10 Tips for Safer, Smarter Online Shopping

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, many of you are probably gearing up for some holiday shopping.  While the risk of being trampled by a vicious, deal-hungry mob is much lower when you shop online, you still need to keep an eye out for your safety. Here are 10 tips that will help you shop smarter and safer online this holiday season.

1.) Update, Update, Update: Web browsers have built-in security features that help protect you online, so before you start shopping, take a few minutes to make sure that your browser is up-to-date. Most browsers will automatically alert you when a new update is available, but you should also manually search for updates just to be on the safe side. You will also want to make sure that your anti-virus and spyware software is current. Sure, you’ll probably have to restart your computer after installing any updates, but the increased protection you’ll get will be well worth the extra five minutes.

For more information on manually searching for updates, select your browser from the following list: Safari , Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome.

2.) Check It Out Before You Check Out: No matter if you are shopping on a well-known retailer’s website or one that you have never heard of before, you will want to do your homework before you proceed to checkout. There are numerous website safety rating tools available, such as the Web of Trust add-on, that gauge the security of sites you visit.

Most legitimate, trustworthy sites make it easy for shoppers to get in touch with them, so opt for websites where contact information is clearly and prominently displayed. But make sure that you can actually reach the retailer with this information; if the retailer doesn’t answer your call or respond to your email, you’re better off shopping elsewhere.

If the site has a customer feedback section, take a minute to scan the experiences of other shoppers. If there isn’t a feedback section, do an online search for the retailer’s name along with “feedback” or “reviews.” It goes without saying that you should pass on sites with a lot of negative reviews and complaints.

3.) Protect Your Passwords: All of the best-practices for password security apply to online shopping: never share your passwords with anyone and use a different password for every site. If a retailer asks you to provide your password via email, delete the email and shop elsewhere. If you think you’ll have trouble remembering your passwords, write them down somewhere safe or consider using a secure password manager like KeePass Password Safe.

4.) Be Careful with Your Credit Card: In addition to only shopping on safe, trusted websites, there are a few other things you can do to protect your credit card information.

Bank of America, Citi, Discover and many others now give you the option to generate a temporary credit card number that you can use for online shopping.

Another option is to put only as much money as you will need for your holiday shopping on a pre-paid credit card like those offered by Visa. If the card is compromised after you have made all of your purchases, unauthorized parties who try to use the card will find that there are no funds available.

In the event that you purchase something online, but never receive it, you’ll be happy that you paid with a credit card. That’s because banks will let you file a chargeback in such a situation, meaning they’ll reverse the charges.

5.) Stay Organized and Track Spending: After you check out, don’t forget to print the transaction confirmation page and store the record in a safe place. To easily organize and store e-receipts and other important emails you receive from retailers regarding your purchases, consider using Shoeboxed.com’s free online shopping tool. E-receipts and other emails sent to your Shoeboxed email address are data-extracted and organized for you in a secure online account. In the event that you need to file a chargeback, you will need to supply these records to your bank/credit card company.

Shoeboxed also makes it easy to track your spending. Transaction details from the e-receipts sent to your Shoeboxed account are extracted and organized in a sortable, searchable online spreadsheet–a great feature for anyone on a tight budget this holiday season.

6.) Leave the Cookies for Santa: A cookie is a small piece of information exchanged between a web server and a web browser that is stored for later use. While cookies may enhance your experience on a site, allowing browser cookies to build up will lead to a much slower online shopping experience. After you check out on a retailer’s site, take a few seconds to wipe your browser clean of any cookies.

7.) Say No to Spam: Less savory online businesses will sometimes sell or share your email address for commercial use. The end result of this practice–spam. To keep your personal inbox spam-free, use a separate email address for online shopping.  Any email address will work fine, but a better option might be the free Shoeboxed.com online shopping tool. When you use your Shoeboxed email address for online shopping, unsolicited emails are identified and set aside by cutting-edge spam filters and important emails like e-receipts and other messages from online retailers are organized and stored for you in a secure online account.

8.) Search for Discounts, Coupons, Lowest Prices:
Check out and bookmark shopping, comparison, and discount websites to get the most bang for your buck when shopping online. Google Product Search allows you to search thousands of online retailers with one click to compare models, pricing, and sometimes even shipping costs.

Discount code and coupon sites like FatWallet.com and RetailMeNot.com are also worth a look as they compile, and often benchmark the success rate, of discount codes for online retailers. Just be wary of spending considerably more on separate shipping from many different retailers, when you could have saved more by buying from one retailer and scoring free shipping.

9.) Read the Fine Print: Most legitimate online retailers will have their privacy, return and shipping policies on their websites. Be sure to read each retailer’s privacy policy for details on how your personal information will be used. The release of anonymous aggregated information about shoppers is relatively common nowadays, so unless you have serious reservations about the practice, this should not keep you from shopping on an otherwise secure, trustworthy site. If you find that a retailer does not allow returns, you should probably buy your gifts elsewhere.

If you can’t find these policies on a site, contact the retailer to request copies. If a retailer refuses or is otherwise unable to provide policy statements, you should find another place to shop.

10.) Shop and Ship Together: For those times when free shipping isn’t offered or is only available for purchases over a certain amount, ask around to see if any of your friends or family members are planning to buy gifts from the same online retailer. If they are, consider placing your orders together to save on shipping costs.

25% of Retailers May File For Bankruptcy Following Poor Holiday Shopping Season

The economic death just keeps spreading. After hitting the financial industry, the housing industry and the car industry, the retail industry could very well collapse in the coming months. Following a dismal holiday shopping season and riding the coattails of highly publicized bankruptcies at Linen’s ‘N Things, Circuit City and KB Toys, as many as 25% of retailers may file for Chapter 11 protection in the first quarter of 2009.

In comparison, only 4-7% of retailers were expected to file for bankruptcy protection this time last year. Retail has long had the reputation of being one of the hardest businesses around, and the industry normally operates with many firms on the verge of bankruptcy. The current numbers, however, are unprecedented.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the first retailer to go under during the post-holiday season could be Goody’s Family Clothing, Inc., an apparel retailer in the Southeast with 287 stores. The company emerged from bankruptcy court in October, had a weaker than expected holiday season and may be seeking outside financing or loans. Goody’s is reportedly trying to avoid a potential liquidation by seeking outside help.

Goody's Family Clothing May Be Forced To File For Bankruptcy Protection
Goody's Family Clothing May Be Forced To File For Bankruptcy Protection

Many retailers that do not liquidate will likely trim inventory and cut suppliers, causing a ripple effect to other industries. Weaker manufacturers, small brands and cash-strapped fashion labels may fail even if the retailers themselves do not.

“We will have a lot fewer stores by the middle of 2009,” Nancy Koehn, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s happening very, very quickly because of the financial crisis and the recession.”

2008: Worst Holiday Shopping Season Ever?

Despite widespread price-slashing this holiday season, retailers are already calling 2008 one of the worst seasons on record. Sales plunged in most categories of retail this year as consumer spending continued to decrease, despite retailers’ best efforts to entice shoppers with big discounts.

Retail Sales May Have Been the Worst On Record in 2008
Retail Sales May Have Been the Worst On Record in 2008

Total retail sales, which excludes cars and other vehicles, dropped by 5.5% from last year in November and 8% compared to last December.

These numbers are much worse than were expected by industry analysts, who predicted that sales would drop 1% in the worst forecasts.

“This will go down as the one of the worst holiday sales seasons on record,” said Mary Delk, a director in the retail practice at consulting firm Deloitte LLP. “Retailers went from ‘Ho-ho’ to ‘Uh-oh’ to ‘Oh-no.'”

Luxury items took the biggest hit this year, dropping 35% from last year’s levels. Electronics and appliances fell 27%, furniture dropped 20% and women’s and men’s apparel slid 23% and 14% respectively from last year.

Despite major discounts offered in the front-end of the holiday shopping season and more big promotions during the last days of the season, shoppers did not take the bait. Worried by bad economic news and perhaps constrained by the lack of available credit, consumers remained comparatively stingy with their money.

In a year where retail has already been suffering, the holiday shopping season was seen as an opportunity to turn things around. Already this year, the country has seen several retail bankruptcies, including Circuit City and KB Toys. The weak holiday sales may mean that more retailers will also file for bankruptcy and close their doors.