Have you ever gone into work, and at lunch with your coworkers you mentioned that you were thinking of buying a certain type of car, or washing machine, or other product, hoping that others at work had had experiences with that product? It gives you information, and also a certain sense of peace of mind, knowing that you are not proceeding blindly, with the only information coming from the manufacturer and the salesperson.
The internet, of course, is full of resources like your coworkers, because it’s a natural thing for people on the internet to collaborate! People set up sites for others to post to with their comments and complaints, some commercial sites such as epinions.com collect, tabulate and present consumer evaluations (inods.com gathers from many such sites and presents compilations), and some online retailers themselves provide a place in the presentation of each product description where previous purchasers can rate and evaluate each product. Search on “consumer reviews” for plenty of links. Some retailers are even suggesting that their customers visiting their stores check the reviews on their online store first!
There are hundreds and hundreds of review sites as well as evaluations embedded at retailers’sites. To make a quick survey of an item’s responses and get a feel for how it is being received, a visit to a search engine such as Google will return listings for sites with references to the item. Surveying those entries will give you a “man on the street” survey, a good starting point. Just remember, anyone can post nearly anything at most of these sites. It’s the trends that count, similar problems mentioned or a large number of high or low scores.
As far as the retailers’sites themselves, the same thing applies. Search the web and see if there are discussions. I have Googled sites which seemed quite professional, and found that they had a reputation for poor customer service, or slow shipping, or other issues. See if people give examples, something you can relate to your own needs. Subjective posts like “this company sucks” don’t offer much information for your own needs.
There is also an online better business bureau, and groups that you may be involved with online. Any resource that you trust can be a way of establishing the trust of another resource, such as a book retailer or a phone card sales site.
The final issue in purchasing online is the means of payment. If you’re not comfortable with the situation, no matter how much you want the product or service, weigh that against long term agony of identity theft, or short term problems with unauthorized charges. More and more sites are offering payment solutions which are standardized, rather than the hit or miss credit card processing software which has been a fact of life, and also a source of many financial tangles. With services like PayPal and Moneybookers, you use their known facilities to send payments to perhaps unknown resources, and your personal information remains secure.
Online purchases may seem easy, but there is much background work that you need to do before you let someone tap into your financial resources, and before you commit the funds which you believe will bring you a well made, reliable product at a good price. Perhaps you will keep returning to known vendors, or maybe you enjoy discovering new resources. In any case, “be careful out there!”