Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and with it, holiday shopping season.

For those who detest the crowds at the mall (and the seasonably high prices), online shopping has long been heralded as a saviour. You don’t have to leave your home! Your purchases come right to the door! Yet the process still has its flaws; you need to be an extra savvy shopper to make online shopping truly work for you.

Before you start surfing and typing in those credit card numbers, take the time to create a good holiday online strategy.

The challenges of online shopping

Last year, Deloitte’s Canadian holiday survey revealed that 60% of respondents planned on spending the same or more over the holiday season than they had the previous year. Thirty-three per cent said they would use web sites to check prices.

Meanwhile, a 2009 PayPal study highlights some of those online quirks that drive many of us mad: it found that 56% of online shoppers abandoned their purchases due to shipping charges. Only 3% stated it was their intention from the start to not buy the product when they abandon their shopping cart. As well, this survey found that 51% felt anxious when shopping on the web and 40% said they were not overly confident the retailer would keep their information or credit card details private.

Shoppers crave transparency

In truth, many of the quibbles we’ve had with online shopping have not changed in recent years. Many sites are not transparent about shipping charges.

For U.S. retailers, it often takes numerous clicks (or getting to the point where you’re almost buying) to find out if the company ships to Canada and what kind of shipping and customs charges will be added to the purchase at the last minute. Many U.S. retailers that have countered this by creating separate websites for Canadian customers. But beware: as in the case of J.Crew, these sites may feature much higher prices. As well, there have been many high-profile stories of retailers being hacked and online information being exposed or stolen.

How to shop smart

Here’s some tips for maximizing your online shopping experience: There’s no reason to avoid online shopping. Be smart about it and you'll truly enjoy the convenience and the deals.  

  • Lean towards buying products that don’t need a custom fit or you don’t have to see first. Books and technology work well. While it may be true that everyone loves to buy clothes online,  issues with fit, style and colour mean these purchases are sometimes bound for return. Keep this in mind if you're shopping on a deadline. There's nothing worse than a gift arriving late.
  • Buy more. If you are getting clothes, why not make a large order to save on shipping and just budget for a return of some kind? If you’re expected to have to bundle up some of those jeans, swimsuits and kiddie clothes and pay for a courier, the more the merrier.
  • Purchase goods only from retailers who have a customer service backup via a 1-800 or a bricks-and-mortar location. If you can’t find out where a company is located and how to reach them, don’t buy.
  • If you are truly concerned about a company’s legitimacy, Google the company name with “returns” “problems” and “customer service.” If more than one or two horror stories come up, avoid that retailer.
  • Look up a company’s return procedure before you buy. Established retailers like the Gap actually send you a return postage sticker with your purchase. Many U.S. retailers, however, expect you to dig up the return address and pay to have a return shipped to a U.S. address — add that cost to the shipping you’ve already paid and often you’ve just negated the cost of the return.
  • Shop early. If you’re aiming for a holiday purchase, make sure your goods will ship in time.
  • Think before you click. Before you send an order through, triple check it. It’s very easy, for instance, to order two of the same item, and it’s often hard to see you’ve made that mistake. Ensure you’ve taken advantage of the retailer's latest deal (often there’s a code and if you don’t enter it, you don’t get the deal), that you’ve looked at the final tally and that you’re 100% sure you have the right sizes and styles.
  • Pay smart. Use a service such as PayPal to pay for your purchases (and change your password frequently). Ignore all unsolicited emails from the retailer, your bank and PayPal, as there is a lot of fraud targeting these sites.
  • Avoid registering. Unless you are a big fan of a retailer and plan to purchase more in the future, do no agree to getting regular emails from the retailer. Because you will. Gobs of them. Hearing that the company is offering 25% for one day only will just encourage you to keep on spending.
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