Online Buyer's Guide


If you like adventure and intrigue, this is a great time to be online. Electronic shopping is making our lives more convenient and our buying more cost-effective–when it works.

Electronic commerce, or e-commerce, is a term that describes the online commercial transactions that people, organizations, and businesses engage in with each other. On the customer level, e-commerce refers to the sale of goods or services arranged and carried out online, through "virtual storefronts on the web" as well as via chat rooms, USENET and newsgroups, bulletin boards, and email. This includes buying items such as books, software, and toys from web-based stores using a (secure) web server, buying airline tickets from someone in a chat room, or researching a product in appropriate newsgroups.

This guide will help you become educated about the online shopping experience. Here are several examples of various resources and activities.

Shopping Online

Shopping online has elements similar to traditional shopping, with added conveniences such as price and availability comparisons, 24-hour access to stores, and more. Shopping online also has disadvantages: you can't feel the fabrics, or smell the northern woods before your vacation. As a time- and money-saving tool, it can be very useful.

If you're thinking of buying something over the Internet, you might start with larger, reputable retailers with which you have already done business in your neighborhood or through their mail-order catalogs. They are likely to have relatively intuitive online catalogs with search features, secure online ordering, and dependable delivery and return/refund policies. Many of the smaller retailers will have these features too, but their reputations and histories may be harder to determine.

Comparison Shopping

Want to know how one company's price compares to another's? Many sites feature this information. (See the Researching Products and Vendors section for more on this.)

Travel Services

Finding a travel bargain online can be a great way to start planning that long-needed vacation. Increasingly, airlines and hotels are making last-minute bargain fares available online through special e-mailing lists, and on airline and related web sites. With quicker and more thorough information available, individuals can conveniently search and compare flights and other travel arrangements to their hearts' content. Beware, however, of travel scams–one of the fastest growing forms of fraud on the Net today. (See the Protection from Fraud section for more on this.)

Banking and Online Trading

Because the Internet and related technologies offer customers lower cost and faster access to financial markets, e-commerce is changing the way our markets work. Banks are one example; many now offer online banking, allowing account holders to transfer funds between accounts, pay bills, and more.

If the stock market is your passion, stocks, bonds, and mutual funds can be purchased, sold, or traded through various online trading firms. Online brokerage accounts currently represent some 25 percent of all retail stock trades. Remember that the same laws and rules of return that apply to traditional trading also apply to trading online.

SEC Chairman Levitt Cautions Online Investors
and Levitt's statement: with cautions on trading volatility, execution delays, and other concerns:


Auction and bidding sites are increasingly popular forms of e-commerce. These sites carry collectibles and retail products sold by individuals, as well as manufacturers' overstocked and clearance merchandise. Many auction sites require registration or membership. Many also have buying safeguards to help you confirm that the item you're bidding on is really what you want. Auction sites can become dangerously addictive for some people. Because auctions are not regulated, be sure to review the cautions in our Protection from Fraud section.

Online Charitable Giving

A variety of web sites are available to make charitable giving easy and convenient. Online environments are set up as donation clearinghouses, charity-supporting online shopping malls, and more. These companies help support the work of your favorite charities and non-profit organizations. Be sure to keep records for tax purposes.

FTC's Operation "False Alarm" (about online charitable giving)
NetAction Notes 51 (also see Notes 53, & 54)

Gift Certificates and Coupons

Many online merchants encourage you to shop or dine with them by offering electronic coupons which can be printed from your home computer and used like the coupons you find in your Sunday newspaper–to save money on a vast array of local goods and services. Shoppers should be aware that visiting these web sites and downloading their coupons also helps marketers learn more about buyers' interests and purchasing patterns.

Many large department stores also have online versions of their gift registries. Receiving gift certificates can make your online shopping experience convenient, since someone else has already paid for what you purchase.


As Internet use has skyrocketed, so have complaints about unsolicited commercial email, also called "junk email" or "spam." Most Internet Service Providers publish Acceptable Use Policies (AUP), which prohibit sending spam. Nevertheless, the promise of a quick buck is a powerful motivator. (See the Marketing and Protection from Fraud sections for more on this.)

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