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Find the Best Online Shopping Websites

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Consumers have many options for online shopping, and more retail websites are launching every day. Read our guide to discover the best online shopping websites for you. There are many available options, so be sure to compare the five basics: selection, price, customer service, safety and reliability.

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Features of online shopping

Selection

One of the advantages of online shopping is the vast selection available. Long gone are the days where you are limited to a single location — the entire world can now box and ship directly to your door. However, you should pay attention to the types of stores at your fingertips in order to choose the one that works best.

  • Niche or branded stores: Some stores specialize in a single brand or even a single product. The reason these stores can be handy is if you need a part or piece for a specific item, a company exclusive or loyalty to a brand.
  • Mass merchandisers: Like shopping at the local big-box store, if you shop online at a mass merchandiser you should pay attention to their price, quality and variety. For instance, some online stores have items you cannot find at your local big-box, but some items are easier to grab if available in-store.
  • Luxury items: Some people want to purchase high-end products, but not every store offers niche brands or boutique-style items. If you want to purchase these types of items, you’ll have to look at a store that offers these options. However, be aware of counterfeit items by doing your research and checking site reviews.

Online price and policies

Every online store sets its own prices and policies regarding purchases, returns and guarantees. You may only be paying attention to the price comparisons, but you should also look for a company that makes returns simple and guarantees their product or service if you are unhappy with your purchase.

  • Sales, deals or coupons: Many online stores have sales on items you might need, and these sales often rotate seasonally or by department. You can also save money if the online store you select accepts store or manufacturer coupons (often in the form of a code that you enter on the payment page).
  • Return policies: If you’re unhappy with your purchase from an online store you’ll likely have to send it back in the mail, so look into your online store’s return policies. You should also consider whether the store or the customer is responsible for return shipping costs.
  • Guarantees: Some online stores stand by their products and offer a money-back guarantee if you’re dissatisfied with the purchase. Particularly if you are making a major purchase, be sure the store has a solid reputation for honoring its guarantees and will refund your money if you don’t like the purchase.

Customer service availability

When you make a purchase online, customer service representatives can often help with product selection, payment questions, shipping concerns and processing returns.

  • Prominent customer service features: An online store should make it easy for you to shop with them. Consider whether the customer service features on the website are clearly presented and easy to navigate. Some websites will have a “Contact us” tab on the page, while others will feature a text box on the side of the page for contact information.
  • Chat feature: The chat feature, where you can text with a customer service representative in real-time, has started to become more prevalent in recent years. A representative can help you choose the right product or address any purchasing concerns while you shop. Before purchasing from a store with this option, give this feature a try — ask a representative a question about a product you’re considering. You will get an idea of how quickly they respond and whether or not they are helpful.
  • Customer service hours: Online stores are open all the time but may have certain hours when you can chat with a customer service representative if you need help choosing an item or completing a purchase.

Safe online shopping

Whether you are in the market for personal care items, clothing, auto parts or art supplies, you will have many stores to choose from on the Internet. And while you can find adequate supplies at many of these stores, you should use caution when choosing an online retailer.

  • Reputation: Shopping from an online store requires divulging personal financial information, trusting that your information will be used appropriately, and that your product or service will be delivered as promised. Be sure you buy from a reputable store that is known for ethical business practices and a quality product.
  • Secure payment: When making a payment online, be sure that the company has a secure payment portal that won’t compromise your financial information. Before typing your credit card or other payment information, look for a small padlock icon in the web address bar and check to see that the web address begins with the letters “https” and not “http” (the “s” stands for “secure”).
  • Check your statements: Keep track of your spending and check your statements regularly. If you notice any odd purchases — especially in small amounts and/or from locations unfamiliar to you — make sure to note them and contact your credit card/bank immediately.

Reliable shipping and tracking

Although you can place this under reliability, it is always important to follow up with the company’s shipping and tracking. When you pay an online retailer, you want to be sure you will receive the product within a reasonable amount of time and that it won’t get “lost” in the mail system. You may also want shipping options, like auto-ship or your choice of carrier.

  • Auto-ship or subscription options: Many online stores offer the convenience of auto shipping products you need on a regular basis, such as medicine or personal care items. You can choose how frequently you’d like the store to ship a new product (for example, once a month or every other month) and your credit card will be charged with a new transaction every time the product ships. Some stores even charge a bit less for products that you buy on a subscription plan, which can save you quite a bit over time since you use these products so frequently.
  • Affordable or free shipping: Standard shipping rates for orders at online stores can vary from a few dollars to ten or more, particularly if the weight or size of your order is large or bulky. However, many online stores offer free shipping if you spend a minimum amount (such as $25 or $50). Larger, more popular stores are often able to offer free shipping on all orders, which can save you quite a bit of money over time.
  • Expedited shipping options: Many online stores allow you to choose between a standard shipping time of several days and one or more expedited options (such as 2 day or overnight shipping). These faster options almost always cost more but can be a great choice if you need a product right away.
  • Choice of courier: Some online stores have an exclusive contract with one mail courier, such as USPS, UPS or FedEx. However, others allow you to choose which courier you prefer, which can save you money or time depending on where you live.
  • Tracking options: Most online stores are able to track your order once it has been shipped. They will often email you a tracking number that allows you to log into the courier’s website or sign up for status updates on your package. This can help you track down your package if it is shipped to the wrong address or if it is stalled during delivery. It also helps you know if your package has been stolen from your porch or another drop-off spot since the tracking updates will change to “delivered” once the package has been left by the courier.

Types of online stores

Mass merchandisers and department stores

Some online stores offer many products in many categories or “departments,” much like a brick-and-mortar big box store or department store. These stores can often offer products at cheaper prices or with free shipping.

Boutique or niche stores

Some online stores specialize in one particular product or category of products. In some cases, you might not have many options if the item you need is a boutique or niche item, such as a particular brand of boutique footwear or a part for a particular brand of appliance.

Online stores with offline counterparts

Most major brick-and-mortar retailers also have online stores. While this might not affect your choice of store, it can be beneficial if there is a local retail store near you. You might browse the physical store first and choose a product, then buy it online for more selection in size, color or variety. You can also often return unwanted items purchased online to the store’s physical location.

Online-only stores

Many online shopping sites do not have a physical counterpart, and are often run by a small staff. This can be a great way to support small businesses and boost the economy, and often means you can find unique products you might not find in a big store.

Marketplace websites

Some websites are not “stores” per se, but instead offer a platform for many different sellers to advertise and sell their goods. Sellers set up virtual stores or list products for sale, typically paying a fee to the hosting website, and buyers bid or buy items they want.

Hybrid store websites

Some websites function in multiple ways simultaneously. For example, Amazon.com is both a seller of its own goods, kept in warehouses and shipped through Amazon’s couriers and a marketplace platform for other people or businesses to sell their goods.

Online shopping websites FAQ

What are the best online shopping sites?
The best online shopping site varies based on what you’re looking to purchase. Sites like Amazon.com can be useful for general shopping. Other online stores focus on things like clothes, furniture or appliances. Remember, big-box stores like Target and Costco also have online sites where you can make purchases.
What are the best discount shopping websites?
Many discount shopping sites either offer merchandise on sale or keep track of deals and direct you to those sites. Woot.com, Groupon.com, Rakuten.com (an Authorized Partner), Zulily.com and RetailMeNot.com are all discount shopping websites that you can use to find sales and deals.
How do you know if an online store is legit?
If you are unsure if an online store is legit, take a few steps to determine if you can shop there safely:
  • Do your research: Search the store’s name for negative reviews or other feedback.
  • Check the website: Misspelled words, bad grammar and poor organization are signs that you may want to look elsewhere.
  • Look for contact details: Check for contact information and a section explaining the company’s background.

Trust your gut. If a site feels suspicious, it’s probably best not to give it your personal information or credit card number.

How does an online store work?
An online store is a website where customers can place orders for merchandise. You can browse, place items in a virtual shopping cart and check out using a credit card or other payment method. The store then ships the product to the customer. Customers can create accounts to save billing information and view past orders.
How does Home Shopping Network work?
HSN, formerly called Home Shopping Network, has a TV network with programming that advertises all types of products. If you are watching HSN TV and see an item you want, you can call 24/7 to order using the item number. Alternatively, you can go to hsn.com and make your order online. HSN also has retail outlets in Florida.

Not sure how to choose?

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    Compare Top Online Shopping Website Reviews

    The ConsumerAffairs Research Team believes everyone deserves to make smart decisions. We aim to provide readers with the most up-to-date information available about today's consumer products and services.

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