November 15, 2007

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Gray areas
Smart bargain-hunting online
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

As we begin to start thinking about considering the holiday shopping season, it’s important that we not let our consumerist society take advantage of us. We must remember what’s truly important amongst all this gift-giving.

Namely, not getting ripped off.

Sure, you want the best for your loved ones, and if that means stretching your budget, so be it. But the revolution of online shopping has brought us low, low prices because of the essentially worldwide competition, right? Well, yes. But it also opened the door for shysters, swindlers and downright crooks who have enough know-how to open Web storefronts but not enough to run a reputable business.

So what’s a bargain shopper to do? When comparing prices on the Internet, you’re bound to find at least a few sites you’ve never heard of with rock-bottom prices. Sure, you could stick with big-name stores, but then you might as well confine yourself to the mall and be done with it.

No, the keys are healthy skepticism and a little research. There’s a wide range of problematic shopping sites, from those deliberately out to scam you to those just offering dodgy products because they were cheap to buy wholesale. You can start separating the wheat from the chaff with the very same price comparison sites you’re probably using to hunt for deals.

Sites like PriceGrabber.com, DealTime.com and Shopper.CNet.com have store ratings and reviews built right in. Opinions come from fellow shoppers who may have been swindled themselves, so you can make their misfortune your advantage. Make sure to look beyond the rating of whatever online store you’re investigating; recent reviews might take a sudden turn for the worse, or they might explain a low rating with a factor you might not care about, like slow shipping or ugly site layout.

Other problems are more serious, of course. For example, counterfeit DVDs. That uber-boxed set of every Star Trek episode ever made for far, far less than you’ve ever seen anywhere? Yeah, probably a bootleg. The price is one clue. The unfamiliar packaging is another. Moral and legal problems aside, those bootlegs might not play correctly. Bootleg DVDs often have problems being read by players, and if even one disc in that 500-disc set is screwy, well, say goodbye to your cash. Assuming you even get the goods.

Another plague besetting the online marketplace is the so-called “gray market.” It’s particularly noticeable in the high-end camera arena, where you’ll have the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price), the somewhat lower street price (what most stores end up charging for that item) and then a bunch of cheaper prices the legitimate stores can only dream of. While not actually illegal, products at those lower prices might not be exactly what you’re expecting. They might have been purchased in bulk in other countries and brought back to the United States by the seller. They might have instructions that aren’t in English, or come in a plain brown box. In most cases, if a manufacturer doesn’t have some kind of relationship with the retailer, directly or through a distributor, it doesn’t have to honor a product’s warranty.

Oh, and the more an MP3 player looks like an iPod but isn’t an iPod, the more you should stay away. That’s just bad juju.