for bed. Later, when you need to order groceries in a hurry, you'll be prepared.

You probably already have a to-do list on your computer. Now keep a grocery list, adding to it whenever you run of something that you use regularly. That will make it a snap to compose your online order.

Even if you don't shop on the Internet, you can still use the Web to save money on your groceries with online coupons. At NetDeals www.netdeals.com/grocery.html, enter your zip code to find out which local supermarkets participate. Then choose the coupons you want and print them.

If you really like to use coupons, CoolSavings www.coolsavings.com offers coupons for retail locations other than grocery stores. Some of their deals are offered by K-mart, Kids "R" Us, and H&R Block.

If you are a community-oriented person, you may want to try a variety of high quality, mostly frozen foods sold by Market Day www.marketday.com This shopping service is really a fund-raising organization for private schools and other types of related organizations. Once a month, Market Day supplies a convenient four-page brochure from which you can make your selections. Market Day then delivers the ordered items by truck monthly to the school or organization using the food sales service as a fund-raiser. All foods offered are of restaurant quality, although some are packaged in larger-than-usual quantities. If you are not sure of a school or organization in your area that is part of the Market Day program, contact the Web site, and they will be able to locate the nearest member of their fund-raising network.

If you do have same-day delivery to a convenient pick-up point, you can, from the office, prepare for the guests your spouse just invited to dinner. Just choose a recipe and let the online service calculate what you need and assemble the order for you.

Once you've placed your first online grocery order, hop in the car and head to the supermarket. Bring a lounge chair and relax on the grass near the parking lot. It's time to gloat while everyone around you is scrambling to do their "real world" shopping.

Chapter Eight: Shopping for Banks, Loans, Insurance, and Investments

Shopping for money? Yes, indeed. Ten or 20 years ago that term would have sounded very strange--at least for ordinary folks like us. But today, if you don't shop for the best bank, the best loan rate, the best prices on insurance, the best retirement plan, the best way to reduce your income tax, and the best investments, you are throwing your money away.

The Internet offers hundreds of quality Web sites that deal with every aspect of your personal finances. If you are a fully functioning member of society (not in prison and not under age), you are almost certain to find information and advice on the Internet that can save you or gain you money--significant sums of money, not only for today, but for tomorrow and the next day, too.

When you are talking about money, having the right information or lacking it can make a huge difference in the amount you can save, gain, or lose. What you don't know about finance issues can cost you big time, both in the realm of personal finances and in the realm of investing.

Unless you are an expert investor, you most certainly can find new ways over the Internet to save or gain money that you've never before considered. Once you have tasted the fruit of knowledge regarding money, you must taste again and again and again. Your days of blissful ignorance will be over. You will not be able to rest until you have checked all likely sources of advice and information before making an important financial decision. You will read article after article, even when they are on the same subject, because one article may have an unexpected detail that makes all the difference in your unique case.

It's no wonder that Web sites featuring financial information are multiplying like gerbils. One individual Internet user with an important pending financial decision might easily look at dozens, even hundreds, of screens a day. And people who use the Internet and get hooked on investing for gain will be tempted by the wildly fluctuating market, the ease of online trading, and the low online transaction fees to buy and sell, and buy and sell, over and over again. With the wildly increasing interest in online money activities, every online financial company is crazily fighting to gain every possible customer's attention and win that customer's loyalty.

As we take our online shopping tour of Web sites that relate to money, we'll first consider sites that focus on personal finances and teach you how to manage your money well. Then we'll look at those sites that focus on what you can do if you have money to spare and are anxious to get a piece of the fast-paced online investing action.

Do the Most With the Money You Have

Be forewarned that the online realm you are about to enter is enormous. Because there are so many Web sites that deal with managing personal finances, begin by scouting the online territory to get a sense of what type of information is available and how it might help you. To get you started in the right direction, first take a quick look at three sites designed for the beginner: Quicken and MoneyCentral have a multitude of articles and "calculators"--online programs that help you figure out what money management considerations are best for you. These programs ask you questions about your personal financial situation, and, based on your responses, the program calculates the financial consequences and points you toward possible alternatives to your current approach. At Quicken, look especially at the section "Life Events."

About.com provides volunteer "guides" for each of hundreds of different subject areas on the Internet. These guide scour the Internet for information related to their subject, and provide helpful links and articles for their visitors. Personal finance is one of the subjects they handle extremely well.

When you enter the About.com personal finance section, you'll notice that the Web site isn't as polished and flashy as the Quicken and MoneyCentral Web sites. But the articles and links you find there, as well as the site's opportunities for discussion with other online people in situations similar to yours, will probably prove more valuable to you in the long run.

When you visit the MoneyCentral Web site, check the "Banking" area (moneycentral.msn.com/banking/home.asp), and click on Manage Debt. In that unlikely place, you'll find several very helpful calculators. Of particular interest is the calculator called the Instant Budget Maker, which you will find in the "Create a Budget" section. Enter your family income and a few other facts, and you'll get back a detailed list of how much the average family like yours pays for housing, transportation, food, etc., based on federal statistics. Taking a look at what other families spend is a good, realistic way to start your budget.

If you have a pressing financial problem, first focus on that problem, of course. If, however, you are fairly worry-free, approach the Internet's personal finance information with an open mind and explore finance-related Web pages links that grab your fancy. Keep an eye out for an unexpected financial benefit, a money choice you didn't know you had, or a piece of personal finance information that you had no idea was available. Take brief notes about each of these three introductory sites: what sections look interesting, what articles you might want to read, what calculators you might want to use. But don't try to read and do everything now on your first visit; otherwise, you'll never have time to familiarize yourself with all the other financial resources available on the Web.

When you have checked those first three recommended Web sites, you should next check out the advice at the following additional sites, similarly taking notes as you go:

Remember, in the Web's vastness, you no longer have to settle for a "one size fits all" information solution. You might very well spot a Web site that offers the perfect information for you. If you continue to research the lesser-known Web sites and follow uncommon links, you'll find that the potential savings and peace of mind are well worth your extra effort. So, don't stop with the most common and best-known sites. As you continue to see what financially related information is available on the Web, also scan the names of the sites linked to at:

Banking Over the Internet

The Internet gives you an opportunity to take charge of your personal finances, in unique ways and with a degree of control never before possible. With the wide range of online banking services now available, you can shop for the best financial services, compare options, and readily change services that you could not easily change before the advent of Web banking.

Today, nearly all traditional banks have Web sites. Some of these Web sites are simply online brochures, featuring only static marketing content. Increasingly, many bank Web sites now provide methods for customers to perform online tasks without having to visit a branch or make a phone call. With most bank Web sites, you can get account balance information, transfer money from one account to another within the same bank, and apply for loans and credit cards. You can have your salary automatically deposited in your account. And, with your permission, the bank can automatically deduct loan payments from your account. Some bank Web sites provide your account information in a form that you can directly download into your computer's personal finance software, like Quicken or Microsoft's Money.

Just keep in mind that a handful of banks insist that their customers use the highest available level of encryption security when accessing their files online. If that's the case for a bank that you want to use, you will need to download the "strong encryption" (128-bit) version of your favorite browser, as discussed in Chapter 1.

If you would like to find an online bank, the best place to start is to check out banks with branches in your area. You can search the Internet for Web sites of the local banks you know by name, often just by entering "www.name.com" in your browser's address window, where "name" is the actual name of the bank. Be sure to compare each bank's services and offers to find the best deals.

After you have checked the Internet for local banks with Web sites, you should also check the banking section at

MoneyCentral moneycentral.msn.com/banking/home.asp to compare the rates offered by various (but not all) online banks. You can also check the Security First Network Bank www.sfnb.com--the first bank to exist only on the Internet, operating without any physical branches.

Before you decide on an online bank, you should also check several banks that have gained a reputation for their use of the Internet:

Remember, you don't have to do all your banking with the same institution. One bank might offer you free checking and free ATM service. Another might have the lowest mortgage rates. Still another might pay the highest rates on IRAs. Check the lists later in this chapter for sites that provide you with advice, calculators, and price/rate comparison in such areas as loans and retirement.

Online Bill-payment Services

When it comes to online banking, you need to be cautious about one important area. If you are tempted by a bank's online bill-paying service, take a very close look at the terms and details before you sign up. When you first consider online bill paying, it's natural to assume that when you enter an order for your bank to pay a bill, the bank pays the bill automatically, electronically, and instantaneously. However, some online bill-paying services hold your payment money for as long as two weeks, aggregating the payments made by you and others to the same business, and then sending paper checks by regular postal mail to pay all the bills at once. This method of bill paying can cause severe problems in potential past due bills.

I was stung by this very problem last year around Christmas time. Proud to be taking advantage of the latest technology, delighted not to have to pay for postage, and believing that I now could keep tight control on my checking account, maximizing the "float" available to me, I paid dozens of bills online. The next month, I got socked with dozens of late charges from those companies I had paid with such pride and satisfaction. My online bill-paying service had lumped my payments with those of other individuals using their service to pay the same debtors, and then issued paper checks to those debtors. With the slowness of Christmas mail, the paper checks arrived after the due dates. As a result of this situation, I wound up with late charges and a messy-looking credit record that took many phone calls and letters to correct.

As more and more people pay bills online, this "delay-to-pay" method used by some online banks is certain to change, making direct electronic payment to businesses of all kinds widely available. But until that time, watch out for services that just mail checks the old-fashioned way.

Borrowing Money

Many financially related Web sites offer several different types of information. If you are looking for a competitive mortgage rate, check the do-it-all real estate sites discussed in Chapter 10. And when considering a loan, the more well-known personal finance sites discussed in this chapter also include loan-related information. But several other Web sites are dedicated to helping you determine your loan needs and provide you with advice on comparison shopping for the best rate and terms. Here is a list of suggested loan-related sites: The major credit card companies also have their own Web sites. Here is a list of those sites: To check your personal credit reports, consider a credit monitoring service like ConsumerInfo.com (www.consumerinfo.com), or go straight to the major credit rating companies. These sites typically charge a subscription fee for their services, but they may offer free samples (e.g., 30 days).

Here is a list of the major credit rating companies:

Income Tax Survival Kits

How many times have you been in the midst of your last-minute tax calculations only to discover that you need some form that you don't have, or that you need to read some IRS booklet to figure out what you need to do next? Perhaps these needs finally drove you to pay for a tax book with lots of forms printed in the back or to hire a tax preparation service.

With the IRS's Web site, you can now print outtax forms and booklets provided directly from the Internal Revenue Service (www.irs.ustreas.gov). To be able to read and print IRS forms and booklets, you will need "Adobe Acrobat" software. If you don't have this plug-in, you can download it for free from the IRS site and follow the installation instructions.

In addition to the information provided at the IRS site, the following sites will provide you with tax advice and information. Another set of sites provide massive lists of links to sites with still more information--enough to meet every imaginable tax-related need. Some of these are maintained by companies, other just by knowledgeable individuals who scoured the Web for this kind of information for their own purposes and provide the lists of links for the benefit of all.

Additional Tax-Advice Sites

Lists of Tax-Related Links If you make good use of these online resources, you should be able to do your taxes yourself, or at least help your tax preparer by making better tax-related decisions and doing a better job of recording, documenting, and organizing information.

While you are gathering tax information, you might also consider buying a PC tax preparation program and filing your taxes online. If trying this approach appeals to you, consider:

Buying the Insurance That Is Right For You

In the past, you might have felt dependent on an insurance agent to provide you with advice on what you might need in the way of life or home or automobile or health insurance. You might have felt a bit uncomfortable about how much you were paying, unsure as to whether you were overinsured or that the companies you agent represents don't offer the best rates. Now you can do some research on your own, and either use the facts as a new basis for negotiation with your agent or buy insurance directly from the insurance company.

The Internet's insurance-related Web sites can help you learn what your options are and also will provide comparative pricing information. Some of the best insurance information Web sites are:

If you are considering doing business with a company you never heard of before, you might also want to check Weiss Ratings www.weissratings.com. This consumer-advocate site rates the financial strength of 16,000 institutions, many of which are insurance companies.

Retirement Planning

Increasingly, individuals are taking control over the investments being made with their retirement funds. Stocks and bonds and mutual funds aren't just for the rich. They are also for folks who have retired and depend on them for their only income. Hence, sooner or later, we'll all need to learn about investments, especially long-term ones.

Quickly, can you tell me the difference between a traditional IRA, a Roth IRA, a 401(k), etc.? If you have one of these plans, what investment funds should you select to maximize your return or to maximize your security?

To help you sort your way through these complex and changing issues on which your financial future depends, consider visiting these Web sites:

Investing for Gain

You'll find that it's a short step from shopping for the best loan and insurance rates to shopping for mutual funds for your retirement plan, and from there to dabbling in online trading. With online trading, what had been a game for the rich is now a game for the masses. If you try the online trading game, just be sure you are using money you have to spare, not the weekly food money. With online trading, there are no guarantees that you'll do well with your investments, even with the very best news and advice.

Win or lose, the online trading experience can become addictive, bordering closely on the realm of gambling. The ease of action, the real-time, now-or-never thrill of catching a fleeting piece of information and acting instantaneously bears little resemblance to the realm of carefully thought-out and slowly executed long-term investment.

Yes, with online trading, money is won and lost, but at lightning speed. And the online trading experience itself is likely to become an emotional one as well as a form of live entertainment, where the objective is not to earn money so much as it is to experience that winning sensation.

The Internet has a large number of high-quality online trading sites. This fact alone should give you a clue that lots of people hope to make money from your online trading activities. Remember that someone will win in the online trading experience, even if you don't, so proceed with caution as you trade online. Many of these sites are news-related, because timely and accurate news is so important in the online trading game.

Investment Advice, Stock Prices, Information about Companies, and Financial News

Some sites provide a wide range of information from purportedly unbiased sources:

Other sites provide a personal touch, with the unique perspective of individuals who have gained a reputation for "betting on the right horses": The online versions of well-known magazines and newspapers provide another rich resource for finance-related news. In most cases, the current issues are available for free. At some sites, you have to pay a subscription fee to get full access to resources (including searching through back issues). You can also subscribe to personalized news services (for free or for a fee) which provide you with pre-filtered feeds of the kinds of news you say you want. Some of the hottest stocks today fall into the "Internet" or ".com" category. Several sites focus on that set of companies and related trends. Some sites focus on global economic trends and how they are likely to affect markets: The major stock exchanges also have their own sites, with a variety of information related to the markets they serve. In addition, an enormous variety of sites take unique approaches that, depending on your individual circumstances, could prove very valuable to you:

Online Trading

If and when you are ready to begin trading, you should check the top trading online companies, each of which offer their members a variety of information resources along with the ability to do your buying and selling rapidly, at low cost, over the Web.

Before diving in, you should check an excellent tutorial, The Gomez Investor's On-Ramp, an "online investing primer." This series of files begins at www.quote.com/gomez/content/step1.htm and covers opening an account, researching a stock, entering your order, and reviewing your account.

Also, keep in mind that online trading involves rapid-fire action, and you don't want your gun to jam just when you "see the whites of their eyes." When evaluating online trading companies, carefully consider their reputation for allowing their customers access during busy times. The information might be great, the look and feel of the site just what you want, and the transaction fees amazingly low. But when the market goes crazy, the traffic to that site will go crazy, too, and that's when you absolutely, positively need to be able to connect. The top companies appear to do this very well, in most circumstances. Beware of the newcomer who looks good on the surface, but may not yet be equipped for crisis mode. You don't want to get locked out due to a traffic problem at the very moment you have to buy or sell.

Full-Service Brokers and Money Management Companies

Depending on your timeframe and how much money you have to invest, you may also want to consider the traditional full-service brokers and money management companies, all of which also have a presence on the Web.

The Free Information

When you realize how much excellent information is available for free at finance-related Web sites--information that used to be closely held for members only, or sold at a high price--you begin to wonder, "What's going on?" Your first guess might be that this is like the grand opening of a department store or a mall, with lots of free offers to draw crowds. Then once the hoopla is over, the free stuff disappears. That is very unlikely in this case. Expect more, not less, great information and online calculators and decision-support tools. Expect more finance-related Web sites and the further growth of the ones that are there.

These sites are supported--very well supported--by advertising. When you visit a major money-related site, you'll see bright-colored flashing banners intended to tempt you to click to other money-related sites. The revenue from these banner ads pays the way for financial sites to provide you with all this diverse, rich information for "free."

If you buy a house, the folks in the real estate business might see you again in a decade. If you buy a car, you might come back again in three years. But if you choose an online bank or buy an online stock, these financial sites might see you again tomorrow and the next day and the next day, for the rest of your life.

To win your repeat business, online trading companies like E*Trade and Charles Schwab are reportedly spending as much as $250--$300 in advertising for each new customer they acquire. A single company like that might spend $150 million a year for advertising. And there are many companies competing for your attention in this same arena, driving each other's advertising spending upward.

Who is the target audience for their advertising? Primarily, these companies want to reach people who are already online and who are already looking for financial advice. That means you are a hot investment for them. Likewise, insurance companies, mortgage companies, banks, and other financial services companies all want your business. When you visit a Web site that provides good, free financial advice, you may be trying to make key financial decisions. It's no coincidence that you find these flashy banner ads located right at the Web sites maintained by the kinds of companies that can help you with these critical financial issues.

A typical ad rate on the Internet today is about $25 per 1,000 page views or about 35 cents per click-through. In other words, every time you look at a Web page with an ad on it, the company providing you with that "free" information may be getting about 2-1/2 cents just because you clicked on the ad. Or in the alternate payment approach, every time you click on a banner ad, the company who created that page gets somewhere on the order of 35 cents because you decided to take a look at the advertiser's site. The information provider can attract more traffic and hence more advertising revenue by providing good and useful content. The likelihood that people will click through to the advertiser site is increased by closely matching the content of the ads and the content of the Web pages where they appear.

In other words, don't expect this bonanza of information to go away any time soon. Rather, expect, enjoy, and profit from enormous quantities of high quality, useful information, advice, and tools.

Sidebars for This Chapter

For fun ways to teach kids about money and investments, check Kiplinger's Kid's and Money www.kiplinger.com/kids and also Kids' Money pages.prodigy.com/kidsmoney.

You can also use the Web to get related information from the United States government in print form. Check the government site called Money www.gsa.gov/staff/pa/cic/money.htm, which lists numerous free and cheap booklets about personal finance.

For a ranked list of the top 65 Internet banks, with reviews of each, check Gomez www.gomez.com.

Do you have children in college or nearing college age? Check the Financial Aid Calculators at the College Board cbweb1.collegeboard.org/finaid/fastud/html/fincalc/fcintro.html. With this online calculator, you can quickly figure out how bad off you'll be once your children hit college age.

Dynamically calculate your mortgage repayments at Kal Jeacle's Mortgage Calculator www.jeacle.ie/mortgage. With this calculator, you can either type in your numbers or drag sliding bars with your mouse, and immediately see the impact of your choices shown in graphs and tables.

Feeling down because you didn't win your state's mega-lottery this week? Go to the Personal Finance section at About.com pfinance.about.com, click on "Windfall Wealth," and read about the headaches winners face. You'll feel better about your current uncomplicated lifestyle, and you'll also be better prepared when you hit it big.

Considering buying some software to help manage your finances? Check the sites suggested by LookSmart www.looksmart.com. To see this site's list of recommendations, click on Family and Home; then select Personal Finance; and then select Software.

Take a break. Go to About.com's Personal Finance section pfinance.about.com and click on Financial Funny Bones. At this location, you'll find links to five sites packed with money-related jokes.

Are you curious about a key personality at a company you are interested in investing in? Want to know what other businesses this person is involved in? Check www.edgar-online.com/people. This site is the best privately managed online source for information and documents recorded and maintained by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Some people prefer not to have to look for news, but would rather have news directly delivered to them, in real time. If that's your style, go to PointCast (www.pointcast.com) and download the site's software. PointCast replaces your screen saver and continuously delivers the latest headline news to your PC, so long as you remain connected to the Internet.

You just heard about a "hot" Internet stock. To get the company's domain name, go to AltaVista www.altavista.com and enter into the search window the query:

For a ranked list of the top 20 online brokers--including reviews of each--check Gomez www.gomez.com.

Chapter Nine: Car Shopping

If you haven't shopped for a car online, you probably haven't bought the right one (except by chance), because there's no way you could have been aware of the range of choices or had access to the data necessary to make a truly informed decision.

When it comes to buying cars, we're not just talking about saving time and money. For these purchases, if you shop the traditional way, you're wearing a blindfold and playing spin the bottle or pin the tail on the donkey to make your vehicle choice. You have well over a thousand makes and models of new cars from which to choose. And for each of those cars, you can pick from a multitude of combinations of options and colors. For used cars, the range of choices is even far greater, and so are the risks.

Before the Internet craze, ordinary consumers simply had no way to access to all the relevant information on car selection. Even if you had access to the resources of a professional car buyer, you could never have manually and rationally sifted through it all in a reasonable amount of time.

Today, even if you don't find the car you want online, you definitely should take advantage of the Web's complete, convenient information and research tools to guide you through the car decision-making process.

Start A New Car Search

If you are looking for a new car, your first step should be to clear your mind of preconceived notions that could get in the way of making the right decision. Does it really have to be American-made? or a Toyota Camry? or red with racing stripes? Do you really need to buy it from the same local dealer where you got the last one? Does it really have to look just like the one in the commercial with the bikini-clad girls draped around it?

Unless you live downtown and depend on public transportation, cars are an inextricable part of your life. They are probably your main means of getting to work, to stores, to entertainment, and to friends. (You might say they are the forerunners of the Internet--taking you where you need to go physically, whereas the Internet gets you there electronically.)

Your first notion of what type of car you might want to buy for yourself comes from what you have previously experienced: the cars your parents owned as you were growing up; the ones you've previously owned yourself; the ones you've seen driving by or parked; the cars owned by friends, rivals, and neighbors; the cars you've rented when traveling. Additionally, you see cars constantly in movies and on television and in advertising--everywhere you look.

By the time you decide you need or can afford to buy a car, you have already seen thousands of possibilities, and you probably have a pretty good idea of what might suit your tastes and your budget--perhaps too good of an idea. In other words, you have probably formulated a vision of your perfect car, and following your traditional shopping method, you would go to local dealers to compare your mental image of that perfect car with the cars you see on the lot.

If you were to use the Internet instead of physically going to the car dealer, your first inclination would be to go to the Web site of the car manufacturer whose ads have come closest to matching your perfect car image.

I'm asking you now to forget these traditional approaches. Try to erase that picture you have of your perfect car and free yourself to consider the full range of choices that would really make sense for you.

To select your car the online way, start by using one of the dozens of car-buying decision tools available on the Web. I recommend starting with PersonaLogic (a division of AOL) www.personalogic.com In addition to cars, PersonaLogic also provides decision guides for bikes, camcorders, cities, colleges, cruises, and dogs. Guides like this appear to be unbiased, but some sites might charge manufacturers who want their products to be included.

From the PersonaLogic home page, click on "Car-match" for a car-buying decision guide that includes over 1,200 new car models, leaving out the most exotic and expensive vehicles, and including nearly all those that ordinary people are likely to buy. You can select a typical profile--Commuter, College Freshman, Executive, Soccer Mom, Sport Driver, or Weekend Warrior. Or you can click on Need Help Picking the Perfect Car and enter car type (including vans and trucks), model year, price (with a calculator to help figure out what you can afford), size, safety features, technical matters, manufacturer, etc. Once you've entered your selections, you can weight these factors according to how important they are for you. Your final list of matches will include a "score" for each make and model, indicating how well each vehicle compared with the profile you created. Now, with the PersonaLogic-generated preliminary list in hand, you can click to get to detailed information on any car on that list.

Now, return to the page that shows your matches. Click on Compare with Another Car, and indicate which of the competitors you want to see compared one-on-one with your original selection. PersonaLogic then generates a comparison Web page. While the comparison data may contain hidden biases, the basic facts about other vehicles in the same model category can be very helpful, making you aware of other choices.

The original list and the comparison lists that PersonaLogic provides for you will likely include models you may have never heard of or have certainly never considered. They also may not include the car you thought you were in love with. If your perfect car doesn't appear, double-check your choices. You also might want to redo the selection options to see what other cars PersonaLogic suggests when you make even subtle changes in selection criteria. After you have several recommendation lists, you can then ask for one-on-one comparisons between your perfect car and the cars at the top of your list of recommendations.

Once you are comfortable with the results and certain that they accurately reflect your budget and tastes, you should print the list. This list can then serve as a primary reference as you use other online auto shopping resources.

You'll most likely be surprised at the widely differing results you'll get using other online decision guides. Presenting you with different questions can lead you down different paths with very different conclusions. Hence, you should be sure to use more than one online car-selection tool.

Even if you tend to make snap decisions and your first online car-selection exercise has provided you with a candidate that you are sure you want, your work still isn't completed. One way or another, you will eventually need to contact a specific dealer to select options, get a final price, and learn about delivery.

Electronic Window-shopping

Some people window-shop for cars, trying on possible new identities long before they are actually ready to buy. They collect brochures from dealers and compare the choices of styles, colors, and options, imagining what their perfect car would be like.

That kind of comparison is much easier if you use the Web's resources. All the major car manufacturers have their own Web sites, and each is packed with slick photos, fancy graphic effects, and brochure-style copy. (Porsche's manufacturer Web site, www.porsche.com). If you like the selection list you got from one of the sites like PersonaLogic, search the Internet for the manufacturers' Web sites. Each will be brimming with colorful, compelling online brochures for every model they make.

All the major automobile manufacturers have Web sites:

Each manufacturer's site typically provides a lookup guide so that you can find dealers in your area. Some manufacturers' sites feature online tools to help you make decisions about which of their models you might want to buy and which of their financing plans you might choose. You may even be able to configure your particular car online, with the manufacturer's Web site automatically calculating your new car's total price with all the options you've selected.

Today, however, you cannot yet buy your new car completely online. Yes, Saturn's television ads give you the impression you can just click your way through their site, and someone comes to your door with the keys. In fact, Saturn's site (www.saturn.com) lets you configure your options, calculate your payments, and apply for financing. But the price you see is just the Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP). Your last online step is to use Saturn's lookup guide to find the dealer nearest to you, or to request a dealer contact you. When you talk to the dealer, you then get to find out about "retailer installation charges." With this final bit of information in hand, you can negotiate your final price. The dealer's invoice pricing featured by the online research sites can become extremely helpful to you as you close in on a final purchase price.When you surf the Internet to visit the auto manufacturers' sites, realize that these sites tend to have fancy dancing-prancing graphic effects, which take a long time to load and display on your computer. Some of these graphics effects are so complicated that they may crash your browser or your computer system. If you experience this problem, don't panic. Just reboot your computer or restart your browser, and steer clear of that site. (You can probably get good information about that manufacturer's cars at more user-friendly, do-it-all car purchase-related Web sites.)

If you are looking for a car that is more exotic than those manufactured by the automakers we have discussed so far in this chapter, try to locate that company on the Web by turning its name into a URL (e.g., Alfa Romeo becomes www.alfaromeo.com). If this suggestion doesn't work, then try searching a directory like Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com). If you are looking for a truly rare and ridiculously expensive vehicle, then a dealer specializing in that type of car may be more helpful than the manufacturer. Dealers of such specialty cars are often able to track down the one-of-a-kind gem you seek; an example is Rolls Royce of Beverly Hills at www.stoneage.com/auto/dealer/home.cfm/ABI22278.

Details

A car is a basic necessity, and buying a new one is a traumatic, time-consuming hassle. You want to get the purchase over with, with reasonable confidence that you have paid a fair price for a car that you can count on to get you where you need to go. The do-it-all car sites seem designed for me, simplifying and speeding up the entire car-buying process at all stages--even trade-in, financing, and insurance.

These are the Web's most popular do-it-all car-buying sites:

Each of the major Web portals has business relationships with one or two of the do-it-all car sites, as well as numerous specialty car sites. And the do-it-all sites also have relationships with specialty car sites, embedding their content into the overall experience that they provide--trying to keep you occupied and happy, right where you are.

Although each site features a distinctive overall look and feel, once you dive into the site's information, you'll find significant overlap. What appears like hundreds of different resources are actually hundreds of different paths to the same pool of car-buying information.

All of these sites strive to provide you with every scrap of information you might need while buying a car. They make their money both through advertising and through business relationships with auto dealers and manufacturers. And once these sites catch your attention, their goal is to keep you at their specific site, searching through that site's plentiful and useful resources until you've made an auto purchase decision.

By the way, some of these "do-everything" car sites have business arrangements with dealers, so that when you use that site's decision tool, you can connect with a nearby dealer, usually one who has the car you want in stock. Then you can head over there for a test drive, check the options and final pricing, and decide whether to make this purchase.

In the past, when you were ready to make a car purchase, you probably put your dream aside, went to the dealer and tried to save money by buying one of the cars that they already had in stock. On the Internet you can probably find a dealer that has a car that is very close to what you want--hence getting you selection, a good price, and fast delivery.

Trade-ins and Other Financial Options

If you plan on trading in your current car, you can use the Internet's online resources to help you with this part of the process, too. For example, at Carpoint (www.carpoint.com) you can use the online version of the Kelly Blue Book to determine the trade-in value of your old car, what it might be worth if you try selling it yourself, and what a dealer would charge for the same car. This valuable information can help you determine if your old car is worth fixing or how much money you might get for it as a trade-in. Carpoint also provides detailed reports on recalls, repairs, and reliability ratings for any of the cars you might consider. With Carpoint, you can also check the used car prices for previous years of the model for which you are looking, to help determine the resale value and also to decide if you might be better off buying a used rather than new car.

Carpoint lets you check financing options, too. The site gives you an interactive quiz to help decide whether to buy or lease, to compare competitive interest rates from various lenders, and to get advice when shopping for a car loan. Carpoint also features an online payment calculator to help you determine whether you can afford that monthly payment.

At Autobytel, you can also consider the pros and cons of purchasing an extended warranty. Once you've made all the remaining decisions about your potential car purchase, you can submit your request to buy, finance, or lease a new or used car. Autobytel will forward your request to an "accredited" dealer in your area, who will then contact you by phone and quote a "firm, low, no-haggle, no-hassle price with the understanding that you are ready to buy and that you are an information-empowered consumer." Just remember that even though Autobytel has given you this "firm" price, you still haven't settled on options, dealer charges, and delivery. Even at this point, you still have some important issues to discuss with the dealer who contacted you.

Reaping the Rewards of Dedicated Research

For some people, selecting a car to buy is a challenging research project. These buyers want to learn everything they can about the quality, reliability, gas mileage, maintenance, repair issues, resale value, and so on, of all the models they are considering. Armed with tons of information, the well-researched buyer goes to the dealer for a face-to-face confrontation in hopes of negotiating the best price for that desired car. If you operate this way, then the mass of auto-purchasing information on the Web will make you feel like you are in heaven.

After you have exhausted the information sources we have discussed in this chapter so far, if you still want to do more research, check out the Internet's online car magazines and car electronic book sites:

Additional Decision Tools and Pricing

The Web also offers a variety of tools that to help you with auto pricing and various car-related decisions. The following Web sites offer help ranging from browsing makes and models to determining book value for used cars and trucks:

Financing and Insurance

Naturally, no car purchase is complete without going through the difficulties of obtaining financing and new online car insurance coverage. How do you know that you've gotten the best percentage rate and terms? And when it comes to buying auto insurance, who can tell what coverage is best for the amount? Don't worry, because the Internet offers you several sites to make you feel better about making those decisions. Some of those Web sites are: Other Web sites offer additional specialized information related to car buying:

Trusting A Used Car Salesperson

For most consumers, trust and choice are the two major factors to consider when buying the right used car. Internet Web sites can help immensely with making the choice part of the used car-buying process. With the Internet, you have easy access to information about many, many used vehicles.

In the past, to buy a used car, you might have scanned your local newspaper's classified ads, with their brief descriptions laced with bizarre abbreviations. You considered potential purchases from used car dealers and private individuals within 5--10 miles from your home.

With the Internet's wide-ranging search powers, you can now get detailed information--in plain English--on vehicles almost anywhere. With this range of search capability, you might consider going to a dealer located 50 or even 100 miles away, and maybe even further.

When searching for a used car in the past, if you saw a newspaper ad for a car that interested you, you went to the dealer to ask about that car. Often the car was gone by the time you got there. Maybe the car had been ridiculously low-priced just as bait to get lots of people to drive to that used car lot, so that the dealer could then convince the disappointed buyer to consider another, more expensive car (the old "bait-and-switch" routine). With the Internet, however, you can have a clearer idea of what types of used cars are available, and you might even be able to put a "hold" on the car of interest until you've had a chance to see and test drive it. Changes in how used car dealers conduct their business make it more likely that you'd be willing drive a longer distance to evaluate a potential purchase.

But when you arrive at this used car dealer's lot--no matter the distance--will you trust the person who is selling the used car? Regardless of whether the seller is a dealer or private individual, you do not have much information about who is trying to sell you the car.

Over the last 10 years, I bought five used cars that I found online at the company where I worked (Digital Equipment). I was very satisfied with the price and reliability of all of them. At Digital's peak of success, the company had over 120,000 employees. The people I bought those cars from lived in different towns than I did, and were total strangers to me. But we worked for the same company and operated in a common environment of trust and honesty. If I'd had any follow-up questions, I knew that I could easily contact this person at work by phone or e-mail. And all of Digital's employees knew that any rare instance of unfairness would be discussed openly in the very same notes conferences where I had learned that the used cars were for sale. Sellers tended to include complete detailed descriptions of any defects, and they also priced their vehicles fairly and lower than they would if they were selling the cars in other ways. These people knew they could sell their used cars via the Digital network in just a few days, at no cost to them and with a minimum of hassle.

But buying a used car from a public forum like the Internet changes completely the complexion of the transaction. The Internet's online used car services that match sellers to buyers are challenged to establish trust. These used car sites do so by providing the buyer access to the best available data and advice, so that the buyer can make confident, informed decisions about his or her purchases. Through policies, procedures, certification programs, recommendations, guarantees, and the like, these used car Web sites attempt to build trust between seller and buyer, with a safety net for the buyer. The sites might list hundreds of thousands of vehicles, but only certify or recommend a subset of cars. The sites also might list only cars sold through dealerships--dealerships with which they have business relationships that include some sort of guarantee.

Most of the Internet's major do-it-all car sites include used as well as new car listings, and all the tools and information you'd need to make your decision for either. Sites like Autoconnect www.autoconnect.com boast over 600,000 used car listings. At Carpoint www.carpoint.com, you need to get a plug-in to your browser to view that site's used car listings. Just follow the Carpoint Web site instructions. Downloading the plug-in and installing it will take only two to three minutes, and you'll only have to go through this process once.

Car manufacturers can also play an important role in selling used cars, using their branded corporate identity to provide credible guarantees. For instance, the highly advertised Pre-owned Ford Web site www.fordpreowned.com emphasizes haggle-free pricing and a range of policies aimed to build customer trust. Here is a list of those policies:

Competition with Ford's pre-owned car purchase policy should cause other auto manufacturers to make similar provisions.

If by some chance you are a car expert, have a friend who is one, or can hire the services of one, you might want to shop at Web sites that offer the broadest possible selection of used cars. Such sites should conveniently present their inventory so that you can easily find the cars you might want and compare their features online. For example, Classifieds 2000 (www.classifieds2000.com boasts over 250,000 vehicle listings. Your local newspaper probably has an online version of its car classified ads. Also check the newsgroups, particularly rec.autos.marketplace, and do general newsgroup searches at AltaVista www.altavista.com and Dejanews www.dejanews.com. Include in your query the phrase "for sale" and the vehicle type for which you are looking.

If the process for buying a used car that we've described in this chapter suits your style, you may find yourself disappointed with the selection available today. Even with over half a million cars listed on the Internet, those vehicles are unevenly distributed, with many in some areas of the country and few in others. You may not find the car that you want within a reasonable distance from you. You may also discover that very few of the used car dealers in your area are included in the Internet's used car listings at all. Hence, for now, you might conclude that you can use the Internet's resources for research, but you'll have to find the actual car by traditional means, with print classifieds and/or in a dealer's lot.

Expect this situation to change soon. The car-selling Web sites are expanding their listings rapidly. Within a year or two, these Web sites will be reaching millions of potential car buyers and will also probably include listings from most of the dealers in your area.

In any case, look for used-car sites that offer solid guarantees and arrangements that build your trust. When it comes to used cars, trust is more important than either selection or price. A low-priced lemon is no bargain.

Also, look for sites that have active online forums and chats where you can openly share your questions and doubts, and get feedback from people who have owned this type of car. You may even find someone who has done business with a dealer you are considering purchasing from, so this cooperation and sharing from the online community can help you in important ways.

Negotiating and Use of An Agent

For many people, negotiation is the worst part of the car-buying process. We live in a society where, aside from yard sales and flea markets, a price is a price is a price. As consumers, whether we're buying a book, a software program, or a head of lettuce, the price is marked and that's what we pay, no questions asked. So when we go to buy a car, we are at a disadvantage. We have little experience in price negotiation, while, in contrast, the car salesperson does it every day. Yet we hear tales of individuals, whether family, friends, or friends of friends, who made great deals, not just on used cars, but on new ones as well. And "come-on" ads about "special, limited-time offers" and "end-of-year clearance sales" make us feel like opportunities are lurking everywhere. So, off we go to make our car purchase--armed with great information we got online, including the exact dealer cost from the manufacturer--but we are still likely to come away feeling we didn't make the best deal we could.

If feeling "ripped off" sums up how you feel each time you buy a car, then consider using a buyer's agent. This agent's role is to work for you in negotiating a better deal than you possibly could from any dealer. These buyer's agents typically work for a flat fee of around $400, and purportedly the average savings they deliver over what you would have been able to negotiate by yourself is about $1,000.

For details on an automobile buyer's agent's role, check the National Association of Buyer's Agents' Web site at www.naba.com. At this Web site, you'll find information on a handful of their members.

If you contact any of these companies or others who perform similar buyer's agent services, be sure to confirm that they abide by the basic tenets of the National Association of Buyer's Agents. You'll want to be sure that they are really representing you, and that they don't get rebates, commissions, kickbacks, fees or any other form of compensation from dealers, manufacturers, or auto loan lenders. If they abide by the National Association's rules, then a buyer's agent can serve as your advocate and consultant: an experienced insider with the special knowledge needed to get you the car you want at a price that you could never get on your own.

For related kinds of buyer agent services, check the subjectively rated list of buyer services at Autohelper (www.autohelper.com/buying_services.html) This site also includes some of the do-it-all sites that connect you with a dealer (like Autobytel and DealerNet), but the site also has some listings that perform various buyer-related services on your behalf for a fee.

Technology Makes Things Possible, Shoppers Make Things Happen

The first rule of online shopping is to expect change. If you don't like the way an online company does business, speak up; then find others who feel the same and speak up together. Use e-mail, chat, forums, and newsgroups. If you find that you need an online service and don't yet see it, make that known to the online community at large. Other online community members will point you to a site that offers this service, or if enough interest surfaces, someone will start doing it.

When you shop online for a car, you are saving yourself time and money. You'll also be choosing a vehicle that is far more likely to meet your needs than one you might have found by traditional methods. At the same time, you are playing a role in changing how people do business with one another and transforming the entire automotive industry.

As you and hundreds of thousands of other people turn to the Internet for help in buying a car, these collective actions force car manufacturers and dealers to make better use of the Web to serve you. As the traffic volume to car-sales sites increases, the amount of money to be made through them will increase dramatically. Actively competing with one another, these sites will offer more useful information and tools, and do whatever they can to grab and hold your attention. At the same time, the car dealers and manufacturers will have to change their procedures, policies, and offerings to take advantage of new opportunities and to be able to move as fast as their competition. Internet-based auto sales will cause customers to shop in wider geographic areas, and auto dealers will begin to compete with other dealers whom they used to consider outside their territory. Used car dealers won't be able to depend on their local reputation, but rather will need to bolster their credibility by participating in certification programs and offering strong guarantees.

With the increasing popularity of online car buying, the new car dealer's role will also change. As technology and innovation make it easier for consumers to select cars and work out online all the purchase details (including configuring all the options, settling on prices, and obtaining online financing), the new car dealership will become more of a "pickup spot" and a source for future auto service. At the same time, the dealer probably will not need to keep as many different new car models and color combinations in inventory when the available online tools make it easier for you, the customer, to imagine and examine--perhaps with Web-based three-dimensional effects--the very vehicle you want.

Sidebars For This Chapter

After you've narrowed your search for that much wanted and needed auto, but before you have solidified your choice, you need to check the online information about rebates and specials. Lycos has a good list of these resources at www.lycos.com/wguide/wire/wire_484433_71892_3_1.html

Check search engines and print ads to see if there might be a car-related site that serves your geographic area. If you search online for the site, you'll get all the information about all the potential dealers within driving distance from you. For instance, The Digital Dealer www.digitaldealer.com covers Washington, D.C.

Once you've found a dealer, go to Mapquest www.mapquest.com. At this site, you can enter your address and the address of the dealer. Mapquest then gives you detailed directions on how to get to that dealer, including the distance from your house.

If you've fallen in love with a Ferrari or an Alfa Romeo but you know that you'll never be able to afford it, don't go into mourning. Save up for a trip to Europe and rent that dream car during your vacation. Check 1001 European Rentals www.1001rentals.com to see what types of exotic autos are available for short-term lease and at what price.

Ever tempted to get into the car business? Today, Acura is the first choice you see in the pull-down selector menus at all the major car sites, simply because it's first in the alphabet. To beat them out, name your car the Aardvark.

Ever consider leasing rather than buying? Confused by the deals and the terms? Quickly educate yourself on the lease-versus-buy subject at Leasesource www.leasesource.com before you start talking to a dealer.

If you want to buy a new car, but would like more than a test drive before making your final decision, find a car rental place that offers cars of that kind. Rent one for a getaway weekend, and let the entire family go for a trial ride.

Do you buy cars frequently? Then consider the "Mobalist Rewards Program" at Autobytel www.autobytel.com. By buying a car at participating dealers, you earn a significant discount on your next purchase or lease of a vehicle through Autobytel.

If you are a car collector rather than just a driver, check out Swapmeet (www.mm.com/swapmeet/) for information about buying, selling, swapping, and auctioning classic vehicles. Also look at Jalopy Journal www.jalopyjournal.com, a magazine about classic cars, with classifieds for buying and selling.

Before you sign your check to purchase that used car, consider the lemon laws, so you'll know whether you have recourse if your purchase turns out to be a mistake. Autopedia www.autopedia.com/lemon/ has a good lemon law overview and links to your state's specific lemon laws.

Take a break from serious research and check out the Web sites of ridiculously expensive sports cars. Make a virtual purchase and enjoy a virtual vacation, driving your Alfa Romeo along the Monte Carlo.

Chapter Ten: The Virtual Way to Shop for Real Estate

Real estate is a complicated matching game. A limited number of unique properties (age, size, number of rooms, neighborhood, etc.) are to be matched with unique families (number of people, their ages, backgrounds, needs, tastes, etc.). This matching arrangement is different from shopping for new books or music, where thousands or even millions of identical copies of each item may be available, and you just have to decide which title you want. It's also very different from buying a new car, where you can decide which model you want, put together a unique combination of options and colors, and have one made for you. Yes, you can build your own house, but the design, the materials, and the options do not define the property. The lot it sits on, the immediate surroundings, the neighbors, the community with its roads, traffic, schools, taxes, and crime rate, all make an enormous difference in your satisfaction as well as in the property's value.

You aren't going to go through the whole real estate shopping process lying in bed with our laptop. You will want to see the property and its neighborhood setting in person, not just online, before you make a decision. And you or your representative needs to be physically present to go through the legalities of closing. But whether you are looking for a roommate, an apartment, or a house, the Web is a way to:

The Internet gives you more information and a wider range of choices than you've ever had before. If you've bought homes in the past, you'll be delighted at how easily the Web will allow you to go through the traditional steps of picking a neighborhood, a real estate professional, a house, and a mortgage. But don't let your familiarity with the traditional process blind you to the new opportunities that the Internet has opened. The Internet is having a major impact on the real estate industry by opening new business models that give both buyer/renter and seller/landlord far more choices at lower cost. Keep in mind that the rules of the game are changing even while you are playing. Innovative companies are pioneering new territory. You ought to check out what they have to offer (in particular, buyers agents, a wide range of for-a-fee services, and easier access to homes and apartments for sale and rent by the owner). The Internet lets you do more of the legwork yourself; and if you take advantage of the new business models, you can save considerably on transaction fees and commissions while still getting the professional help you want and need.

Getting Started

One of the first steps in shopping for real estate is to determine what you can afford, which may not be immediately apparent to you. Your desires may well exceed the limitations of your income. So use the Web to check the prices of available properties in the areas where you want/need to live, and to learn about bank lending rules and interest rates, and about all the other costs beyond the simple price: agent fees, deposits, taxes, closing costs, moving costs, etc. You may decide to rent a house rather than to buy one, or to rent an apartment, or to look for roommates to share the cost of rental.

At this preliminary stage, the Internet's "do-it-all" real estate sites can be very valuable. Such sites have assembled a wide variety of information and tools to help you better understand what you want and how realistic your expectations are, and to help you get a feel for the overall process of buying or renting. In addition, they provide listings of available properties and links to realtors and other businesses that can help you. However, be skeptical of the listings and business referrals. Because they are national services, the listings they have in your area today are likely to be sparse. There's a lot more property available, and a lot more of it listed online than you will find at these national sites. Don't be dazzled by fancy calculators and decision-support tools. They often mask incomplete and sparsely populated databases. If you can browse and search the whole set of listings and can also navigate through the same information calculator-style, that's great. If not, beware. The results you get may be misleading, and perhaps might be pointing you not toward the best selection for you out of the range of all that's possible, but rather toward only those that have submitted information here or paid to be included.

And the businesses (mortgage companies, movers, etc.) that these real estate sites refer you to will, for the most part, have paid fees for inclusion. So when you use an online tool to calculate the likely cost of a mortgage and see a list of rates and terms from particular lenders, remember that you are only seeing part of the picture. You have more choices than these sites would lead you to believe, including the option of dealing with real estate professionals who provide a[ag] la carte services for fixed fees, rather than working on a percentage.

Don't get me wrong. This is good stuff. You need this kind of help to get oriented. Just consider these sites as starting points, not the complete real estate supermarkets that they present themselves to be.

Let's take a closer look at one of these sites to get a better idea of what to expect and what to watch out for.

Microsoft's HomeAdvisor is organized around the usual steps involved in buying a house: getting started, neighborhoods, homes for sale, financing, and offer and closing. "Getting Started" guides you through the basic decisions. You should go through all these calculator exercises, and probably more than once. The different steps are interrelated; for instance, what you learn from the second or third step might affect what you'd want to enter as your preferences in the first. (Please note, however, that this site is a Microsoft site. If you use a Netscape browser, your back button probably won't work, and other features may not work. It sometimes crashes my system.)

The results in HomeAdvisor's "Neighborhoods" section don't match my experience and perceptions of neighborhoods around Boston, and the language used to characterize them strikes me as offensive and not particularly helpful: "Established Empty Nesters," "Upscale Blue-Collar Families," "Elite Ex-Urban Families," "Sophisticated Urban Fringe Couples," etc. The demographic information comes from Claritas, a company that gathers consumer spending and lifestyle data and correlates it with zip codes. Claritas markets its data to companies that are interested in identifying the optimum places to locate stores or those wanting to do targeted advertising campaigns. This marketing data approach does not at all seem appropriate in a home-buying context, where gross averages across an entire zip code are not particularly useful. A true housing neighborhood may be defined by a few blocks, and the territory of a zip code could include dozens of very diverse neighborhoods. In your home search, you are likely to find this kind of quite statistical pigeonholing more harmful than helpful.

The HomeAdvisor's "Home Finder" features are complex and time-consuming to use, not allowing you to browse or search, insisting that you fill out forms, which seems to mask how sparse their listings are. As their listings grow, so will the usefulness of this tool. For now, even with the broadest of criteria, I could find no listings at all in the zip code where I live (the West Roxbury area of Boston). In fact, HomeAdvisor found zero homes within five miles of where I live.

"Find a Loan" takes you through a lengthy set of questions, but then only provides you with loan information from three national mortgage companies. The questions here, and in the other sections, are very helpful at making you aware of what criteria are important, and where you may fit in the general scheme of things. But don't stop your search here. You are likely to get a better deal with a local bank that understands the neighborhood.

If you are new to real estate shopping, check all the sites listed above in this section. There's some overlap, because they partner with some of the same companies, and because they are all trying to capture your full attention for anything and everything to do with real estate. But the insights you can gain by going through all their exercises and reading their articles are well worth the time. Just don't expect too much of any one or all of them. They can be very helpful in pointing out the kinds of things you need to know. Then you can go elsewhere to get the listings and other resources you need.

Also, keep in mind that finding a mortgage is an important part of shopping for a house. You should get preapproved before engaging the help of real estate professionals. You can do that online at mortgage sites linked to by the do-it-all sites. You should also check Priceline (www.priceline.com), Mortgage Auction (www.mortgageauction.com), and E-Loan (www.eloan.com) and mortgage lenders mentioned in Chapter 8, which deals with shopping for money.

Shopping Classified Ads

Back in ancient times, before the dawn of the Web, your first step in finding a house, an apartment, or a roommate would probably have been to check the classified ads. That tradition is continued today at numerous online classified ad sites. Many of these sites simply move ad copy verbatim from printed newspapers to electronic form. Others follow old newspaper categories and format because users are already familiar with them, or just out of habit and inertia. Some even keep the cryptic newspaper-style abbreviations, despite the fact that on the Web, space is not limited the way it is in print. Nevertheless, these sites can be very useful. The nationwide sites typically have tens of thousands of listings, and they provide sort and search capabilities so you can limit your search to the geography you want and then quickly pluck out those listings that match your requirements. The problem is that these classified listings are likely to be unevenly distributed, with rich resources from one urban area where they have partnered with major newspapers, and very little in another. To get more listings in your geographic area, check the real estate and classified Web sites that focus on it.

To find those, first check the Web sites of the local newspapers, then check the Yahoo directory which has a section devoted to classifieds http://classifieds.yahoo.com/. For example, in the Boston area:

While the nationwide sites list a couple hundred homes for sale in the Boston area, Boston.com lists a few thousand. These are all homes that were advertised within the last 7[nd]14 days in the print newspaper, but all in the same brief cryptic form that is typical of newspaper classifieds. That form provides limited information and makes searching awkward.

Roommate Matching Services

The Internet features a few roommate services with listings nationwide or even worldwide. Even if you don't want to check these listings, you might want to look at their advice and links to related services.

·Roommate Access www.roommateaccess.com: nationwide, but strongest in New York City and Boston.

For roommates, it makes more sense to check local sites rather than nationwide. Local sites typically provide a range of services--not just classified listings--and may charge fees for them. The services might include screening, advice, and opportunities to meet potential roommates at face-to-face events. Most urban areas in the United States should have at least a few. The problem is that these are not easy to find. Look for links from general commercial sites that serve your geographic area, such as local newspaper sites. Here are a few of the more prominent ones:

·Roommate Finders www.roommatefinders.com: Serving Manhattan, this site currently charges a $250 agency fee. They also have a "turkey file" of roommates blacklisted because of previous behavior.

·Roommate Express www.e-roommate.com: This site serves just the West Coast.

·Roommate Matchers www.roommatematchers.com: Serving the greater Los Angeles area, this site currently charges $49 membership fee.

·Roommate Connection www.dwellingsma.com/roommate.com: This roommate site serves the Boston area only and currently charges a $75 fee.

·Matching Roommates www.matchingroommates.com: This site is also a matching service for the greater Boston area.

Rentals

While large national sites portray themselves as one-stop-shopping places, when it comes to real estates, bigger is not necessarily better. The odds of your finding just what you want at such a site are quite small. Keep in mind that those listings are spread across the whole country. For instance, AllApartments (www.allapartments.com) boasts over 5 million apartments listed, but I couldn't find any there for West Roxbury (the section of Boston where I live) and only 18 for all of Boston. That's typical of results at the other nationwide sites. But try them anyway; you'll get a quick feel for the variables and for what's possible. In addition, you'll see advice and related useful links. Other renters sites, in addition to AllApartments, include: As with those for roommates, you are likely to see far greater selection in the rental sites dedicated to your local area. Try these sites, for example: For a collection of other such sites, go to About.com (www.about.com/realestate) and click on Apartments for Rent or on your metropolitan area.

Using the Web to Buy A Home

If you have decided to buy a home, you want to find the right one, with the minimum of hassle and wasted time. You want to negotiate a good price and close the deal. You also want guidance to make sure you have touched all the bases and taken care of all the related matters--and done it well--in this very complex transaction, involving laws and regulations that you are probably unfamiliar with.

You can expect to go through two stages. First, you need to educate yourself about potential neighborhoods, the range of choices, the process, and particular houses. The Web can provide lots of information and advice so you can avoid the hard-sell tactics, the time-consuming contact, and the persuasive skills of a realtor, until you are ready. When you are ready, you can then contact a traditional realtor, or a buyer's agent, or a company that offers a menu of real estate services for a fee. Then they can guide you the rest of the way, and perhaps even help you with the negotiation and related matters.

This isn't a macho exercise. You don't have to show off how much you think you know about buying a house. Let's face it--most people buy houses rarely, and mistakes can prove costly. Unless you've worked in the business, you aren't likely to be an expert. That means just about everyone needs some help and hand-holding from people who really know.

Even if, armed with everything you can learn on the Web, you decide to buy directly from a homeowner, you'd still be well advised to get some paid professional help along the way.

Both the Web research and the personal professional help are particularly important if:

Often you have to deal with both those circumstances at the same time.

With the right research on the Web, you can make good use of your time during your brief and expensive trips to the new city. By narrowing your choices before you arrive, you can cut down the number of houses you have to visit personally, and greatly reduce the time to purchase.

And while we won't deal directly with selling your home, you can use many of these same sites and services to help you with that as well.

Basically, if you use the Web effectively, you can expect more from the traditional players, like realtors. Knowing that you are ready, well-informed, and motivated, real estate professionals can and should take you more seriously and give you more attention and help, knowing that you are ready and prepared. Whether you are a buyer or a seller, if the first realtor you pick doesn't treat you that way, then go to another.

Research

Although there are brand name realtors, there are no brand name houses. Hence there are no reference books listing all the choices. Each property is unique. Even condominiums in the same building are on different floors or have different views, and cookie-cutter houses in a development have different physical locations. And over time, owners make improvements and cause damage and wear, so the older the property, the more unique it is likely to be. At the same time, the actual purchase of a house is just one step in a whole complex network of related activities---from getting a mortgage and insurance to moving, and furnishing and then making changes to the property to suit your tastes.

So while you would like to get as much information as you can about a particular property, you also need to familiarize yourself with a wide range of subjects. And for all these subjects there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Web sites that can help you.

After you've checked the do-it-all sites listed above, check some of these advice sites:

Advice for Buyers and Sellers

If you want to do in-depth research on a neighborhood or specific property, first check the "Home Values" section at Yahoo Real Estate (realestate.yahoo.com/realestate/homevalues). There you can search by location to find all homes that have sold on a particular street since 1987, or the sales history of a specific address. You can also search by price to find all homes sold within a certain price range in one city. You can also sign up (for free) to get automatic e-mail notification when a house sells in a particular neighborhood. Yahoo draws this information from a database of 20 million U.S. home purchase price records, updated weekly, with info typically available six weeks after the close of sale.

Other resources for in-depth research include:

Other sites provide resources intended for people building their own home or buying new, or for sale by owner, both of which present their own unique challenges and opportunities.

Build Your Own Home or Buy New

If you decide to explore the realm of newly built houses or perhaps even have one built to order, beware of builders that offer to do everything for you--arranging for mortgage money, doing the appraisal, and even setting you up with property insurance. They could get profit from each of those operations at your expense. Proceed with caution and do your own research into those matters.

Homes For Sale By Owner

If you are interested in buying a house directly from the owner or selling a house yourself, first check the article by Pat Rioux, "What's New in Discount Listing Services for FOR SALE BY OWNERS," at the International Real Estate Digest site www.ired.com/buymyself/rioux/fsbo, and check related the state-by-state directory of resources www.ired.com/dir/fsbo.htm.

Also check the following sites:

Links to Real Estate This is where you are likely to find links to Web sites dedicated to the geographic area where you want to move.

Realtors and Buyers Agents

When you have done enough research and have a clear idea of what home you might want to buy and what you are going to have to do to get it, then it's time to turn to a local realtor or buyer's agent.

Traditional Listing Agents

Many sites, including the do-it-all ones, provide search tools for finding realtors. I'd recommend using the International Real Estate Digest (www.ired.com). This site doesn't list every realtor in the country, but it does provide quality ratings those it does list and indicates the range of their services. And it includes just about everyone that has a Web site. These realtors are the ones you can check out online and learn about before spending the time and effort to call or visit them. They are likely to provide, online, complete descriptions, costs, photos, and floor plans of the houses they list. Some may even offer online video tours of some homes.

Other realtor sites to keep in mind include:

Nationwide (US) Realtor Referral Sites

Nationwide Chains Selected Regional and Local Realtors Buyers Agents

Legalities vary from state to state, but most realtors are "listing agents" who represent the seller, while buyer's agents represents the buyer. Ask your realtor/agent to clarify his or her role and responsibilities.

Buyer's agents, like traditional realtors, have access to the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) to help you find homes in your target geography.

Do you pay more for a buyer's agent? Perhaps, but perhaps not. For instance, some for sale -by owner sites don't offer any commission at all. In that case, the buyer working with an agent may end up paying the fee to the agent. But with a professional on your side, you are more likely actually get the property you want and to negotiate a lower price and other terms favorable to you. Then again, if negotiation is all you want, you could consider someone who specializes in that on a fee-for-service basis.

In the typical case, the price of the house has a commission of about 5- percent built in, which is split 50[nd]50 between either the listing agent and the realtor, or between the listing agent and the buyer's agent. The listing agent is the one who gets the information from the seller for inclusion in the Multiple Listing Service, puts the "for sale" sign in the front yard, and acts as the seller's coach through the whole process.

Some agents purport to represent both the buyer and the seller--an obvious conflict of interest. Make sure you understand your agent's role and if the agent will receive any payments from the seller or other players in the process (such as a recommended mortgage lender).

Also, keep in mind that if you deal with a large brokerage company, you might run into an instance of "competing buyers," where the buyer's agent company might represent more than one individual interested in buying the same property.

To find buyer's agents in your area and to learn more about the role of a buyer's agent, check:

New Business Models: Choose from A "Menu of Services"

Considering the way the Web is changing the real estate sales business, one would expect a greater variety of sales-related services to be available from new kinds of businesses at costs far less than the standard 6 percent sales commission. That is happening, and happening fast.

Basically, the Internet enables both the buyer and seller to do much more of the work themselves, and new businesses are experimenting with ways to provide buyers and sellers better services at far less than the traditional cost.

Today's fee-for-services companies charge less if the seller or the buyer takes more responsibility. The resources available on the Internet make it much easier for you to do just that. The services and their cost may vary widely. And there are also new services--beyond what traditional real estate professionals normally do--to make it easier for you to cope with the myriad of activities related to home buying and owning. Picking from a menu, you choose and pay for only what you need. Read the promotional material carefully. Make sure you know what you will pay, what you should get for it, and what your role will be. The savings could be considerable--perhaps as much as $5,000[nd]$10,000 for an average house in a major metropolitan area--but only if you play the active role that is expected of you.

Note that the new fixed-fee seller services make it far easier for homeowners to sell their own property. You don't have to be a pioneer do-it-yourselfer anymore. There are companies that can help you in the ways that you want to be helped, at far less cost than a full-service realtor.

Today there is no professional organization or central site from which you can readily search for all fee-for-services companies. For starters, check your state in the United States real estate list at the International Real Estate Digest (www.ired.com/usa). Then check your state in the list of buyer's agents www.ired.com/dir/trueagnt.htm. As examples of what's possible, consider the following sites, which serve local communities:

Seller Services for a Fee

Sidebars for This Chapter

When you search at a real estate site and you find a house that looks interesting, try to find that same house listed at other sites as well. Some sites will provide more info than others on the same property. Some might even have pictures.

At major real estate sites, you can spend a lot of time filling out a detailed and complex form only to find that that particular site has no listings matching your needs and preferences. It's best to start very broad both with regard to location and to what you would like. Then if you are fortunate and there are many listings, get more specific.

If you believe in the ancient Chinese theory of site location, before you pick a house or a lot on which to build a house, check The Feng Shui Directory and Magazine www.fengshuidirectory.com and other related resources listed at www.ired.com/dir/fengshui.htm.

Want to see where these houses and apartments are? Want driving directions? Go to MapQuest (www.mapquest.com). Then click on "maps" or "driving directions" and enter the address. Print out the results. It's free.

If you haven't found exactly what you want to the real estate sites, go to AltaVista (www.altavista.com) and search for "home* for sale". Also search for "home* for sale" +"by owner."

For even more listings, check the newsgroups. At Deja.com www.deja.com, search for phrases like "real estate," "apartment," "roommate wanted," or "for sale by owner." Also, click on Browse Groups and then on Regional to find newsgroups dedicated to your state or region.

Are you a student looking for off-campus housing, and perhaps roommates as well? A Break 4 Students www.abreak4students.com has listings of rentals near universities and is geared for the needs of students.

Want to venture into the wilds of Internet newsgroups? The "regional" listing at Deja.com www.deja.com is a bit misleading, encouraging you to just click on a state. If you are interested in New England, enter ne.housing in the Deja search window. For the San Francisco Bay Area, enter ba.market.housing in Deja' search window.

Looking for a retirement home, a vacation rental, or a timeshare? Go to LookSmart (www.looksmart.com). Click on Home & Family, then Real Estate, then Vacation & Specialty.

If you are relocating, you should check Virtual Relocation.com www.virtualrelocation.com , which bills itself as a "moving and relocation mega-site." It has gathered in one place all the resources you are likely to need.

If price is very important, consider buying a foreclosure. Foreclosure World (www.foreclosureworld.net) acts as a multiple listing service for foreclosures and has over 30,000 listings nationwide. It charges a one-time flat fee (now $368), e-mails you details on all foreclosures in your area, and provides a consultant to help you through the process. You pay no broker's fee.

Are you really interested in that house? Want to know who the neighbors are and maybe give one or more call? Go to AnyWho www.anywho.com and enter the street name and the zip code. In the query result, you'll get the names, addresses, and phone numbers of everyone on that street.

Did you buy a fixer-upper? Or do you want to turn a house that's almost what you want into your dreamhouse? For remodeling, repairing, gardening, landscaping, and furnishing, go to LookSmart www.looksmart.com. Then click on Home & Family, and House & Garden. Follow those links, and you'll find enough ideas and resources to keep you busy for the rest of your life.

Looking for a unique vacation home, perhaps outside the United States? At AltaVista www.altavista.com, click on Usenet, and search for "real estate." Then add other query terms to focus your search. You'll find intriguing listings of property for sale in such unexpected newsgroups as rec.travel.africa and rec.nude.

Looking for luxury? Even if you can't afford it, check it out The duPont Registry of Luxury Homes www.dupontregistry.com and Who's Who in Luxury Real Estate www.luxury-realestate.com.

If you aren't in a hurry and you have a particular dream image of a house in mind, make your own Web page (as described at the end of Chapter 3). Describe your dream house in detail, and ask people to email you if they know of a house like that for sale.

Dreaming about not just a house, but a lifestyle? Check out what you could get in a "private, gated or master-planned community" at www.registryone.com.

According to a study by McKinsey & Co., restructuring in the real estate industry could lead to savings of $30 billion a year, and a good chunk of that savings could go to buyers and sellers. If you want to keep track of real estate trends and locate innovators, check Inman New Features www.inman.com for real estate news.

A new Internet standard (XML) for marking up the text of Web pages should make it easy for buyers to search through real estate listings from any online source around the country-- one search and you'll see them all, instead of having to search through one site after another. The standard and the technology are in place, but it will take a few years for this to be implemented. For details on this developing standard, see www.4thworldtele.com

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