Log on and start shopping. Everyone else is.
People are making millions of dollars on the Internet (though you’re probably not one of them), and millions more are being lost on the Internet (with any luck, not by you). Stock valuations of “dot com” businesses are in the billions, but many of them are still unprofitable. Companies ponder how to make money from the Internet, and in the process online retailing has become a new economy. During 1999 consumers in North America alone bought some $33 billion of products via the Internet; this year, the total is expected to exceed $60 billion. Advances in software have made online shopping as simple as a few mouse clicks.
The holiday buying season provides an ideal time to check out Internet storefronts –so I did. Although dozens of astronomical instrument and accessory dealers have information online, they all aren’t “e-stores.” I examined only those that offered online ordering of telescopes, excluding those that required a phone call or fax to place an order.
- Adorama Inc. | www.adorama.com
- Anacortes Telescope & Wild Bird | www.buytelescopes.com
- Apogee Inc. | www.apogeeinc.com
- Camera Corner | www.camcor.com
- Discovery Store | www.discovery.com
- Eagle Optics | www.eagleoptics.com
- Edmund Scientific Co. | www.scientificsonline.com
- eHobbies | www.ehobbies.com
- Focus Camera & Video | www.focuscamera.com
- Hardin Optical Co. | www.hardin-optical.com
- Lumicon | www.lumicon.com
- Oceanside Photo & Telescope | www.optcorp.com
- Orion Telescopes & Binoculars | www.telescope.com
- Shutan Camera & Video | www.shutan.com
- Stellarvue | www.stellarvue.com
- Wolf Camera | www.wolfcamera.com
No comparative pricing was done. The “street prices” of products generally don’t vary much among retailers. Nevertheless, individual merchants can offer Web specials, such as discontinued items or discounts on accessories bundled with a telescope purchase.
The vast majority of these sites use a virtual shopping basket or cart. As you browse products, clicking on a Buy It button logs your choice. Click on a Continue Shopping button, or use the Back button of your Web browser to explore further. You can add and remove products from your cart as you wish. When done making your selections, proceed to the Checkout, where you enter payment, billing, and shipping information. Often your order will be confirmed with e-mail.
A deal-killer for me when buying anything online is not knowing the final cost of an order before entering my credit-card number. While a company may note that a shipping fee will be added, guessing how much it costs to ship a telescope –or any large, heavy object–may prove surprising. When I purchased a new computer monitor via the Internet two years ago, one company would have charged me $70 for shipping. The monitor itself was a few dollars more at the business I finally bought it from, but shipping it added only $20.
The shopping basket allows you to do as much browsing as you like without commitment. Nothing is finalized until you submit your order, and in fact many Internet users merely window-shop. Studies have revealed that consumers fail to finalize about one-quarter of their transactions in online stores. This could be because the person was just browsing, the buyer changed his or her mind (“Wait a minute, will this Dobsonian fit in the Yugo?”), or a technical problem caused termination of the session. Wolf Camera e-mailed me two reminders about my abandoned shopping cart.
Similarities and Differences
The shopping experiences at these online stores were similar. All of the sites were easy to navigate to find specific products. Of the 22 companies examined, all allowed shipping to alternative addresses (to a business or a friend) and all but one had a shopping cart. The exception to the latter was Apogee, which provided a form to fill out and submit electronically to the company. This was the least-convenient ordering method because filling out the form required you to write down (or remember) the name and price of each item.
If you’ve already done your research –perhaps by examining telescopes at a local astronomy-club meeting–and know exactly what you want to buy, it’s easy to do some online comparison pricing. However, what if you don’t know which telescope to buy? Where can you find online sales help? Numerous sites offer guidance on how to select a telescope. Diagrams explain the types of optical systems, and some sites list the pros and cons of each. In a less-rigorous method, EfstonScience and Hardin Optical divide telescopes into categories for beginning, intermediate, and advanced users.
I expected that every store would make suggestions for additional purchases. Although “Want fries with that?” tactics are mocked for their annoyance factor, add-on sales are nevertheless a lucrative tool of retailers. Some companies listed only model-specific accessories, others went farther by recommending tripods, carrying cases, and books. Display the full description for a telescope to check for add-ons. In all, only half of the surveyed companies had some type of accessory suggestions.
A growing concern about Internet commerce is privacy. Companies collect information about you when you buy online: address, phone number, e-mail address, and credit-card number. Customers presume that their information won’t be passed to mass marketers. To reassure prospective customers, “e-tailers” often display privacy statements prominently on their sites explaining what, if anything, they will do with the information they collect, and about other aspects of the online store, such as the use of “cookies” (data saved by your Web browser so the store remembers who you are the next time you visit). Thirteen of the companies offer privacy statements.
Nevertheless, some people remain uneasy about entering their credit-card numbers and having them bounce who-knows-where through the Internet. Secure transmissions encrypt information so that it will be decoded only by the desired business. While sending credit-card numbers online is of great concern, it isn’t very different from reading your card number to someone during a phone call. In September, American Express announced plans to introduce single-use credit-card numbers. Each time you want to make an online purchase, you’ll obtain a set of numbers that will be valid for only that one purchase.
Online shopping offers many benefits. You can research products, print specifications, compare prices, and find a bargain –and do it all at midnight while eating the last piece of cheesecake. There’s no wasting gas and no hard sell by salespeople. Log on and shop.
Who doesn’t want to save some dough these days? Try one–or all–of the smart ways, and get paid back with big bucks you can squirrel away into a savings account (or use for a well-deserved splurge on yourself!).
Savvy billing switches
1 “I noticed that my family’s favorite cable channels–my husband watches ESPN and the History Channel, my kids like Cartoon Network, and I watch HGTV–are covered under a basic cable plan. By paring down the extra channels we signed up for but never watched, I was able to shave off $42 from our monthly bill.” Saved: $504/year
2 “Instead of giving their grandchildren a few dollars when they come for a visit during the holidays, I asked my parents to buy phone cards for them. The cards inspire my kids to keep in touch with their grandma and grandpa a little more often, and I cut my long-distance phone charges by $17 a month.” Saved: $204/year
3 “To avoid paying extra ATM fees each week (the bank near my office charges nonmembers $2 per transaction), I take out $200 from my own bank twice a month and stash the extra cash at home. Then I take about $20 each morning before I leave for work–for free.” Saved: $144/year
4 “Since cleaning solutions are expensive, I found a way to make my own: I pour white vinegar into an old spray bottle and use it to wash tiles, mirrors, and even windows.” Saved: $36/year
5 “Snail mail can be expensive, especially if you’re sending about ten checks out each month. I save money on stamps by authorizing services I regularly pay (like day care, credit card companies, and even the electric company) to withdraw funds from my checking account. I save $40 in postage, and since the system is automatic, I’m never penalized with high late fees, which sometimes amounted to $200 a year.”
6 “I discovered that my favorite hair salon, like most, will trim bangs for a fraction of the cost of a full hair cut. Now, instead of spending $45 every two months, I stop in for a $5 trim and only go for a full cut every four months.” Saved: $120/year
7 “I saved $56 a month by bringing my lunch to work just twice a week. You’d also be really surprised how much easier it is to stick to healthy eating habits when you preplan your meals.” Saved: $672/year
8 “In order to compare interest rates between credit-card companies, I logged on to www.bankrate.com. Then I called my own credit-card company and specifically mentioned the 3 percent lower rate I was considering switching to. They agreed to match it, allowing me to save in interest.” Saved: $760/year
9 “Signing up for a free Internet-service provider, such as www.netzero.com, can save you at least $30 a month. The best part: You won’t deprive yourself of all the bells and whistles (like instant messaging and junk e-mail filters) that the other, more expensive services offer.”
10 “Since I rarely use my cell phone (and when I do it’s usually to call my husband), we decided to cancel our two separate plans ($50 a month for him and $30 for me) and sign up for a service that offered direct-connect minutes, meaning we could call each other for free. (Try the Nextel Shared Rewards Plan at www.nextel.com.) Instead of spending $80 on monthly service, we now spend only $55.” Saved: $300/year
Smart shopping strategies
11 “I buy jumbo bags of snacks (which cost half the price of those that come in individual sizes), and divide them up into plastic sandwich bags, which makes them easy to throw into each of my kids’ lunchboxes.” Saved: $52/year
12 “To create a lower-cost gift wrap, which can sell for $6 a roll, I spend $2 a roll on brown packing paper instead. Then I have my kids paint on them. This keeps them busy, and adds a sentimental touch to every gift.” Saved: $36/year
13 “A cup of tea costs $1 in our office cafeteria, but all the fixings–hot water, milk, and sugar–are free. So I buy a box of 100 Earl Grey tea bags (which is only $3), and then bring it into work to make my own tea, saving me almost $20 a month.” Saved: $240/year
Crafty cash stretchers
14 “My husband and I found that we can treat ourselves to a night on the town for a third of the price by eating dinner at’home and going out for just coffee and two top-notch desserts. The cafes generally let us linger around longer, so we feel relaxed and still have a great time.” Saved: $960/year
15 “To make an expensive shampoo last twice as long, I keep a bottle of generic baby shampoo on hand and use the luxury one every other day. In addition to allowing me to cut my yearly shampoo budget by about a third, rotating daily with this lighter alternative also prevents any residue from building up on my superfine hair.” Saved: $66/year
16 “I deduct 25 cents from my son’s allowance every time he leaves a light on in the house. It’s not the money I collect from him but the $15 decrease in my electricity bill that has really made a difference.” Saved: $180/year
17 “I cut down on dry cleaning my silk blouses from once a week to once a month by hanging them in the bathroom while I take my morning shower. The steam takes the wrinkles right out, making them look like they’ve been professionally pressed and helping me save about $50 a month.” Saved: $600/year
Swaps that save cash
18 “I save about $5 on postage and $12 on invitations each time I have a get-together by sending guests a link to www.evite.com. On the site, they can see the details of the bash–date, time, theme, and location–as well as the responses of other invitees. Reading personal notes from the people who are planning to attend generates extra excitement for the event and puts a modern, yet inexpensive, twist on all of our parties.” Saved: $102/year
19 “To encourage my kids and hubby to drink more water and less soda, I reuse water bottles with sports tops. I run them through the dishwasher, refill them with tap water, and put them in the fridge. My family is more likely to grab these bottles than fill up a glass with water on their own. Plus, it’s less expensive than soda (I save $6 a week)–and sugar-free.” Saved: $216/year
20 “I put an end to my $3-a-day latte habit (which totaled $60 a month) by purchasing a handheld milk foamer for $12. I put a thermos of black coffee in the fridge at work on Monday, then heat a mug of it in the microwave and foam my own milk each morning. It’s less caffeinated than espresso–and still a special treat.” Saved: $708/year