Savvy Online Shopping

Written by Mark Evilsizor
From his column Tech

We live in an era of tremendous options and convenience when it comes to shopping. Instead of driving around town to find something, we can simply open our phone and, in a couple of taps, choose and purchase a product and have it on our doorstep within a couple of days. But when there are so many options, how do we narrow the results? Nine out of ten of us use online reviews as part of the process, but over a third of these may be false, the writer may have been paid to leave a glowing five-star, or disparaging one-star review. But there’s hope. Let’s take a look at how we can become savvy online consumers as well as good stewards of resources.

When I recently wanted to purchase a health care monitoring device, I searched an online retailer’s site and was pleasantly surprised to find several options for under $40, but I wanted to narrow the field. One of the first filters I used was a combination of how many people purchased the product and the average rating. If a product has an average 4.5 star rating with only a few hundred reviews, then I am more skeptical. If a product has thousands or tens of thousands of reviews and a 4.5 star average, that is a stronger indicator of a quality product.

That test narrowed my options down significantly. My next step was to look at the most recent reviews. Many of the default recommended reviews were years-old and not necessarily reflective of the current version of the product. Of recent reviews, I gave more credence to those who are verified purchasers. Of these, I read a few of the favorable and a few of the unfavorable, taking into account the criteria they covered and how those matched my criteria. In this case, I gave more credence to persons who had some health care knowledge and who addressed the accuracy of the device rather than basing their decision on low price and ease of use. With that in mind, I came to see that the most inexpensive product options had unsatisfactory accuracy. I preferred input from a trusted source.

(The cost of online fraud) rose from $42 million in 2017 to $770 million in 2021.

Next, I searched for reviews of this product category, and again received an overwhelming number of results from the web search site. When looking over these options, we should note but not follow ads. Unfortunately the ads are likely at the top of the list, and have subtle markings which barely distinguish them from non-paid results. Then, I clicked on a few reviews from trusted technology sites with years of established reputation like CNET, Wirecutter, PC Magazine, Forbes, etc. You may also be able to access Consumer Reports, from your local library’s website, which can be very helpful, or you can subscribe. After reading reviews from a couple of these sources, I learned what the qualities of a good device are, that FDA approval is an important factor for a health care-related product, and discovered specific items which had tested well and were highly regarded in multiple reviews.

With this in mind, I headed back to my chosen online retailer and was able to make a more informed choice. It was not the cheapest product, but it turned out to be an accurate, approved device which will likely meet my needs for years.

It’s important to consider the role social media has on purchasing decisions. The FTC recently released a report regarding the impact of social media on online fraud which indicated the cost of such rip-offs rose from $42 million in 2017 to $770 million in 2021. Most of the money was lost through investment scams, but the largest number of cases involved trying to make purchases from companies that were not who they were pretending to be. When we see an online ad for a product that interests us, it’s a smart idea to open the browser and check to find if a retailer we trust carries the same item. If not, then search for the seller’s website outside of social media. Does it exist? How long has it been in business? Have any of your friends purchased from this seller? How many complaints are there about them at the Better Business Bureau site? A few moments of checking might prevent a lot of frustration and lost money.

Many sites have generous return policies but very often returns become a part of the 6 billion pounds of garbage generated by online shopping each year. By taking a little time to do some research, we are less likely to be a victim of fraud, less likely to need to mess with returns, and more likely to make a quality purchase of products that will meet our needs.

Mark Evilsizor has worked in Information Technology for more than 25 years. He currently serves as head of IT for the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Mo. Opinions expressed are his own.