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Keep in mind folks that things can change quickly in this realm, and I can't guarantee this page can keep up with them. Remember that my opinions below are based on everything I'm aware of at time of writing-- that's all. This page also assumes you have access to USA vendors and shipping channels, and is written from the perspective of a US citizen.
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Some tips regarding online purchasing
Whew! Online purchasing circa 2006 is much like the old American wild west: every man for himself!
What I mean here is it's basically an anarchy. Even if you can find a vendor you trust for a sale today that trust can be shattered the very next time you deal with them.
It's getting tougher and more expensive to return items with which you're dis-satisfied. And misleading or outright criminal marketing and advertising is being used by more and more dealers out there-- even big ones. So definitely don't believe everything you see.
The rebate and extended warranty scams have turned into a flood. For most folks and circumstances an extended warranty is nothing but a huge waste of money. And I'd advise you not to consider rebates at all in your buying decision. Rebates are basically just a bait and switch tactic, in that they promise a delayed discount on an item but to obtain that discount after purchase you often have to jump through an astonishing number of hoops. Many folks forget or give up or don't dot their i's and cross their t's just right, and never get that discount at all. And so the companies keep much of the cash they promise in rebate marketing to give back to you.
There's also the smorgasbord storefront angle to be wary of. Namely, some online stores with a huge apparent array of products and services for sale are basically just a facade: that is, maybe they're actually a network of dozens or even hundreds or thousands of different vendors working in concert. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but for a couple elements: shipping and handling charges, and the frequent need to return something you got through this channel. If you make the mistake of buying several different items at once from a facade operation every single item you buy may in fact be coming from a different store in a different physical location. This means each and every item bought will have their own separate shipping fees. And so basically you'll pay much more in shipping than you would if all the purchases were coming from the same place. Sometimes you may not know all these items are going to come from different stores until you're completing the transaction online. And other times you may not realize it until you get the total bill.
And when dealing with a facade vendor, finding your way through return policies might be equally daunting.
Sales taxes are yet another wild card. With sufficient research you might be able to reduce their bite-- but sometimes they'll be a big surprise too, not realized until it's too late. I believe we were once hit here with an unexpected sales tax bill between $100 and $300 on an online computer purchase. YIKES!
I personally may spend days or weeks researching a large purchase over the internet. I try to find as many hands-on reviews as I can about the item in question. And I evaluate a fairly broad range of competing products for the purchase.
I also research customer complaints about the product or service or vendor. You can Google them with the name or model, along with the word "problem" to see what others might have posted about the subject. Sometimes your findings may horrify you.
On the other hand, sometimes you are shocked the other way. A couple years back my sister-in-law needed some car work done, and I recommended taking her car to a nearby Precision Auto-Tune. I'd been very satisfied with that franchise in a faraway state maybe a year before where I'd used them extensively, and figured they'd be a good bet locally too (I'm no auto mechanic novice myself). But she wanted a bit more assurance so I did an internet check of the franchise along with the word "problem". I found so few significant problems listed it seemed way too good to be true (note that even the best firms will have a few complaints: for not all customers are reasonable by any means). But heck, sometimes you're lucky. I told her about it, she took her car in, and they seemed to do a pretty good job. That was months back as I write this. Of course circumstances change, and you should always do your own up-to-date check of a company to be on the safe side.
Unfortunately, such conscientiousness won't always save you. I did similar checks on a low cost web host years back, bought their services, and everything was fine for maybe a year-- whereupon all hell broke loose, as the business owner seemed to have a nervous breakdown or something else horrendous, and dragged down all his customers with him. Yikes! You can see details in my web log.
I used to advise checking out the return policies of various vendors before buying, but it seems most all of them have resorted to virtually the same 'customer's always wrong' policies these days. That is, most now charge you stiff fines on returns (if returns are allowed at all), may not give you a refund under any conditions, and pretty much hand you off to the manufacturer's warranty no matter what happens. Yikes!
Of course, if it turns out the vendor fraudulantly sold you a used or refurbished product as new, the manufacturer's warranty won't be nearly as good as you expected. Ow! To add insult to injury, even if the manufacturer's warranty is OK, you may find all shipping charges regarding repairs or replacements come from your own pocket. And shipping charges alone can be pretty big on certain items which are especially bulky and/or heavy (like a giant TV or computer display).
Many manufacturers are even purposely NOT including basic cables or adapters virtually anyone would need to actually use their products (like DVI cables for LCD displays, etc.). This means you might not even be able to test the product for days or weeks after you get it-- thereby sometimes making a return and refund out of the question by the time you finally find the connector you need. Agh! And never mind the hassle of hunting down such missing components on the net or various electronics stores in the nearest big city...
Allow yourself at least a good hour to make an online purchase (assuming you've already done all your research and know exactly what you want). You may have a awfully short time to get a refund or exchange on a flawed product bought in this venue. Take detailed notes along the way, and try to save to disk any HTML page showing the specs of your order, if you can. And after delivery be sure to test a machine as thoroughly (and soon) as possible, so if a return or exchange proves necessary you can get the ball rolling ASAP. Save all notes and documentation in case you have to fight over anything later. It seems prudent to use a major credit card rather than check or cash too, where any significant sum is involved-- as then you may be able to sic your credit card company onto any vendor you have trouble with (you'll need your paperwork though).
I've only had personal experience with just a few of the vendors listed on this page, and note it where applicable. Much of this experience was in the distant past, so their quality could have since changed, either for better or worse. If I learn of chronic problems with a vendor I remove them from this page entirely.
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