By Gabe Goldberg (SD user GabeGold)
Macy’s Time Square Crystal Ball by flickr user Between A Rock.
Unless you’re shopping now for late or very early gifts, to get those better post-holiday sale prices, you’re taking a breather from committing in-store or online commerce. So there’s no better time to review basic tactics for 2011 outings.
Plan ahead and buy early (and not just for Christmas — you KNOW when birthdays, weddings, other gifty occasions will be through the year!) to use the cheapest trackable shipping. Free — usually cheapest — is available from many websites during sales or for buying enough goods (only $25 from Amazon).
Use credit cards for maximum consumer protections; invoke them when vendor disputes can’t be settled quickly and fairly.
Use credit cards providing extended warranty protection. And remember this when problems occur — it’s easier claiming on them than fighting with manufacturers after standard warranties expire.
Compare prices, including shipping. Unless you’re buying something like Abebooks’ most expensive titles of the year, whatever you want is likely available in multiple places. Variation between most/least expensive offerings can be mind-boggling. Be at least mildly suspicious of prices too far below the norm.
Trust and verify. Be careful if it’s not a well-known vendor; Google it for problems and complaints.
Don’t enter personal/financial information on non-secure sites (that is, those without https URL prefix and padlock or other secure symbol). Sometimes sites claim to be — even think they are — secure, but aren’t. I’ve gotten free merchandise by griping to webmasters about their non-secure websites; they’ve been grateful for the feedback.
Resist saving credit card and account information on too many vendor sites. Yes, it’s convenient — but many recent stories about site customer information being disclosed argues against it.
Don’t send cash or wire money, no matter how appealing someone makes it sound. These are purely scam tactics.
Keep records: as you receive them, electronically file (or print) purchase receipts, warranty information, shipping details, and such. When you reconcile credit card charges (you do that every month, right?) discard redundant material. But keep anything you might need for returns, claims, service.
Not just for shopping, but especially for it: be secure with current and updated malware (virus, spyware, spam) protection. Resist clicking links in email unless you know the sender. But remember that sender information can be spoofed; preview links before clicking.
Avoid extortionate shipping charges — use shopping and price comparison websites (such as abebooks.com for used books) which disclose shipping charges with product information, rather than waiting until the last checkout step (when you’re more committed to purchase). Or simply complain about shipping so a site can discount it for you. And consider abandoning your cart if surprise charges are too high; some sites (such as stupid.com) notice incomplete checkouts and send “come back” email with codes for reduced or free shipping.
Understand return policies. Don’t buy unless you’re sure you’ll keep it or you can make a return work.
Return what’s not wanted promptly. Letting it linger runs out the clock on when it can be returned and reduces motivation to act.
Claim rebates promptly, follow instructions precisely, keep copies until you’re paid, and follow up aggressively if there’s unreasonable delay. If the rebate processor (almost never the actual seller) refuses a rebate capriciously, complain to the seller. They may fix the problem through a credit of some sort. Stores and manufacturers love people who waste rebates; don’t be one of them.
Evaluate extended warranty offers skeptically. They’re usually bad deals but sometimes pay off, depending on costs and protections offered. Watch out for sneaky renewal offers: I was offered a renewal on a five-year old TV warranty, with very small print disclaiming protection for TVs more than five years old. I’m sure Samsung would have happily taken my payment, then denied service. So they couldn’t lose — if I filed no claim, they’d keep the premium. If I filed, they’d refund it without fixing the TV.
Don’t mangle packing material more than necessary or cut tags/labels/etc. until you’re sure you’ll keep it at least a while, if not forever.
Immediately plug it in, turn it on, try it on, take it for a drive: do whatever’s necessary to verify that it’s not an immediate loser. Don’t run out the no-questions return period.
Report problems promptly and follow up aggressively. Nil carborundum illegitimi (don’t let the bastards grind you down) with nonsense delays and denials.
Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with, and written about technology for decades. This article appeared originally on the slickdeals.net web site. © Gabriel Goldberg 2010. Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution by non-profit organizations with text reproduced unchanged and this paragraph included. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org when you use it.