Recently I helped a retired priest buy an inkjet printer for a donated computer he had received.
He wanted a cheap one. I began shopping as I do very often these days — on the Internet.
I checked prices and options at some local chain stores like Staples, Office Depot and Wal-Mart. The cheapest printer, a Lexmark Z22 for almost $50, varied only by a few cents between them. By doing my research online, I hoped to minimize my shopping time. Staples offered free shipping so I could have just stayed home and received it through the mail, but, in this case, I wanted to see it before buying it.
As it turns out, the local Staples store was out of stock. So was their central warehouse. I drove to Wal-Mart. Here I learned something that I missed online — the Lexmark Z22 only came with the color ink cartridge, not the black one. A black ink cartridge costs almost $28. So add that to the price of the printer and now you are looking at $78. On the shelf above was the Lexmark Z32. It included both ink cartridges and threw in a photo kit, all for $70. I bought that printer for Father instead.
This little adventure taught me that, sometimes, it pays to do some research in an actual store. Items that appear online to be such a deal may prove otherwise upon further inquiry.
What are some of the other catches to online shopping? One is the shipping and handling cost of your order. Some online stores will not mention those charges until after you have finalized your order. And sometimes those charges are reasonable; other times online stores may use either the shipping or the handling to substantially increase their profit and your loss. A great deal could turn out to be a costly mistake.
So make sure you are getting the real total of your order before letting them close the sale with you. You may have to check their shipping policies to get a full, itemized explanation of charges. Also, be sure that the item is in stock, as out-of-stock items may take a long time to reach you. You may have to telephone to be absolutely sure, as online in-stock claims can be wrong.
Return policies for online stores can make or break you. Didn't bother to read the return policies on the Web site? Did you throw out the box, special packing material and paperwork which came with your order? You may be stuck with the product if you can't return exactly as you received it. Return policies can be very stringent.
Also, very often you will have to pay shipping costs to return the item as well. They may be very specific on the shipping carrier you may use and how you must re-package the item, too. And some stores may not take returns at all. Don't forget to look into the warranty as well for the item that you are buying. In the case of my buying Father's printer, I wanted him to have a local store that could repair it or replace it if something went wrong.
There is the old saying, “If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't (true).” A few years back I bought a new notebook computer for $900 — a real bargain. After six months, the screen's lighting system burned out. I could only read it with a desk lamp shining directly on it. I had a one-year warranty so I tried to call the manufacturer. Voice mail upon voice mail upon voice mail. Eventually I learned that the company had gone bankrupt. My warranty was useless. If something online is a really extraordinary deal, look into it. Perhaps call or e-mail asking why the item is priced so low.
Privacy online has become a concern to many people. Services online are required now to state their privacy policies. Buying online could mean that your personal information, which you enter upon ordering, will be sold to third parties. And do you really need more junk mail and e-mail?
If this is a concern to you, be sure to read a store's policy before buying from them. And don't forget about those cookies the online store places on your computer. If you don't want them delete them from the Windows subdirectory “cookies” on your hard drive.
Now, even with all these precautions, here at the monastery we order many items through the Internet. Being able to compare prices from vendors all over the country or world can lead to substantial savings, even with the shipping costs. Unlike what I did for Father, I rarely buy computer-related items in a store. If I see something I like in a store, I go online to get the best price.
Don't just rely on shopping bots like PriceScan and MySimon to find the best price. They don't report every price and sometimes link to dubious vendors. Many times I just use a regular search engine like AltaVista or Google to search for sites selling my item.
Shopping online will continue to grow in popularity in the coming years. Just be as prudent when shopping in the virtual world as you should be in the real world.
Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the Monks of Adoration, writes from Venice, Florida.