More and more of us are doing shopping online and finding there are some great benefits. To list just three: you can shop from the comfort of your own home, stuff gets delivered to your door so you don't have to carry it from shop to home and you can find things that it might take you an age to source (or be impossible to find at all) using traditional high street methods.
Father Christmas in his grotto
Then there are the price differentials. Shopping online can save you a huge amount of money. My most recent example was buying a single long term wear gas-permeable contact lens. I lost one, and the optician quoted me a price for a replacement. I decided to shop online and I got the replacement for half the price. It took about two weeks to arrive from 'foreign parts', but I'm very happy with it.
At this time of year many of us will be thinking about buying somewhat more exciting items than contact lenses and many of us will turn to the internet, some for the first time ever, to help lighten the load of Christmas shopping.
It's worth remembering though that not everything is rosy in the online shopping garden and, to keep the metaphor going, little insects can jump up and sting you. Thankfully there are some basic guidelines that'll help keep you shop safely.
- When you find something you want, and have moved to the checkout, make sure you double check the total price. Do delivery costs seem fair or will you end up paying more than you'd anticipated and does the cost seem high or low to you?
- Check delivery times. You may find sites sign you up for first class or courier delivery automatically when you don't really need these. Switching to a longer wait can save a few pounds. In some cases it will make delivery free.
- Check the terms and conditions of the seller. Make sure you are satisfied with how they handle your personal details - and you have checked or unchecked any boxes that authorise or stop the seller passing your personal details on to third parties.
- Popular ways to pay online are by credit and debit card or by PayPal. PayPal is not difficult to set up, and it is a sort of holding account for your money, though it does make small charges on some transactions. Check their website for the full details. The UK Consumer Credit Act means that credit card purchases between £100 and £30,000 are protected regardless of where the seller is located. Faulty, broken and undelivered goods are among those purchases for which the credit card company shares responsibility with the seller to refund you. Note that debit card transactions are not protected so it is not a good idea to use a debit card for online shopping.
- Be healthily wary of any seller you have not used before. Novel and distinctive items often come from sellers you might not find on the high street, and that's one of the great joys of buying online. But how can you be sure the seller you like the look of is bona fide? There are a few rules of thumb. Web sites which have been around for a while are probably OK. Newer ones are probably OK too, in fact, but you might want to be a little more circumspect about them. All web sites should have a real address - in a location that actually exists.
- One of the reasons we buy online is to reduce costs. And as my contact lens example shows, you can save quite a lot of money over high street prices. But do check prices before making a purchase to be sure that you are getting a good deal. Online doesn't always mean cheaper. There are online price comparison web site that will automate some of the checking process for you, but they don't do all the leg work. Depending on the overall cost of what you're buying, shopping around could reap substantial savings.
- Keep a record of everything you order, so that you are ready to chase anything that doesn't arrive when it should.
Don't let any of this put you off doing some of your Christmas shopping on the internet this year. It really can result in some wonderful gifts. Just bear in mind some basic common sense. If a web site looks dodgy, a price too good to be true, a product specification way beyond what you'd expect, be sceptical.
Oh, and please don't leave all to the last minute!