Frequently Asked Questions About Shopping Online*

By Robyn Gearey

(Nov. 30, 1999) -- *Um, they're actually Questions Asked by My Mom About Shopping Online, but the acronym doesn't work as well.

Is it safe to shop online?
Many consumers are worried that it isn't safe to transmit their credit card numbers online. In fact, according to marketing research firm C.A. Walker & Associates, the number-one reason more people don't shop online is that they're afraid their credit card info will be stolen.

That's not likely -- it's far safer to shop at most online sites than to use your credit card at a restaurant. That's because most shopping sites use high-security encryption programs that scramble your data as it travels through cyberspace, so no one can intercept it. Once it reaches the shopping site, the data is stored on a non-Web connected computer, so no one else has access to it. You can tell if your data is being transferred securely by looking at your browser -- most browsers indicate a secure connection with a padlock or key icon. Also, if you have any questions about a site's security, go to the source -- most sites include a statement explaining their safeguards.

How do I know I'm getting quality products?
Sites that sell the same items as their bricks-and-mortar stores or print catalog (Gap.com, Macys.com, LLBean.com, Borders.com, just to name a few) are known quantities. You will get the same item, usually at the same price, as you would if you went to the store or ordered from the catalog. But what if you've never heard of the company? You might want to look it up on one of the many ratings sites on the Web. BizRate.com (www.bizrate.com), Gomez (www.gomezadvisors.com), and Rating Wonders (www.ratingwonders.com) all provide "report cards" for many online retailers. They'll tell you how other consumers rated the site, plus some information about what kind of experiences they had dealing with the company in question. For example, if you go to Biz Rate and look up Bluefly.com (www.bluefly.com), an online outlet mall, you'll find that it has an overall rating of four out of five stars and also that it has a 96% on-time delivery rating. You can also see how many consumers ranked the site -- in Bluefly's case, it's 1,635. You'll find more information on business raters in the next article.

What if someone doesn't like what I give them? Can they return it?
Just like with traditional stores, this is something that varies from one online shop to the next, so look on the site to find out how they handle gift returns. If you can't find that information, e-mail customer service and ask! One way to avoid added hassles with returns is to buy from an online site like BananaRepublic.com (www.BananaRepublic.com), Nordstrom.com (www.Nordstrom.com), or JCrew.com (www.JCrew.com) that also has a physical store location nearby. Returns can almost always be made to either the store or the website without any problems. Another way to avoid this problem is to give gift certificates. But you can even do that online! Sites such as GiftCertificates.com (www.GiftCertificates.com) and GiftPoint.com (www.GiftPoint.com) let you purchase gi