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E-Shopping 101

Ready to jump in the e-shopping waters but afraid of uncharted depths? Here’s all you need to know about ordering online.

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If you can see it, eat it, smell it, feel it, hear it, play it, read it, wear it, date it, drive it, or invest in it, you can be sure there’s some guy in a shack in the middle of nowhere — or some corporate salesperson in a penthouse office surrounded by lackeys — just waiting to sell it to you. You can’t escape the URLs on buses and billboards, in newspaper ads and television commercials. There are malls, auctions, shopping advisers, and comparative-pricing sites catering to every niche—from Beanie Babies to Barcaloungers, from motorcycle magazines to mail-order brides.

So what’s in it for you? How about: No drives to the mall, no waiting in lines, no haggling with pushy salesmen, no advice from clueless clerks, no fellow shoppers knocking you over to get to sale items, no screaming kids in toy shops, no inventory limits, no wondering if other stores offer better prices—can we stop now? What’s more, most shopping sites have finally added such amenities as gift wrapping, registries, return policies, greeting cards, recommendations, and discounts for loyal shoppers. Stores come in all shapes and sizes, from mom-and-pop hobby shops to the highfalutin Sotheby’s auction house, from niche-interest portals to anything-goes mega-malls. Here’s a quick look at what’s out there and how it works.

Stores

Most online shops have added true e-commerce capabilities, which means that consumers anywhere in the world can purchase goods anywhere else with just a click and a credit card. And most work the same way: You browse through categorized wares or search for a specific CD/book/toy/tchotchke. When you find something you want, you click on it and add it to a virtual cart; when you’re done browsing, you fill out an online form with your credit card information and mailing address, select a delivery schedule (overnight or regular mail, for example), wait for the package to arrive at your front door, and thank God you finally own that import-only U2 album.

Auctions

Chances are, if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, it’s because collector nerds bought up every copy and plan to offer said items for a jacked-up price at auction. Or maybe you’re looking for a truly rare 7-inch single signed by the band before they were big—back when the Edge had hair, say. Whatever the case, auctions seem to have everything stores don’t, and they’re booming, thanks to the success of eBay and its major imitators, Yahoo! (auctions.yahoo.com) and Amazon (auctions.amazon.com).

In most of these one-to-one auctions, a hopeful seller posts a description and photos, sets a minimum price, suggests start and end dates, and watches as frothing online shoppers one-up each other with outrageously inflated bids — sent by e-mail — to own things they probably never wanted. You can search the sites by keyword or sift through the generic categories. New niche auction sites pop up all the time; GolfBids.com sells — duh — golf equipment. If you don’t trust your fellow cybercitizens, try a one-to-many auction such as Onsale.com, which lets shoppers bid on name-brand products in categories like computer products, home and office, sports and fitness, and vacations and travel. Still don’t trust the merchant? Employ an online escrow service to hold your money or shop only at places you’ve heard of.