I have on occasion been bitten by online retailers. A recent nasty experience has prompted me to list a few bits of advice to people thinking about buying online. Needless to say my recent bad experience was caused by not following my own advice…

If they don’t have a contact phone number on their website, don’t use them

If nothing goes wrong, all well and good – but if it doesn’t, you don’t want to be dealing with customer support via email if you don’t have to.

If their website looks more stale than last weeks doughnuts, don’t use them

Last update times of 2001 are a nasty sign that a company can’t afford to update its website, which can speak volumes about what they do have money for.

Be vary if the site offers no indication of stock levels

I was once badly stung when ordering a TV – I ended up waiting over two months for it, and was given absolutely no indication of when it would arrive. Even worse was the fact that it broke shortly after arriving and had to be sent back.

Look for vendor reviews

Many sites offer reviews of online retailers – some of the better price comparison sites (such as “pricerunner”:http://uk.pricerunner.com/) do this, and run the review system themselves.

Price isn’t everything

A great price can often hide other costs. Assuming your product arrives without a problem then great – but it can be a nasty surprise to find out that the reason it was so cheap is that they can’t afford any customer service staff, and thats why you’ve been waiting on hold for the last hour. There has to be a big price differential for me to consider using a dodgy looking retailer over a more established one.

Value your own experience and personal recommendations

You might choose to ignore the fact that there is no contact phone number if you trust them (for example “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/) or the fact that the site is really nasty looking (“7dayshop”:http://www.7dayshop.com/) if you know they’ll deliver.

If they do a good job, tell the world!

A retailer that treats you well deserves to do more business. Recommend them to friends, write favourable reviews – even consider becoming an affiliate if you’re in a position to do so. If the good retailers do more business, the bad retailers either have to improve their game or they’ll do less business, and you’ll be less likely to get stung in the future. Its important to note that doing a good job is not just about delivering the products on time, its also about quickly resolving issues that will arise in the running of any online business. In fact I believe you can’t really judge a retailer until you see how they handle things when something goes wrong.

And if the worst happens…

If something does go wrong, at least in the first instance be polite and even helpful – do all the things you could reasonably be asked to do (and perhaps even more than that). A helpful customer with a problem will engender far more goodwill from customer support than an unhelpful abusive one, and could well result in you getting your problem resolved quickly. Also, if the problem does escalate doing all you can to help resolve the issue will count in your favour.

The time may come however when a sterner approach is required – and this time your communications need to be strongly worded, but not angry. Quote your legal rights by all means, but make sure you understand the law and how it applies to you. I would also suggest in all correspondence that you given them a “get rid of me once and for all” clause – explain to them what you require of them for you to be happy. Keep copies of emails and all paper correspondence, and log phone calls (but do not record them – this may well be illegal in your country). Above all, keep your cool.