Smart shopping up front will help you avoid a headache later.
It wasn't what I ordered.
I purchased a state of the art DV camcorder from an online retailer for more than $700. A week later, I received the box from the retailer. Excitedly, I opened it only to discover inside was the previous year's model and not the current one I ordered. After several frustrating phone calls, many letters and official intervention from my credit card company, I got my money back, but I became a smarter consumer in the end. I ordered my dream camera a few days later from another business using much of what I learned, and I couldn't be happier with the result of my purchase.
More people are shopping online every year for everything from books to cars to houses and even, yes, video gear. There are thousands of retailers out there, all competing for your hard-earned dollar. But, how can you find the honest ones and the ones who'll deliver on their promises? And, what happens if the purchase goes sour? What recourse do you have and what can you do?
Where to Buy
Choosing where to buy your dream camera or accessory is not as simple as it may seem.
Online retailers may offer a huge selection, low overhead and best of all, low prices. But, they may be located thousands of miles away, which can make returns, customer service and the "personal touch" harder to accomplish. You have to wait for your item to arrive and pay shipping and handling costs, too. However, you may save on sales taxes if the retailer's location is outside your state, which can be substantial. Also, there's no "face-to-face" interaction with sales people and the Web page may have little to no information about the widget of your dreams and answers may take a day or more. As a result, some people prefer "brick and mortar" stores or ordering by telephone (see sidebar).
Who Can I Trust?
We've all heard horror stories about rip-offs, scams and other devious schemes involving some retailers — so who can you trust for honest service?
Once you've decided on the exact widget of your dreams — including model number — check out online retailers who sell your item. Picking the lucky business that gets your hard-earned money requires a little nosing around and aggressive questioning. Check out Web sites that review online retailers, their prices and customer service, such as Resellerratings.com. Look at not only the cost of the widget, but ask yourself:
- What's included for the price? A super-bargain camera may be the camera only and not the battery, remote, charger, strap and other items other retailers offer as standard for a slightly higher price.
- Shipping and handling charges. Sometimes, a shady retailer may start with a low price only to make it up with excessive "shipping and handling" fees. Know these before buying.
- Is it "gray market"? Foreign versions of your widget may be available at low prices only to be resold online. Warning! These items will not have a U.S. warranty and could leave you with no recourse should your widget break. Instructions may also be in another language. How's your Japanese?
- Return or exchange policies. Read the fine print! Some returned items may incur a "restocking" charge based on the purchase price that's deducted from any refunded monies (15% is typical). Also, make sure what the retailer requires when returning an item — any missing detail (i.e., receipt, incomplete contents) could stretch out the time required to get a refund or result in a complete denial.
- Is it a factory warranty or a store supplied warranty? Factory warranties are supplied by and backed by the manufacturer. Store warranties are sourced from a 3rd party company and can vary wildly in quality. Store warranties are often used as an incentive to "push" gray market merchandise.
Give ‘Em Credit
You've chosen your retailer and they have your widget in stock and at an unbelievable price. Now is the moment of truth: pressing the "check out" button for the online retailer.
Rule #1 in online purchases: Always pay by credit card, never use cash, check or money orders! If something should go wrong and the retailer refuses to cooperate or make it right, you'll have no recourse. With a credit card, the issuer can intervene on your behalf and protect your interests. At worst, you could get your money back; at best, you'll get the widget you've always longed for.
Many people also dedicate their on-line purchases to one credit card only, and never use that card for other purchases. It's easier to keep track of surprise charges that may occur unknowingly. Check that card's policy regarding disputes.
Remember to provide complete information in the order form — don't forget apartment numbers or an alternative telephone number. Check and re-check addresses, phone numbers, names and the exact item(s) on the invoice. Make sure that the model number matches the exact item you wish to buy and use a calculator to add up the total independently, so you may be confident when it's time to submit the credit card information. Oh, check the exact credit card number, too.
Many businesses may supply a tracking number submitted by the delivery company, allowing the buyer to follow the package as it makes its way from the business to your door. If not offered, ask them to send an e-mail confirmation of the order, so you can check for accuracy and correct any deficiencies immediately.
It's not what you ordered or it arrived damaged. What now?
Call the seller immediately and inform them of the problem. A smart retailer will want to make good on your purchase and will work hard to see you're satisfied. This could entail a refund or exchange. If asked to return the item, send it back right away, with a return receipt requested.
If things become contested and the retailer is uncooperative, send a letter via certified mail with the request for action clearly outlined. The receipt is proof the retailer received your demands. Remember to give them a chance to respond — hopefully to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.
If needed, call the Better Business Bureau located in the retailer's city and seek their assistance in the matter. Lastly, contact your credit card company to dispute the charge. They'll intervene on your behalf and have a great deal of influence with retailers. Remember, in order to dispute the charge, you must contact your credit issuer via a written letter sent certified mail by the US Post Office (no e-mails!) within 60 days of the dispute. Contact the issuing card company for details.
A Happy Ending
Hopefully, all is well and your new widget is humming (buzzing? squeaking?) along nicely and it's everything you've hoped for. Smart and thorough research, using a credit card and knowing what to do when things go wrong makes the sometimes nerve-wracking experience of online purchasing a less stressful experience.
Randy Hansen is a television news chief photographer who has spent thousands for video gear online. His credit card company loves him.
Sidebar: Ordering by Phone
Many people would rather speak with a human when ordering and like the one-on-one interaction as opposed to the impersonal steps of ordering online. Remember, a phone order is all verbal with nothing on paper, so you should take some steps to bolster your case in the event of trouble with the order.
One handy method is to create a checklist on a computer word processing program with all of the relevant information needed for a completely documented transaction. Do this well before calling so there's time to make the list as complete as possible. Save copies for future orders.
Some of the information on your checklist should be:
- Date and time
- Name of the order taker
- Invoice number of your order
- Credit card used, its number and expiration date
- Tracking number
- Total cost of the order
- A notes section for jotting down bits of conversation with the order taker concerning promises made, guarantees and other information concerning the sale.
- A reminder section with specific questions regarding the ordering process or the item in question.
Keep this completed list, all receipts and other documentation (certified mail receipts, warranty information, etc.) in an envelope. Should a dispute arise, everything will be close at hand and available for use.