Christmas Shopping Online: Save Time But Be Careful

November 27, 2002

Christmas shopping can be a lot of fun, but it can also be incredibly time consuming and stressful if you have a busy schedule. The closer it gets to Christmas, the more stressed shoppers become, and it is difficult not to feed off of that negative energy when you are in the stores.

Part of what makes Christmas shopping so difficult is that we all want to find that “?perfect’ gift for everyone on our list. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer stores to choose from. Many of the mall stores are now part of larger corporations, and you’ll notice that the products that they sell are more or less the same from store to store. There are fewer department stores now – thanks to the demise of Eaton’s, Woodward’s, Woolco, and K-mart – and the mega stores are not all they are cracked up to be.

I remember when there were half a dozen chain bookstores to choose from, but now there is really only Chapters. The stores are huge, but surprisingly, they carry little more than the small stores did. In fact, they buy books from only a small number of publishers, and their overall selection is rather poor. They make it look like they have a lot of books to choose from by having a ton of copies of each volume. Anyway, due to their policy of encouraging people to sit and read in the store, a lot of their books look decidedly used.

That is just one example, but many of the megastores are like this. It is a common policy of the mega-stores to only deal with large suppliers, and with the smallest number of suppliers possible. With a smaller pool of stores to choose from, there are also a much smaller number of items to choose from, and the task of finding something unique just gets harder.

Online shopping can help alleviate the stress of Christmas shopping by giving shoppers access to an entire world full of stores. It also means that you do not have to brave the stores. Just this year I’ve found two extremely unique and beautiful gift items online that are not available in any stores in Calgary. Also, shopping online means that I can locate an item at many stores in just a few minutes, then choose the one with the best price, reputation, and shipping options.

One of the greatest benefits of online shopping is store-specific wish lists. If you have not yet tried these out, I urge you to do so. Amazon.ca has a fantastic wish list, but many other stores are getting them. Basically, how it works is that you browse around the site and locate items that you would like to receive. When you find something you like, you add it to your wish list file on the site. Then, you can send a link for this file to your friends and family, and they can access your list and see what you want. Not only does this allow you to share your list, but it also really simplifies shopping.

Often it can be difficult to shop for people who have very different interests from yourself. For example, you might get a list from someone containing some books, games, DVDs and music CDs, all of which you have little knowledge of. Shopping can be hard, because you might not know how to select the correct item, especially if there are several versions of a particular title. For a person who collects books, movies or music, it can be especially hard because they may be very specific about the version that they want. Online wish lists make it easy because the recipient has already picked out the correct item, and you can select it off the list and have it sent to you or have the store wrap it and send it directly to your family member directly.

If you shop for people out of town, online shopping can be a boon. Shipping rates for parcels are getting outrageous! A couple of years ago, I sent a Christmas parcel to my parents in Quebec, and the shipping cost me $29. I could have bought an extra gift for that much money. Plus there is the hassle of trying to find a box to fit it all, locating proper packing materials for breakable things, getting it insured, and then standing in line at the post office. So, for my mom’s birthday last year, I instead found an item for her from Sears. The store wrapped it for me, packed it in a box, and shipped it to her. I could have had it sent to her door for $7, but she lived very close to a Sears depot, so I sent it there and the shipping was free.

Stores can more easily ship items than you can because they have packing materials, and boxes to fit all of their items. If an item is broken in shipping, it is the responsibility of the store or to arrange for a replacement, assuming they have a good customer satisfaction policy.

This year, I’ll be sending some baked goodies from the PEI Preserve Co. directly to my aunts and uncles in Quebec. I’ve dealt with the store before, so I know they have good products, and I’m happy to know that I won’t have to pack up a parcel for each of my recipients. Shipping rates might be high, but they are invariably lower than what you would pay to send a parcel yourself.

In fact, lots of stores offer free shipping during Christmas season. Sometimes you have to order a minimum amount to get this deal, but often during December they offer it on all orders.

The important things to remember when shopping online are:

Make sure that the store is reputable. If you do not have the tools or knowledge to research a store, then choose one that is not just online, but that has brick-and-mortar stores with a good reputation. If you are comfortable dealing with stores like Canadian Tire, Sears, Future Shop, and Zellers in person, then their online counterparts will probably have comparable customer service policies.

Find out about shipping costs and customer satisfaction and return policies before you order. Some stores will even refund your shipping cost if you have to return an item, but others will make you pay for the original shipping and the return. Beware, and ask questions.

Do a quick web search on a store or brand before you buy, to make sure that there are no well-known problems. Also, use a site like Epinions (see: http://www.epinions.com), Bizrate (see:http://www.bizrate.com), or Amazon (see: http://www.amazon.com) to check customer reviews on the product that you want to buy.

Finally, leave enough time for your products to arrive. A store might guarantee Christmas delivery if you shop late, but don’t count on it. They can’t control the postal service. What might take 4 -6 days to ship in slow times, might take 2 weeks or more around Christmas. Don’t order anything after the first week of December unless you are quite sure it will arrive on time.

Happy Shopping!

Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.

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