Online Holiday Shopping: 5 Pitfalls

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Doing your holiday shopping online can save you time, money, and hassle. But if you don't know what to look out for, it can also do the opposite.

According to the National Retail Federation, over 40 percent of Americans start their holiday shopping in November, and all told we’ll spend more than $447 billion this holiday season.

One of the best ways to cut costs and hassle on gift spending can be to shop online – places that don’t have brick-and-mortar stores .are especially eager to stay visible, and their low overhead and high volume can lead to super prices.  But all deals might not be as great as they seem at first glance.

As mentioned in the video above, here are five potential pitfalls to holiday shopping, and some additional ways you can address them to maximize your savings and minimize your stress:


Risks: While the base price for an online item might look lower than the store price, you also have to factor in the cost of shipping. Sometimes the list price assumes you’ll mail in rebates or meet certain conditions, like buying a large enough quantity or spending enough money to qualify for a discount.

Solutions: Check out the cost of shipping before you buy, and see what options you have. Many retailers with local stores will allow you to ship the product at their locations at no charge. Also be sure to check for coupons through Google and on sites like and – there are often codes for free shipping during the holidays and additional discounts that not everyone knows about. Check the conditions on those coupons as well, though.

Shipping time

Risks: Lots of people are shopping alongside you, and item stock might drop fast. There’s always a small risk that a merchant will run out of an item and have to order more, possibly delaying the arrival of your item. Every business has different shipping policies, too – some orders can take weeks to arrive.

Solutions: Look for sites that have automated systems in place that notify you when an item’s stock is low or out – some smaller independent merchants update their product listings by hand and might be inaccurate. If the product page doesn’t mention whether the item’s in stock or not, skip it. Likewise, make sure the ship and/or delivery date is listed – if not on the product page, at least during the checkout process. Otherwise, who knows when your gift will arrive?


Risks: Whether on- or offline, returning a purchase can be a sticky process. Sometimes items can only be exchanged, or can’t be returned at all if they’ve been opened. Sometimes there’s a “restocking fee” and you won’t get a full refund. On top of that, you often have to cover return shipping on your own.

Solutions: Read the merchant’s return policy carefully before ordering. Know if you’re responsible for return shipping, or if you can print out a prepaid return label. Also make sure you understand the policy for your specific item – in addition to a general return policy, there are also often specifics for different categories of items. Returning clothes is different (and often easier) than returning electronics or unwrapped DVDs, CDs, and video games.

Merchant reputation

Risks: Pretty much anybody can do business online, and not everybody is professional or trustworthy. Your experience buying online can range from that you’d find at a shopping mall, or like the back of some guy’s truck at a flea market. Especially on auction sites like eBay, it’s easy to misrepresent the condition or nature of a product with a stock photo or generic description.

Solution: Check out the seller’s ratings and what other buyers have said, if the website has those features. If it doesn’t, or if the merchant isn’t well-established, be skeptical and contact the seller for specifics before buying. Make sure you’re not getting a generic or knock-off product unless you’re looking for one. If it’s used, be sure to assess the condition and quality by asking questions and getting photos from different angles, not stock images pulled from Google. In short, the less you can tell, the more you should ask.

Payment method

Risks: Identity theft and fraud are always risks online, but never more so when you’re shopping, because that’s when you’re putting your financial information out there. Online shopping allows you screw up in other ways: like buying more or different items than you intended.

Solution: At checkout, verify the list of items you’re purchasing and make sure the quantities are right. Consider using secure checkout methods such as Paypal, or be aware of the protections your credit card offers in case something goes wrong. Consider using a virtual credit card for online shopping, too.

Now that you know what to look for, you might be looking for some sites to compare prices. Google’s an OK place to start – but it doesn’t always provide the best results when it comes to shopping. Try these, too:

Stacy Johnson

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