Living in rural Vermont, I use online shopping services such as Amazon and Zappos as frequently as I put real maple syrup on my pancakes (which is to say a lot). I never knew what the term “box store” meant until moving here six years ago, but I quickly learned how much I didn’t miss them. Trading in-store shopping for internet shopping meant replacing lines, disgruntled cashiers, and too few (or too many) options with ‘advanced search’ options, and shopping in my comfy pants with a cup of coffee or glass of wine. Plus, I kept telling myself, I was saving a ton of money.
But was I?
The good news is, as with most things in life, once you master the art of online shopping it can save you money. The bad news is - most of us only ever ‘master’ a few things, and online shopping isn’t high on that list. Done incorrectly (a.k.a. the way most of us do it), online shopping can cost you dearly.
How Online Shopping Can Cost You $
- Free shipping on orders over $50. Sounds good, right? If you were going to spend $50 anyhow, it is a great deal. On the other hand, if you ordered extra merchandise just to clear the free-shipping threshold, it’s costing you.
- Not being able to touch, feel, taste, use, or wear the item prior to purchase means that it might disappoint you upon arrival. If you’re anything like me, the hassle of returning an unwanted item is only worth the effort if it cost me more than $20. While most online shopping sites offer free returns, the service is only worthwhile if you actually return things.
- Shipping costs.
- Forgotten items. Depending on how much you order, you may overlook items that never arrive. For example, I did all of my Christmas shopping online this year and didn’t take inventory of what had / had not arrived. Last night, as I was slipping into a sugar-coma after eating the last of the holiday cookies, a vision of lace-up sneaker boots popped into my head. They never arrived! It’s been weeks since Christmas, and the boots I ordered for my child never arrived! The worst part is - I never even noticed. What else never arrived? Long story short, if you order a lot of merchandise online, you may overlook the occasional missed-delivery.
- Creepy stalker ads. You know exactly what I’m talking about. You search for The North Face Agave Women’s Jacket online and the jacket begins to follow you wherever you go. Every time you get online, it’s there. Waiting for you. Floating around like the ghosts of Christmas past. Luckily, you won’t need an exorcism for this haunting. But you will need to disable cookies. For tips on how to disable cookies and thus stop your past searches and purchases from following you around the internet, listen to this fun and informative podcast about data tracking, courtesy of Codebreaker.
- Identity theft. It’s a real threat. But luckily, the risk of credit card fraud and identity theft can be significantly reduced by utilizing smart shopping practices. For starters, use your credit card instead of a debit card, when possible. Credit cards offer protection against identity theft that debit cards do not. Also, try to only shop on secure websites. You can tell if a site is secure or not by its URL. Secure sites start with HTTPS:// instead of HTTP://. In addition, secure sites also have a small lock icon on the screen’s bottom right corner. Finally, don’t use a public computer to shop online. If you use a computer in a library or cafe, for example, you have no control over who else is using that computer, nor the malware or spyware it might be infected with. It’s much safer to shop at home.
- Deceptive sales tactics. These can be especially dangerous during big sales events, such as Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Fourth of July sales. Buy 2 Get 1 Free is only saving you money if you actually need three of that item. And 2 for $20 deals, aren’t saving you anything if each individual item is $10.
Up here in Vermont, we love our bonfires. So the insane amount of boxes I acquire from a year’s worth of online shopping is not particularly daunting. However, if you live in an apartment, boxes may pose a very real problem. What do you do with them? Where do you store them? Some apartment managers are refusing to deal with the onslaught of boxes filling their lobbies. According to Forrester Research Inc., online sales in the US reached a record high $334 billion last year and is predicted to hit $480 billion by 2019.
The 14th-largest apartment operator in the US, Camden Property Trust, recently stopped accepting delivery parcels at every one of its 169 properties. According to executives at the Houston-based company, the amount of packages was turning their management offices into receiving centers. Camden apartments had received nearly one million packages in 2014, a 50% increase from the previous year. At approximately 10 minutes of lost productivity per package, Camden executives estimated a cost of around $3.3 million per year in employee wages. Keith Oden, president of Camden Property Trust, weighed in on the decision, saying, “Ultimately, this was going to eat our lunch.”
If you’re wondering how any of this box nonsense affects you, consider this. One Camden Property Trust resident said it takes him up to an hour to drive to the post office or drop-off center to collect the two or three packages he receives every week. Once there, parking is difficult to find, and parking tickets are more than $40. Even if your apartment hasn’t taken such drastic measures yet, it may only be a matter of time. Many large apartment operators are considering following in Camden’s footsteps. Some already have. Others are continuing to accept packages, but for a fee.
More on Credit Card Data and Identity Theft
Gone are the days that credit card information could only be stolen from carbon copy receipts and at the gas pump. Although these types of theft still occur, it is so much easier, faster, and all-encompassing for thieves to simply access your computer. I mean, between the information that we store on our computers and the web sites we access with them (bank accounts, retirement accounts, online retailers, social security numbers, birthdates, addresses), there’s really no better place for a data thief to set up shop.
"Back in the beginning, they got the imprint of credit cards from the carbon copies they dug out of the trash," says William Noonan, head of the Secret Service's criminal investigative division. "Technology has changed things."
Online credit card data theft is typically accomplished in one of two ways: hacking and phishing.
Computer hacking: Websites with low security are vulnerable to malware installation. Malware is a type of software that, once installed onto a website, can access the personal information of users who visit that site. If you visit a site infected with malware, the malware can instantly access your personal information by downloading onto your computer. This same method can also be used to gather information from public computers. For example, if you use a library computer that has been infected with malware, any information you access while on that computer is vulnerable. In addition to information downloaded from your computer or a public computer, these methods also allow data thieves to access information stored by online retailers. So, even if you only shopped at SparklyShoesOnline.com one time, three years ago, your stored credit card and personal information may still be at risk.
Phishing emails: Sending emails with malware attachments is another method used by data thieves. For many of us, it is relatively easy to tell a phishing email from a real one. If I don’t know the sender, the email is written in broken english, and it asks me to click on a link, I know it’s probably a phishing email. However, these emails have begun to get much more sophisticated. For starters, they don’t always appear to be from an unknown sender. I’ve received phishing emails from my mom, my best friend, and my husband. Granted, those individuals did not actually send the emails, but through the wonders of data thievery, their email addresses did. Malware can capture everything you do on your computer, including the keystrokes of passwords to financial accounts.
Be a Smart Online Shopper
Long story short, online shopping can be convenient and may even save money if done correctly, but it comes with a long list of hidden costs. As with most things in life, the outcome is largely dependent on you, your habits, your strengths and weaknesses, and your expectations. If you are a bargain shopper who knows how to read the fine print and avoid deceptive sales tactics, returns unwanted items, takes inventory of what you purchase, and only orders when shipping is free, You. Are. Winning. If, however, you are an impulse shopper who does the opposite of all the ‘good things’ I just mentioned above, you might want to take your finger off the mouse, close your laptop, make a cup of tea, and do some yoga instead.