Although I can't pretend to offer the ultimate one-stop holiday shopping guide, the extensive feedback I received about online buying at least lets me present hundreds of readers' collective wisdom along with my own firsthand experience. And because most of the responses I received relate to geek items such as books and software, I don't have much to say about the eToys.com vs. toysrus.com debate. But you should be able to bend this advice to any online buying need. Here's what I've found.
First, opinions about the three online merchants I mentioned specifically—buy.com, amazon.com, and dell.com—diverged wildly. I blasted buy.com for its barely functional order update system, but most readers found that the company's excellent prices far outweighed that problem. Indeed, I agree with them for the most part: My problem related to an expensive order whose arrival time I really needed to know. Usually, shipping time isn't a huge issue, but I've found that by the time buy.com notifies me that an order has shipped, it's already arrived. Still, most readers overwhelmingly rated buy.com very highly and gave it high marks for its prices and quick shipping.
I gave amazon.com very high marks, despite the fact that its prices are rarely the absolute lowest. That's not to say that they're out of line: You might find a $50 book at amazon.com for $45 elsewhere, but ordinarily you won't find too much difference. And I think the company's one-click system is wonderful. Very few people agreed with me about the one-click feature, however, and many were uncomfortable with the one-click system. One reader said he would never shop there because of it. However, I still recommend amazon.com as a great all-in-one online shopping destination.
I also rated dell.com very highly. I've bought numerous Dell systems over the years, including several desktops, a few servers, and three laptops, and I've never had a problem with any of them. But several readers complained about Dell's inability to deliver product. Others agreed with me about Dell, noting speedy build and ship times and the high quality of Dell's products. I guess our unique experiences always shape our opinions.
In any case, the key to shopping online is research. You want the best price (including shipping) from a reputable e-tailer. To ensure that you get the best price, you should visit one or more of the reader-recommended sites, such as CNET's shopper.com, mysimon.com, or zdnet.com, which offer shopping comparisons for a wide range of products, including music, movies, book, electronics, software, toys, and even, in one case, automobiles (each site has a slightly different orientation). If you're looking for books, you should visit bestbookbuys.com to find the best prices, and dvdpricesearch.net is great for DVD movies. Always check the actual price on the site against the price on the comparison site, which might not be up to date, and don't forget shipping costs. A little legwork will ensure the best deal. Also, stores that come out near the top of the price list might be disreputable or out of stock, so make sure you deal with a place that really has what you want. And shop ahead of time if you can: You want to avoid stock issues close to the holidays.
Readers recommended a number of other sites as well. Several people mentioned bookpool.com as an excellent place to find discounted technical books (hey, we're geeks, right?), and the site seems to have great prices, often beating the lowest price on bestbuybooks.com by a wide margin. For electronics, buy.com, cdw.com, onsale.com/egghead.com, and provantage.com were all highly rated (I've had positive experiences with most of these sites as well).
As expected, you cited returns as the biggest problem area for online purchases. First of all, when you buy online, be sure to use a credit card, not a debit card, which often doesn't offer the same buying protection you get with MasterCard, Visa, Discover, or American Express. And look into the new online buying services from Amex and other card carriers. These programs give you a unique temporary card number for each online purchase: The online retailer gets a number that works but doesn't get your actual card number, which protects you if a problem arises. I think this service offers a glimpse of the future of online buying—and it's welcome news for anyone who's concerned about security and privacy issues.
Well, I hope this information is helpful: Online purchasing is supposed to grow 85 percent this holiday season, and it's only a matter of time before this type of shopping runs neck-and-neck with the traditional crowded mall. By thinking ahead and getting as much shopping as possible done online, we can spend the holidays doing something a little more meaningful than standing in line, fuming over the crowds and the wait. And that's not a bad deal at all.