How to Avoid the Biggest Web Shopping AnnoyancesHidden fees, products that suddenly disappear from stock, shady stores--don't put up with them. Here are strategies for getting the right products at the right price, without hassles.
Tom Spring is a senior reporter for PC World.
Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham
Purchasing digital gear isn't always as easy as point, click, and buy. Shopping annoyances are a lot like pop-up ads: They seem to spring up out of nowhere, and are a pain to get rid of.
For this story we researched the top shopping headaches facing consumers before they commit to a product, when they make a purchase, and after they buy--including artificially inflated merchant reviews, high-pressure phone sales tactics, charges that hit your credit card bill way before the item ships, and post-purchase freebies that turn out to be anything but.
Before You Buy
It's out of date before it's out of the box.
When Pesach Lattin of New York wants to upgrade his digital gear, he no longer gets caught up in what he describes as the model-name game. "Wait a week, and that Sony digital camera you're thinking about buying is yesterday's news," Lattin says.
Lattin is not imagining things. Product cycles for tech gear have gotten shorter over the years as companies seek to stay competitive by quickly incorporating new features, says Jenny Pareti, spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Association. Canon, for example, has cranked out more than 24 new digital camera models in the past 12 months.
An unfortunate side effect of accelerated product rollouts is that they increase the odds of accessories not working with older gear. Apple, for example, has introduced on average a new iPod model every two months for the past year, and people who have bought older iPod accessories such as speakers or docks can't always use them with the newer iPods.
Short technology-product cycles may be a fact of life, but some retailers aggravate the problem by knowingly foisting older gear on customers--or at the very least, by not making clear to buyers whether the items in stock are nearing obsolescence.
Lattin says that he's had enough with the alphabet soup of model numbers. But if you want to avoid getting stuck with older gadgets, check each product maker's Web site carefully to figure out what's old and what's the latest.
You'll love our phony feedback.
In the hypercompetitive world of online commerce, sites for comparison shopping have unfortunately become popular destinations for rip-off artists seeking to lure customers with fake merchant and product reviews.
The problem of bogus reviews has arisen even at well-known sites such as Amazon.com. While Amazon is not a comparison engine, it does permit third-party merchants to hang a shingle at its site, along with inviting reviews from patrons. A positive merchant review can bring lots of business to a retailer: Forrester Research says that 40 percent of shoppers take retailer ratings into account when choosing where to buy. San Francisco blogger Thomas Hawk decided to purchase a digital camera at the Web site of Brooklyn-based Price Rite Photo in part because of a satisfactory merchant review on Yahoo Shopping. But his experience was not a happy one (see "Score One for the Little Guy").
Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham
Although Pourzanjani declines to say how many bad apples he's actually tossed out, he notes that PriceGrabber rejects 5 to 7 percent of submitted reviews for being suspected fakes. PriceGrabber and other pricing engines have automated the screening process--instantly rejecting, for example, groups of reviews that come from the same computer or network.
Amazon.com has addressed made-up merchant reviews through its Real Names program, spokesperson Drew Herdener says. To review an item or merchant on Amazon, you must have purchased something there under a valid user name.
All of the shopping-engine firms PC World spoke with say they have gotten so good at detecting fake comments that it's a nonissue. Some sites don't rely exclusively on technical means to spot phony reviews. Shopping.com, for one, has a community-policing element: You can see whether a reviewer is trusted by other Shopping.com users, and vote on new contributors.
Retailers that engage in questionable practices usually have online track records. Before forking over your money, try punching the company name into Google to see what others think.
When You Buy
We'll match any price (maybe).
Low-price guarantees aren't new, but with the Internet's unprecedented power to help people find rock-bottom prices, shoppers can more easily try to take advantage of them. Merchants, not surprisingly, are responding with strategies designed to make cashing in on these offers difficult.
"Merchants know that, thanks to the Internet, someone is going to find a store in Podunk, America, with a cheaper price," says Tim Storm, president and founder of FatWallet.com, a Web site for bargain hunters. If you do spot a better price, though, stores will often wriggle out of their promise to match it by enforcing the guarantee's fine print, which commonly includes exceptions for certain types of merchandise, prices advertised online, prices at stores not considered direct competitors, and prices at stores outside a certain geographic area.
However, we've also seen instances where brick-and-mortar stores have refused to match a price, even when all conditions of the guarantee have been met. Complaints posted at gripe sites describe experiences similar to those we found in an investigation of rebates: Some shoppers stop trying to realize the savings because they don't think it's worth the effort. A contributor to the consumer review site My3cents.com described how a CompUSA store manager had refused to honor a low-price guarantee that would have saved him $5, saying a senior manager wasn't on hand to approve the price drop. Having made the trip expressly to get the product, the shopper paid the higher price.
Engineer Jim Neumiller of Copperas Cove, Texas, paid $247 for a 27-inch Magnavox television at his local Best Buy. But while he was on hold with Best Buy's customer service to arrange for delivery of the set, Neumiller noticed the same set on Best Buy's Web site for $199.
Neumiller demanded the lower price. A Best Buy representative initially agreed and said that he would be credited with the difference. The credit never showed up, however, and when Neumiller called to ask why it hadn't, he was told that the TV was no longer on sale at the lower price. Only after he filed a deceptive-advertising complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and griped on his blog did Best Buy issue him a $50 credit.
To avoid such problems, a good rule of thumb is to review product marketing materials, look for asterisks, and scan the fine print for restrictions or anything else unusual.
It's in stock--until you place your order.
When buying online, don't count on promised delivery dates or inventory representations. Katie Young, spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau serving Alaska, Oregon, and western Washington state, says that even well-intentioned companies sometimes overpromise. She should know: Her office mediates consumer complaints about Amazon.com.
Amazon's second-most-complained-about subject, after refunds and exchanges, is delivery service, Young says. "One of the common scenarios is, a consumer paid for overnight shipping and either never got the item or got it days late," she says. The good news: Amazon usually issues a refund to consumers who complain to the BBB about shipping delays.
Depending on the merchant you're dealing with, online overnight shipping can mean several things. Dell charges $109 for "next business day" delivery of new desktop computers. However, when I ordered a PC over the phone from Dell and added that I wanted to pay for next-business-day delivery, I learned that to Dell this means the system ships the day after it's actually built--which might take up to a week.
Online purchases may also arrive late because the retailer relies on drop shipping, meaning the retailer doesn't actually stock the product, but has the wholesaler send it directly to you. Such sellers may have the best of intentions, but can end up making excuses when they find out that their supplier doesn't have the Civil War commemorative mouse you ordered.
The best way to avoid such problems is to look for red flags, such as a too-good-to-be-true price or user reviews that are either awful or excellent, with no middling evaluations. Also check out the Better Business Bureau's Web site, which has a searchable database of company report cards.
After You Buy
Good luck calling us.
It's true: some companies hate it when you call. Why? Because they have to pay someone to answer the phone.
Photograph by Matthew Mahon
"It's a shame that there are still some major retailers out there that just don't want to be bothered with answering questions over the phone," Hobbs says, no doubt speaking for many.
Hobbs reports that Amazon has gotten better about advertising its once-elusive toll-free phone number. Some other big sites still make calling difficult, however: I attempted to find a customer-service number for Apple's iTunes and gave up after 15 minutes of searching.
In a survey by the Virginia-based Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business, not being able to talk to a human being topped the list of what people don't like about online retailers' customer service.
Businesses such as Apple and eBay say they prefer to receive customer questions by way of Web forms or e-mail; both companies say that they try to reply to all queries within 24 to 48 hours. By funneling inquiries though Web forms, the companies say, customers can sometimes get the answers they need without ever calling.
If having the option of placing a phone call to a company you do business with is important to you, don't buy from merchants that fail to post a phone number conspicuously on their Web site. But if you have already made a purchase, you can try looking up the firm's number by using an information or directory service such as Switchboard.com.
Money back is never guaranteed.
Procedures for seeking refunds can be frustratingly elaborate. Edie Milliken, a housewife from Lewiston, Maine, says she spent nearly a month trying to reclaim $73 from McAfee for Internet Security Suite 8.0, which she had bought from a local retailer and could never get working properly on her PC.
Milliken says that she never thought she would have so much difficulty taking advantage of the company's "30-Day Money-Back Satisfaction Guarantee" pledge.
First, Milliken says, McAfee made her spend a total of 40 hours over several weeks using online tech support to verify that she couldn't get the program to run on her machine. "I told them repeatedly I wasn't interested in trying to fix the problem, I just wanted my money back," she says.
She did eventually receive a total-refund check from McAfee, but not until 41 days after she had first called the company.
McAfee told PC World that its money-back guarantee doesn't work the way Milliken says it did. "A consumer can get a refund no matter what the reason if they contact us within 30 days," says Francie Coulter, McAfee spokesperson. Coulter declined to comment on Milliken's experience in particular, saying that she was unfamiliar with the case.
As for obtaining refunds from retailers, even when you regain your cash from reputable companies such as Best Buy, Sears, or Staples, you may get stuck with restocking fees of 10 to 15 percent of the purchase price.
What can you do to avoid the money-back guarantee runaround? Ask retailers about (or check their Web site carefully for) their refund policy. And if a product comes with its own money-back guarantee, make sure you read it closely, too.
Our freebies are anything but.
When does a "free" cell phone cost as much as $36? Welcome to the world of not-so-free freebies.
Cell phone companies often advertise phones as "free" but charge you for them nevertheless. Not to be confused with "activation fees" levied on new customers, phone-upgrade fees are charged to existing customers who request new phones.
Cingular, for example, says it charges an $18 upgrade fee when customers get a new handset. Sprint/Nextel customers face as much as $36 in handset-upgrade fees.
In posts on gripe sites such as My3Cents.com and PlanetFeedback.com, some customers say that they were never told about the fees at the time of purchase, and that they were surprised to see them surface on their phone bill as long as two months later. By then the window for cancellation of the purchases without termination fees had expired.
Cingular and Sprint/Nextel officials defend the imposition of these fees by saying that they cover service and administrative costs associated with upgrading customers to a new handset.
Officials for various carriers also insist that their sales representatives and Web sites make all fees clear to customers at the time they purchase a new phone.
To read more about cell-phone-related gripes, see "Why We Love to Hate Our Cell Phone Company."
You'll pay for these gifts, again and again.
The cell phone industry isn't the only source of freebies that come with catches and generate consumer complaints, however.
Pitches for free $25 gift cards or cash back on just-completed purchases are causing a tidal wave of discontent as hundreds of people receive unexpected credit card charges stemming from such offers. Many buyers who have taken advantage of the offers say that at the time, they didn't realize they were accepting trial memberships in shopping services that turn into monthly paid subscriptions if not cancelled. Internet searches reveal a flood of complaints against the firms behind the offers, including Vertrue (formerly MemberWorks), Trilegiant, and Webloyalty.com.
In a class-action suit filed against Webloyalty.com in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, a Fandango.com customer says that after he bought a movie ticket he was charged a monthly fee for a discount-club membership he had never requested.
The suit, filed in September, alleges that after a customer made a purchase from one of Webloyalty's 75 e-commerce partners, a pop-up window appeared promising a $10-off coupon for their next purchase. If the customer accepted the offer and gave an e-mail address to redeem the coupon, the customer's billing information was automatically transferred to Webloyalty.
Webloyalty would then automatically bill the customer's credit or debit card a $9 or $10 monthly fee for a membership in its Reservations Rewards discount club. And if the customer did not cancel the membership by contacting Webloyalty within 30 days, these monthly charges would continue.
Webloyalty's CEO Rick Fernandes said in a statement, "The lawsuit is frivolous. It completely misrepresents the manner in which Webloyalty.com conducts its business."
Cures for Shopping Annoyances
You can avoid or cure many online shopping headaches by being a careful consumer. Here are some general procedures for avoiding the sting of a good deal gone bad:
Review your credit card statement as soon as possible after your purchase--ideally, you should have online access to your statements, so that you can see new charges earlier. If you see anything that doesn't look right, address the problem immediately.
If things get nasty, the BBB has a free service that will attempt to mediate a dispute between you and a merchant.
Learn to complain effectively. If you have a gripe with a cell phone company, for example, file with the Federal Communications Commission and state authorities that regulate cellular providers. If it's a truth-in-advertising issue, write to the Federal Trade Commission.
Remember that often the most effective way to solve a post-shopping annoyance is to work with the company directly. When contacting the company, make sure you talk to someone who can actually issue a refund or correct the problem. Be as informed and as specific as you can, and don't lose your cool.
Shopping glitches--or worse--may not be entirely avoidable, but how you deal with one could mean the difference between A bad migraine and a nice refund check. Good luck.
Score One for the Little Guy
Photograph by Thomas Hawk
Hawk's tale, which has become something of a blogosphere legend, started in November 2005 when the San Francisco investment banker (Thomas Hawk is his pen name) ordered a Canon EOS 5D from New York-based Price Rite Photo for $2900. Shortly thereafter a company representative called, ostensibly to confirm Hawk's credit card and mailing information, but also to aggressively pitch pricey accessories. When Hawk declined the add-ons, the salesperson said the camera was out of stock--even though the Web site had indicated that it was available. Hawk canceled the order. "When I told them I was going to write on my Web site about how badly I was treated, they threatened to have me arrested and told me that I didn't know who I was dealing with," Hawk says. Price Rite's sales rep, Hawk adds, said he'd face a 15 percent restocking fee if the order was canceled.
Hawk says he couldn't believe he was hearing all this from a merchant that had high ratings and glowing user reviews on reputable shopping sites, including PriceGrabber.com (which powers PCWorld.com's pricing engine) and Yahoo Shopping.
It turned out he wasn't the only unhappy Price Rite customer. The New York state attorney general, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, and the Kings County (New York) district attorney have all received complaints alleging that Price Rite used hard-sales tactics and bait-and-switch advertising. In a June 2005 complaint to the New York Better Business Bureau, a woman from Pennsylvania said that Price Rite charged her credit card $700 and sent her a rock instead of the camera she ordered.
Despite the threats, Hawk wrote about Price Rite in a blog entry that was picked up by a member of the social news community Digg.com.
The story struck a nerve. Digg.com users posted Price Rite's aliases, phone number, and address; some also posted warnings about the store, including a link to Hawk's blog, on other sites. Hundreds of digital camera buyers began posting similar complaints on Hawk's blog--and in a matter of days, PriceGrabber, Yahoo Shopping, and other comparison sites dropped Price Rite from their listings.
In December 2005, Price Rite Photo owner Edward Lopez sent Hawk a letter of apology, saying the phone sales representative involved had been fired and offering to sell Hawk the Canon EOS 5D for the originally advertised price of $2900. (Price Rite has not responded to telephone and e-mail queries from PC World about Hawk's experience.)
Hawk declined Price Rite's belated offer. "Companies need to have good business practices and treat their customers well," he says. "If they don't, a customer like me is going come along and write about their experience, and it's going to get around."