For a whole generation of people, malls are a place where you go to eat, catch a movie or just hang out. Serious shopping, especially for books, clothes and electronic gizmos, is something you do online.
However, those who do not understand the ways and pitfalls of the vast e-mall that is online shopping, end up angry, frustrated or simply feeling cheated; and more so when they shop on auction sites.
They are the ones who have the most complaints about e-commerce and auction sites not providing a local address where they can send a written complaint in triplicate and seek a stamped acknowledgement.
Last week, a member of my consumer group was seriously angry at eBay for not posting a local address on its site. I, however, discovered that review sites report a fairly high users satisfaction level of 76 per cent; most satisfied customers tell people to take time to understand how auction sites work.
The good news is that the proposed amendments to the Consumer Protection Act will insist on publishing a local address and phone number. But if you want to buy online, you must be prepared to complain online too; without first exercising that option, you can't dash off to the nearest branch office.
Online shoppers have plenty of practical tips for extracting the best out of auction sites on review sites such as mouthshut.com; the most important one is to use good old common sense.
Here is what experts advise about smart buying online.
Don't use an auction site for something you need urgently. Instead, watch the auctions closely for a couple of months before narrowing down on a product and seller.
Ignore all sellers with a rating of under 95 per cent.
Read the listing carefully for hidden caveats and conditions and check the cost of insurance, warranty, shipping charges and return policies.
Before zeroing in on a seller, pay some attention to his/her location - some cities are notorious for dubious dealings.
Avoid those who do not want credit card payments and do not hesitate to ask the seller for any additional information you may need (save that correspondence in case you have need for it later).
There are three types of sellers:
- Those who run a business and want to make money (they are cordial and prompt).
- Those who are cheats and want to make a fast buck.
- And, ordinary folk who have something to sell. It may be a good idea to figure them out with a test bid for a low-priced item to understand how the system works.
Once you get the hang of bidding online, place your bid in the last five minutes or preferably even at the last minute. For those who use paypal, the very fact that a customer has moved to cancel an order sometimes galvanises the seller into delivering the product.
What do you do when things still go wrong? First, ensure that the hitch is not due to poor communication. Secondly, you can cancel a transaction, since most credit card companies provide that option. E-commerce sites also have a 'Standard Purchase Protection Programme' which is Rs10,000 in case of eBay and Rs50,000 for purchases under PaisaPay.