Ah, the hustle and bustle of shopping for the holidays. The adorable new toys, the amazing new gadgets ... the Web-server crashes.
Yes, I'm talking about online holiday shopping. Or, e-commerce if you're hip to the industry lingo. Actually, despite the much-publicized day-after-Thanksgiving crash of the Toys "R" Us Web site, things have otherwise been functioning smoothly this year for most cyber-retailers. And online business is booming.
According to New York-based Internet trend watcher Media Metrix, traffic to the top 10e-commerce sites during Thanksgiving week alone grew by 28percent from 1998. And this year's online holiday shopping spree is predicted to top $8billion in sales, up from a mere $3billion last year.
Of course, shopping online is a wholly different experience from hitting the mall with your credit cards and a comfortable pair of Keds. There are no crowds, no traffic jams in the parking lot and no ugly lines at the register. But you'll also find no sales clerks and no obvious path to other stores that sell similar goods. Like most Web tasks, shopping online is very much a do-it-yourself pursuit. So here are some tips to save you time, and maybe even some money:
REVIEW YOUR OPTIONS
One thing you lose when cybershopping is the occasional camaraderie and advice from fellow shoppers. You know: "Watch out, my brother bought that camcorder and it fell apart in a week!"
It's always better to do your research before you visit the store. The Web makes this easy, with hundreds of review sites at your disposal. My current favorite for instant assessments is epinions.com, which offers unbiased advice on items from cutlery to DVD players to power tools.
The trick? Product opinions are posted by real people — anyone can sign up to share their thoughts on just about any consumer purchase, even cell phone contracts and wine. And that's not even the best part. You can even rate the reviewers. Don't like a particular person's opinion? Say so. What emerges is a true shopper's community — complete with trusted citizens as well as the occasional loose cannon.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Once you know what to buy, you'll want to find the best price. Before you plunk down your cyberchange at any given e-tailer, make sure you've visited one of the Net's burgeoning price comparison sites.
Price comparison sites are specialized search engines. Good ones scour the Net for the best price on thousands of different products. But be careful: You've got to know exactly what you're looking for. Search for "Pokémon" and 1,200 monstrous results will greet you.
Two of the most popular sites for price searching are Bottom Dollar and MySimon. Both are good, but MySimon gets myvote because it helps cut through the noise — its easy-to-use results page lets you sort by merchant, manufacturer, product name and price. A recent search for a Color Game Boy (with the must-have atomic-purple case) found the cheapest price at none other than toysrus.com. Maybe that explains the server crash.
Read the Federal Trade Commission's recent consumer alert about Internet holiday shopping. This brief report offers a cursory yet concise primer on how to shop the Web safely. Among other suggestions, it provides tips on privacy protection, how to track your purchases and the best payment methods (credit cards are actually safest).
If you've followed these steps, finding a site to buy stuff is easy: The price comparison search engine will tell you where to go. But if you're simply interested in browsing the merchandise, you might begin at the most popular destinations.
According to Media Metrix, industry heavyweight amazon.com — now selling far more than books — is the most visited e-commerce destination this holiday season. Other sites in the top10 (no particular order) include:
etoys.com (just toys — organized by age group, category and more);
buy.com (everything from electronics to golf clubs);
cdnow.com (CDs, of course);
eBay.com (auction powerhouse);
vitaminshoppe.com (herbal supplements).
Don't forget to seek out the smaller Web stores for that truly unique gift. All it takes is a search engine and your creativity. My favorite recent find is harryposter.com, featuring vintage '50s and '60s TVs retrofitted with a remote control and a modern color screen.
Finally, after you've spent your wad, surf over to bluemountain.com and e-mail a free musical e-greeting card announcing your gift. You'll find hundreds of colorful messages — including animated greetings for Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan and even Y2K.
And one last word of advice — bookmark every site you buy from. In case anything goes wrong, you'll have many happy returns.