As Christmas draws closer, the little voice in the back of your head just gets louder. The little details that weren’t quite right last year have to be bang-on this year. You may even have gone out in January and bought some things to put into storage. Fired by a New Year’s resolution, you assure yourself that this year, everything will be right. But any number of things can make this difficult to keep to.
Braving a retail store can be a challenge at any time
For example, do you have all the same friends this Fall that you did last year? As we move from job to job, go through different experiences, we can lose contact with some and meet new ones. During that period, the friend who liked nothing better than a single-malt Scotch may have decided to give up alcohol. With one thing and another, you can only be so prepared.
Christmas shopping has changed for all of us over the last couple of decades. Remember heading out into the city streets on the weekend before the holiday, looking for those last few items? Looking around you at seemingly the entire population of the city – everyone having had the same idea? If you stopped for a moment, you could easily be picked up and carried like a twig that had fallen in a stream.
Imagine this, but multiplied by a thousand…
That’s enough to put anyone – well, almost everyone – off the idea of shopping ever again. And maybe most of us would not give up on those impromptu shopping tips most of the year. But it takes a special kind of bravery to do it anytime after mid-December. That’s why most of us take our Christmas shopping online.
The Internet! Curse of the High Street retailer at Christmas, but the savior of the shopper. There’s no need to don kneepads and a crash helmet to shop online at any time of year, although shopping sites might load a bit slower. The difference is that queueing in a department store is uncomfortable and time-consuming. You can’t be in a queue in the shoe shop and also in the scarves department. Online, you can just open another browser tab.
So it would be fair, wouldn’t it, to say that shopping online has taken the stress and the strain out of Christmas shopping? And shopping in general? After all, no-one ever got bruised looking for coupon codes. Well… shopping online is better in many ways – but it does present its own challenges!
1. Online Stock Checkers Have Been Known to Lie
Not every shopping site offers it, but we’ve all been in the position where we’re ordering something online and checked stock to see if it’s in. It’s a favorite item, after all, and you don’t want your expectations to be raised only to dash them, do you? Having checked, we see it’s in, and we proceed with the order. We get confirmation of the order, and we move on, only to get a call or an email a couple of hours later.
They’re just trying to help. Remember that.
“I’m sorry, but item number 333-4444 is actually out of stock. Would you like to order an alternative item?”
“But the stock checker said that the item was definitely available!”
“Oh, I’m sorry – I don’t know what happened there, but it definitely isn’t…”
The idea of electronic stock checks is that the system knows how many of each item there are, and how many have been bought, so it should be foolproof. But if you’ve ever worked in a stock room, you’ll know different. Things can get lost, or accidentally put in the wrong place. There’s not much you can do about it – and nothing that the person on the other end of the phone can do.
Your perfect gift could be in here somewhere. Or not.
Your best bet, if ordering online, is to make sure you have a backup option, and order from a couple of different places. If it’s a branded item, more than one place will stock it. If you end up with two of something you only needed one of, send the more expensive one back for a refund. If an item comes up as “no stock”, then just ask for the refund. You can use that money better elsewhere.
2. Size Does Matter
When ordering online, there are many advantages over buying in the store. You can’t walk around a department store in your dressing gown while eating a sandwich. Maybe legally you can, but socially? Come on, now! And when Christmas is on the way, the choice between braving the rain to be mauled by strangers and shopping online is all the more obvious.
But one advantage that brick-and-mortar stores do have is that you can actually see an item. You can tell a little or a lot from an online item page, depending how good they are. But you can’t really judge cut, texture or how large a “large” really is. And that’s what actual stores will always have over the online ones.
“So you want this in Medium AND Large? OK…”
Again, duplication is a solution here. You can take advantage of the returns policy to get a look at the item for real, and in two different sizes. If the garment is right, then keep the one that is the best size and send the other one back. If the online store is any good at all, you won’t even be fully charged for an item until you’ve had it for a while.
3. The Whole World at Your Fingertips … Or Is It?
One great selling point of online shopping is that you don’t need to be restricted to sellers in your own town, city or even country. If you’re looking to surprise someone with a unique gift, you may need to go international with your shopping. Fortunately, card issuers allow you to buy something priced in pounds, Yuan or Euros, and convert the price to dollars.
But then you get to the checkout, card in hand, and are told that the company doesn’t ship internationally. Why not? Who knows – it’s not as hard or as expensive as some people think. But the whys don’t really matter here. You’re stumped, aren’t you? Back to boring and domestic…
You can combine all your orders into one delivery
Well, not so fast. First of all, how “international” is international? Some companies won’t ship to Europe but will within the Americas. Some will ship from the EU to the UK, but not any further than that. And if you can get them that far, then a parcel forwarding service can do the rest for you. They set you up with a delivery address in another country and send the items on to you. You can even order from a number of different sources. They’ll then collate the packages and send them on.
4. There’s More Chance Something Will Go Wrong
Aside from the practicalities of online shopping – which do make it an excellent way to go most of the time – there is the question of security. Buy from a major online store, and you can generally expect things to be done “right”. They’ll use the most reliable payment, delivery and IT solutions they can find. But for some of the more esoteric options, you need to be careful. They might not do things quite as smoothly.
If you order an item online from a store with which you’re unfamiliar, tread carefully. They might do everything just perfectly. But the smaller the company, the greater the chance that there’ll be something not perfect in what they do. You might receive the item late, or not at all. When you receive it, it may be broken, torn or not the right piece. It may be delivered to the wrong address, and you never see it.
Paying by credit card offers more protection
Bigger companies are more concerned with reputation and, if mistakes are made, will go further to put them right. They’ll have more scope to do so. If you’re going to order from a smaller store, do your research. If they’ve let others down before, there will be a record of it online. And even if they haven’t, it’s best that you pay by credit card rather than any other means. This way, you can more swiftly get your money back in case of an error and make other arrangements.
Sometimes, online shopping may not be the right thing for you. Buying in stores, at the right times on the right days, doesn’t need to be a hectic mess. And by shopping in your local area, you support local business and help the economy. For some things, though, you do need to go online. By exercising the right kinds of self-protection, you can be very confident of doing this without any major hitches.
As with all things, shopping is at its best when there is some flexibility and diversity. Ideally, you won’t find yourself running out into the streets on Christmas Eve hoping you can get something appropriate. But knowing when, and how, to shop online means that you can get the best deals and the best service. And it means you don’t have to be sick of hearing “Let It Snow” by the middle of December.