Column: Online shopping can save more than just time

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The holidays are upon us and, before you know it, Christmas Eve will come and many will go into panic mode because they still have several names to strike off their shopping lists.

Usually, I am one of those people. With a busy schedule and a scattered mind at times, I normally find myself scrambling at the last minute to get gifts I constantly keep putting off buying.

Well, not this year.

I can proudly say that I am done with all of my Christmas shopping except for one person, and that’s far ahead of my usual schedule seeing that we are just now in the first full week of December.

My secret is simple: online shopping.

I’m not one for crowds and made the mistake of taking on Black Friday a year ago and can confidently say that won’t be happening again.

As a so-called web savvy person and someone that embraces technology, I would say that at least half of my year-round shopping takes place on the World Wide Web. This lets me avoid crowds and long lines, save money on gas and, most importantly, prevents me from getting pepper sprayed in the face by someone going after the same gift items.

As much online shopping as I do, I have not fully taken advantage of what has become the biggest online shopping day of the year – Cyber Monday.

Matt Mauney is a columnist for The Paper. He is also the Sports Editior. He can be reached at mmauney@clickthepaper.com.

That is, until this year.

I was in central Florida over the Thanksgiving holiday and made it a point to avoid shopping centers, retail stores and the abundance of outlet malls like the plague on Black Friday and the ensuing weekend.

After my drive home on Monday, I opened my laptop and began visiting a few of my favorite retail sites to see if there were any deals worth taking advantage of.

My virtual shopping carts began to fill up and after about an hour and a half, my entire Christmas list was virtually (no pun intended) complete. No lines, free expedited shipping and my eyes are pepper spray free.

I wasn’t alone, as Forbes.com is reporting that Cyber Monday reached $1.25 billion in online spending in the U.S. That’s up 22 percent year-over-year, which makes it the heaviest online shopping day in history and the second day on record to surpass the billion-dollar threshold, according to comScore, a firm that specializes in measuring digital data.

I understand that online shopping may not be for everyone, but I suggest giving it a try. While the Monday after Thanksgiving may be past us, there will still be plenty of online only deals surfacing in the coming weeks before Dec. 25.

For those of you who are new or just uncomfortable with cyber shopping, here are a few things to be aware of and keep in mind if you decide to give it a try.

Remember, safety first

Safety and security are two of the biggest concerns from shoppers weary of spending money online.

According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), a San Diego-based nonprofit, there are several important steps that consumers should take to ensure that their online transactions are conducted both safely and securely.

The ITRC suggests that consumers only shop on sites that encrypts or encodes your personal and financial information before processing the payment.

Since many aren’t familiar with those terms, a simple rule to follow is if you haven’t heard of a website before, or if you feel unsure about the purchasing process, avoid shopping from that site. Major online retailers, such as Amazon, eBay and Overstock.com, all use security measures that will keep your information safe and private. Websites of major retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, Sears and Toys R’ Us are all safe to use as well.

One important thing to keep in mind is to look for an https:// at the beginning of the site address in the address bar of your browser, as opposed to the usual http://. The ‘s’ simply means that you are on a secure page and thus can shop worry-free.

Shipping fees and wait times

Another deterrent for some is the addition of shipping and handling fees as well as the amount of time some items take to ship.

Both are legitimate concerns, but there are ways around it. The easiest way to avoid this problem is look for deals on sites that include free shipping or at the least expedited shipping (2-3 business days). On Cyber Monday, you would have been hard pressed to find any participating site that wasn’t either waiving shipping costs or offering faster shipping on a range of items.

Many sites offer free shipping or lower rates when purchasing multiple items or when spending over a certain amount. Others give free shipping when you are a member of a rewards program or use a store credit card for your purchases.

If you are an avid online shopper or are quickly becoming one, look into Amazon’s Prime membership. For a fee of around $75 a year you can get free two-day shipping on thousands of items through the site as well as other perks like free live streaming of movies and television shows through the Prime Instant Videos library.

I recently bought myself a Kindle Fire and got a month of Prime access for free, which allowed me to get free two-day shipping on all of my Cyber Monday purchases and saved me over $100 in fees.

Most sites will grantee purchases to arrive in time for Christmas, but be sure to choose the proper shipping method to get your gifts when you need them. Virtually every site offers multiple shipping options, ranging from expensive overnight shipping to cheap or free standard rate shipping. You can also send gifts directly to the recipients, saving you more time and money, especially if you’re buying for family members or loved ones in other states or in another country.

Knowing deals and what to buy

While shopping online can certainly save you time and hassle, it won’t always save you money, so it’s important to know when and when not to buy online. Most major retail sites will have varying deals throughout the holiday season so the best thing to do is keep an eye out and know how online prices compare to store prices, while factoring in things like shipping costs and how much gas and time it will take to drive to the store to get the same item.

It is important to note that some items are best to be bought in person while others can’t be purchased online at all. Notifications from websites such as WalMart.com and Target.com can often be found telling consumers that “this item is not available online,” while other items are “not available in stores.”

Online only retailers like eBay and Amazon sell pretty much anything you can imagine, from chopsticks to riding lawnmowers.

Some items, like clothing, scented candles and sporting goods might be things better off to buy in stores so you can see the items first hand. If you constantly shop at a particular clothing, candle or sporting goods store, however, and are familiar with the size, scent and type of items you are buying, online shopping might still be your best bet.

Having the proper documentation

I’m not great about this, but if you are someone that always likes to have receipts and still have some from items you bought back in 1997, listen up.

Obviously, with online shopping, you won’t have the face to face interaction with a cashier or have the hard copy of a store receipt, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have documentation to prove your purchase or in case you need to return an item.

No matter where you shop online, you will most certainly be given a confirmation number for your purchase along with a digital receipt. Most retailers will also give you the option of emailing the confirmation info to yourself with the email address you provide.

This makes it easier, safer and more convenient in a lot of ways compared to shopping in stores since you will always have a digital receipt in your email (unless you choose to delete it) and can always print it out to have a hard copy for your records.

With continued efforts to “go green,” many retailers may soon only offer this kind of receipt for purchases.