How to Shop Online

Many users have discovered that the Internet is a great place to buy things—all kinds of things. All manner of online merchants make it easy to buy books, CDs, and other merchandise with the click of a mouse. In spite of the popularity of online retailing, many users are still a little hesitant to do their shopping online.

Although there certainly is some amount of online fraud (just as there’s plenty of fraud in the real world), in general the Internet is a fairly safe place to shop—if you follow the rules, and take a few simple precautions. Read on, then, to find out the best places to shop online—and how to shop safely.

If you’ve never shopped online before, you’re probably wondering just what to expect. Shopping over the Web is actually easy; all you need is your computer and a credit card—and a fast connection to the Internet! Online shopping is pretty much the same, no matter which retailer you shop at.

You proceed through a multiple-step process that goes like this:

Find a Product

The first step in online shopping is the actual shopping. That means finding the site where you want to shop, and then either browsing through different product categories or using the site’s search feature to find a specific product.

Browsing product categories online is similar to browsing through the departments of a retail store. You typically click a link to access a major product category, and then click further links to view subcategories within the main category.

For example, the main category might be Clothing; the subcategories might be Men’s, Women’s, and Children’s clothing. If you click the Men’s link, you might see a list of further subcategories: outerwear, shirts, pants, and the like. Just keep clicking until you reach the type of item that you’re looking for.

Searching for products is often a faster way to find what you’re looking for if you have something specific in mind. For example, if you’re looking for a men’s silk jacket, you can enter the words men’s silk jacket into the site’s Search box, and get a list of specific items that match those criteria.

The only problem with searching is that you might not know exactly what it is you’re looking for; if this describes your situation, you’re probably better off browsing. But if you do know what you want—and you don’t want to deal with lots of irrelevant items—then searching is the faster option.

Examine the Product

Whether you browse or search, you’ll probably end up looking at a list of different products on a web page. These listings typically feature one-line descriptions of each item—in most cases, not near enough information for you to make an informed purchase.

The thing to do now is to click the link for the item you’re particularly interested in. This should display a dedicated product page, complete with picture and full description of the item. This is where you can read more about the item you selected.

Some product pages include different views of the item, pictures of the item in different colors, links to additional information, and maybe even a list of optional accessories that go along with the item.

If you like what you see, you can proceed to the ordering stage. If you want to look at other items, just click your browser’s Back button to return to the larger product listing.

Order the Product

Somewhere on each product description page should be a button labeled Purchase or Buy Now or something similar. This is how you make the actual purchase: by clicking the Buy Now button. You don’t order the product just by looking at the product description; you have to manually click that Purchase button to place your order.

When you click the Purchase or Buy Now button, that particular item is added to your shopping cart. That’s right, the online retailer provides you with a virtual shopping cart that functions just like a real-world shopping cart. That is, each item you choose to purchase is added to your virtual shopping cart.

After you’ve ordered a product and placed it in your shopping cart, you can choose to shop for other products on that site or proceed to the site’s checkout. It’s important to note that when you place an item in your shopping cart, you haven’t actually completed the purchase yet.

You can keep shopping (and adding more items to your shopping cart) as long as you want. You can even decide to abandon your shopping cart and not purchase anything at this time. All you have to do is leave the website, and you won’t be charged for anything.

It’s the equivalent of leaving your shopping cart at a real-world retailer, and walking out the front door; you don’t actually buy anything until you walk through the checkout line. The checkout at an online retailer typically consists of one or more web pages with forms you have to fill out.

If you’ve visited the retailer before, the site might remember some of your personal information from your previous visit. Otherwise, you’ll have to enter your name, address, and phone number, as well as the address you want to ship the merchandise to (if that’s different from your billing address).

You’ll also have to pay for the merchandise, typically by entering a credit card number. The checkout provides one last opportunity for you to change your order. You can delete items you decide not to buy, or change quantities on any item. At some merchants, you can even opt to have your items gift-wrapped and sent to someone as a gift.

All these options should be somewhere in the checkout. You might also have the option of selecting different types of shipping for your order. Many merchants offer both regular and expedited shipping—the latter for an additional charge.

Another option at some retailers is to group all items together for reduced shipping cost, or to ship items individually as they become available. Grouping items together is attractive costwise, but you can get burned if one of the items is out-of-stock or not yet available; you could end up waiting weeks or months for those items that could have been shipped immediately.

Confirm the Order

After you’ve entered all the appropriate information, you’re asked to place your order. This typically means clicking a button that says Place Your Order or something similar. (I told you it’s easy!) You might even see a second screen asking you whether you really want to place your order, just in case you had second thoughts.

After your order has been placed, you’ll see a confirmation screen, typically displaying your order number. Write down this number or print out this page; you’ll refer to this number in case you ever need to contact customer service.

Most online merchants will also send you a confirmation message via email, containing this same information. And that’s all there is to it. You shop, examine the product, place an order, proceed to checkout, and then confirm your purchase. It’s that easy!

Now that you know how to shop, where should you spend your money online?

Just a few short years ago, if you wanted to find the best bargains on the Web, you had to manually visit the sites of dozens of different online retailers—a very time-consuming process. Not so today, as there are numerous sites that exist to automatically do this price comparison for you.

Go to a price comparison site, find the product you want, and have the site return a list of merchants offering that product, along with current prices. Choose the merchant that offers what you want, and you’re ready to buy!

The best of these price comparison sites offer more than just pricing information. These full-service sites let you sort and filter their search results in a number of different ways, and often include customer reviews of both the products and the available merchants.

Some even let you perform side-by-side comparisons of multiple products, which is great if you haven’t yet made up your mind as to what you want to buy. The most popular (and useful) of these price comparison sites include:

All of these comparison shopping sites are good, but my favorite is What I really like about is that it gives you more than just simple price comparisons; you also get customer reviews of both products and merchants, to help you make better purchase decisions.

Like all the other price comparison sites, enables you to either search for specific products or browse through major product categories. Whether you search or browse, you eventually end up at a product listing page. From here you can filter the results by price, product type, brand, or other product attributes.

You can sort the results by best matches (default), price, or product rating. (The product ratings are provided by the customers at,’s companion site.) You can also display the products as a grid rather than a list by clicking the View as a Grid link.

When you’re in the process of choosing a particular product, makes it easy to perform side-by-side product comparisons. Just check the Select to Compare box next to the items you’re looking at, and then click the Compare Selected Items button.

The result is a chart with the features of each product displayed in tabular format. To learn more about a particular product, click the Compare Prices button. This displays a product page where you can read detailed product information (by clicking the See Product Details link) or customer reviews (by clicking the Consumer Reviews link).

Below the product picture is a listing of all stores carrying this product. You can sort this list by store name, store rating (when available, from customers), or price. When you’re ready to buy, click the Buy It button to go directly to the merchant’s product page.

How to Shop Safely

Shopping online is every bit as safe as shopping at a traditional bricks and mortar retailer. The big online retailers are just as reputable as traditional retailers, offering safe payment, fast shipping, and responsive service. How do you know that you’re shopping at a reputable online retailer? Simple—look for the following features:

  • Payment by major credit card. (Not being able to accept credit cards is the sign of either a very small or fly-by-night merchant.)
  • A secure server that encrypts your credit card information—and keeps online thieves from stealing your credit card numbers. (You’ll know that you’re using a secure site when the little lock icon appears in the lower-right corner of your web browser.)
  • Good contact information—email address, street address, phone number, fax number, and so on. (You want to be able to physically contact the retailer if something goes wrong.)
  • A stated returns policy and satisfaction guarantee. (You want to be assured that you’ll be taken care of if you don’t like whatever you ordered.)
  • A stated privacy policy that protects your personal information. (You don’t want the online retailer sharing your email address and purchasing information with other merchants—and potential spammers.)
  • Information before you finalize your order that tells you whether the item is in stock and how long it will take to ship. (More feedback is better.)

How to Book Travel Reservations Online

One specific type of online shopping deserves special coverage. I’m talking about shopping for travel reservations—plane tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, and more. Fortunately, many websites are designed to help you book the perfect trip, including the following:

These online travel sites all offer similar content and services, including the ability to book airline tickets, hotel rooms, and rental cars all in one place. Most of these sites let you search for the lowest rates or for flights and lodging that match your specific requirements.