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Consumer Reports offers tips for shopping online

Wednesday, October 10, 2012 - 12:00 pm

Overall, shoppers are satisfied with online shopping – but some sites do a better job than others when it comes to value, customer service and more. In Consumer Reports' new survey about online shopping satisfaction, B&H Photo, REI and Zappos were among the higher-rated sites; florists including 1-800-Flowers.com and FTD, along with ticket retailer Ticketmaster, earned some of the lowest scores.

Overall, shopping sites received high marks, and survey respondents were highly satisfied with 84 percent of their purchases when visiting these online shopping sites. Despite overall approval, sites differed in key areas, including quality, value, ease of navigation, ease of checkout, shipping and customer support.

B&H Photo and REI were at the top of the chart, along with Zappos, which earned top marks for checkout, shipping and customer support. Costco, Nordstrom, L.L. Bean and Newegg.com were neck-and-neck overall with Zappos.

Although readers rated the quality of REI's products as outstanding, they deemed the value – the judgment of whether products are worth their price – of those products just OK. B&H Photo and L.L. Bean were standouts for both quality and value.

On 7 percent of visits to online shopping sites, readers complained about high shipping or delivery charges, a particular problem at flower sites – about which more than one in four readers complained. Another common complaint among survey respondents was not discovering the total cost of shopping cart items until checkout.

7 ways to shop smarter online

When shopping online, Consumer Reports advises consumers to consider the following, especially when buying from a retailer they haven't tried before:

*Use a separate email address. To keep spam from reaching a regular email account, use a different address for online purchases. Many Internet service providers let you set up numerous email accounts, which you can change any time you want, or you can obtain a free account from such sites as Google.

*See products in person. Check out big-ticket items at a local retailer to see how they look and work. Buying online could be an option if the store won't match the best online price.

*Look for "gotchas." Read the site's terms and conditions, FAQs and privacy policy. Find out what information will be collected, how long it will be kept and what will be done with it. If a site shares data, see whether there's a way to limit it.

*See what others say. Some sites, such as Amazon.com, let customers rate retailers who sell through them. Do a Web search with the name of the site and search terms as "review" and "complaints."

*Know warranty limits. When shopping online, consumers don't generally get an "implied warranty of merchantability," meaning the right to receive a product that is free of defects and lasts a reasonable length of time. An implied warranty can extend protection beyond the product warranty and the store's return policy. Under state law, it automatically accompanies most new-product sales unless the retailer "disclaims" it, which is permitted in most states. Check the fine print because online retailers typically do disclaim this protection. To preserve basic warranty rights when making a major purchase, consider shopping at a walk-in store.

*Use credit. Credit cards provide greater security than debit cards, allowing customers to obtain a chargeback if there's a problem.

*Keep records. Keep a copy of the online order page or take a screen shot of it in case an email receipt is never received.