eel like visiting the gift shop at the Museum of Metropolitan Art? How about comparison shopping for a new or used car? After that you can nab some great deals while shopping for your summer wardrobe at three or four of your favorite stores. If you have time, you even can visit an ongoing auction and register a bid for the item of your choice. Sound exhausting? Well, it would be--except that you can do all this from home on your computer. Welcome to the world of on-line shopping.

When it comes to cyber-shopping, people love the convenience, price, access to items unavailable locally, and the lack of sales pressure. Whether it's booking flights, renting cars, or buying books, computers, musical instruments, or exercise equipment, people are flocking to cyberspace. Business is booming, according to Amy Blankenship of the New York-based Direct Marketing Association's (DMA) Shop-at-Home Information Center. On-line sales are projected to reach $4.8 billion this year. By 2002, the on-line sales total is projected to reach $31 billion.

The hits just keep on coming
According to the DMA, 87% of direct marketers now have their own Web sites. If you don't know the Web address for a company you'd like to visit on-line, use Web search engines such as Yahoo, Lycos, and Excite. Click on their shopping links to find information about such things as privacy and safety tips, Web site reviews, and a list of their top shopping sites.

Savvy vendors know how to keep on-line customers coming back for more on a regular basis. Companies mix product offerings with consumer information and special cyber-only sales. For example, each week airlines such as Northwest and American post weekly cyber fares that offer drastically reduced fares for weekend travel to selected cities. On-line catalogs, such as Lands' End, offer special cyber-only promotions. "Every Saturday, 25 special overstock items are introduced on our Web site at a reduced price," says Thane Ryland, Lands' End spokesperson. The prices drop in 25% increments every few days, or until the merchandise sells out.

Ryland says Lands' End has increased its on-line-product offerings from 100 to more than 800 since it launched its Web site in July 1995. Lands' End logs some 500 e-mails a day from customers around the world, surpassing its print mail in volume. Ryland adds, "Customers send e-mails ranging from product care questions to ideas on how to improve our Web site."

Cyber-shopping can be a real pain in the pinkie if your computer isn't up to snuff or the Web site hits some glitches. Sometimes it takes forever to scroll through on-line catalogs and order products, other times you may find the on-line information isn't up-to-date or accessible. Once you pick an item to purchase, it's often placed in a "shopping cart." You're then given the option to check out or keep shopping. If you sign off before you complete the required checkout steps, your shopping cart automatically will empty.

The black hole
As much as consumers love the goodies, they hate the thought that their fingers won't be the only things doing the walking. Consumers fear that cyber-thieves will make haste into space with their credit card numbers, leaving them stuck with unsticking the resulting mess. According to a recent survey conducted on behalf of the Better Business Bureau (BBB), 83% of respondents cited security of payment as the main concern about on-line shopping, even though 59% already had used their credit cards to make on-line purchases. The second major concern is the reliability of Web-based businesses. Find a solution for both, and consumers say they'd shop more on-line.

As with any catalog
or telephone purchase,
keep copies of
your on-line order.
Print out a copy
of your completed
order form before you
send it to the
on-line merchant.

Keep track of your
Web site names and
passwords, or you'll
be the one who
gets locked out.
Web security
How safe is shopping on-line? As with other types of shopping, it often depends on how careful you are. It's been said you should be more worried about the safety of your credit card number when you go out to dinner than when you shop on-line. Here are a few important guidelines:

  • Beware of strangers. Just as you wouldn't give your credit card number to an unknown person over the phone (you wouldn't, would you?), don't give your credit card number to an unfamiliar or unapproved Web site. Do your homework before you buy. Visit the Web sites' privacy and security pages to get a feel for the company's commitment to safeguarding your personal and financial information. Next, visit the BBB Web site to see if the company is among the more than 700 participating on-line merchants. Service providers, such as AOL (America Online), also furnish members with a list of approved merchants that meet or exceed established on-line customer service requirements.
  • Look for locks. "We're confident that shopping Lands' End over the Internet is as safe as any other means," says Ryland. "We use the highest level of encryption available today to ensure that your personal information remains private." He's talking about SSL (Secure Socket Layers), the industry standard security protocol, which is used to communicate with secure browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer. This means that your credit card number will be scrambled, or encrypted, before it's sent over the Internet.

    How can you confirm you're in a secure area? Look for a closed lock or unbroken key in the lower left or right corner of your computer screen. Also, in secure areas, the URL (universal resource locator) to the left of the colon changes from "http" to "https." These security signs often are limited to the Web site's checkout area, where you enter your personal information and credit card number.
  • Passwords. As if your brain isn't already overloaded with passwords and personal identification numbers (PINs), several sites require you to register and choose a screen name and an encrypted password to use whenever you log on to the site. This extra layer of security is great--just keep careful track of your Web site names and passwords, or you'll be the one who gets locked out.
  • Secured Electronic Transaction (SET) is the standard adopted by Visa, MasterCard, and several major technology companies, according to the DMA. Currently in the works, SET will provide a way to authenticate the identity of all parties involved in transactions, and will enhance the level of security among credit card issuers, merchants, and customers.
  • Keep good records. As with any catalog or telephone purchase, keep copies of your on-line order. Print out a copy of your completed order form before you send it to the on-line merchant. Keep it in a safe, accessible place until your merchandise arrives. If the Web site address isn't listed on the bottom of the printed order form, write it in before you leave the Web site for future reference.
Remember to apply the age-old consumer advice to the newfangled marketplace: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In other words, when in doubt, don't.

©1998 Credit Union National Association, Inc.