Shopping online can feel like magic. A few clicks and a few days later a box will be on your doorstep. But it can also feel like playing a game of digital dodgeball. Buyers need to exercise caution to avoid fake reviews, unsafe or mislabeled products, or fake goods hidden behind legitimate offers.
This is because we live in the marketplace era. Third-party suppliers sell their goods through the digital bazaars of
Target – and now even Urban Outfitters and J.Crew. The deal can be seen as a win-win: customers get more product choices and dealers get more sales. The problem? It adds a layer of mystery to buyers. Instead of buying from this website that you know, you are buying from a seller you don’t know, and often it’s a product whose brand you’ve never heard of.
You can also check out their returns policy and Refunds differ from items sold directly through the website. Most do not check third party products for quality. And the competition between sellers is so intense that many manipulate their offers in order to improve the ratings.
After years of reporting on the possibilities of manipulating marketplaces, I have developed three basic principles for shopping on the Internet:
Easier said than done, especially with the upcoming Prime Day shopping frenzy on Amazon. Below are my specific tips grouped around these three topics so you don’t get ripped off.
Find the “Sold By” section of the page. The seller of the product, one of the most important pieces of information on the page, is often presented in tiny, tiny font. You can find it on Amazon under the “Buy now” button. On Walmart, you’ll see “Sold & shipped by” under the “Add to Cart” button and delivery options. On Target, it’s right in the middle, below the price. If in doubt, search the page for the keyword “sold”.
Take a closer look at third-party providers. Click through to view the seller’s page. Be careful if the reviews are mediocre or if people are complaining about recent issues. Look for More Clues: A working customer service phone number and a dedicated website outside of the marketplace are two good indicators that the company is at least trying.
Check Fulfillment From on Amazon. It’s just below the orange “Buy Now” button. Products shipped by Amazon benefit from the company’s own customer service and returns processing as well as delivery guarantees for most items. Prime eligible items shipped by the seller also qualify for the same benefits.
Buy direct when security is a concern. In 2019, the Journal found thousands of items on Amazon that federal agencies flagged as unsafe, or even banned, or deceptive. To make your order safer, buy direct from the retailer or manufacturer – especially items for children, health and beauty products, electronics, and anything that covers your head or face (such as a diving mask). For example, Amazon requires brands of first-party products to have adequate insurance. You can filter your search for direct purchases on Amazon, Walmart, and Target.
Avoid no-name brands when quality is a concern. Amazon and Walmart carry cheap products from no-name labels with prices that are almost too good to be true. I call these brands “alphabet soup” – they are typically a jumble of letters, often in capital letters – and they mostly come straight from factories in China. Although these items offer a tempting offer, you will likely save yourself time and money by opting for the more expensive branded items.
The “Amazon’s Choice” label does not mean quality. Amazon has given the badge to items that violate its own guidelines.
Beware of “repurchasing”. With Amazon, Walmart, and other merchants with marketplaces, you shouldn’t go for a quick buyback without trying it out. If the last seller that provided it is out of stock, these sites may trade in for a different one, which may affect price, fulfillment time, and refund options.
Confirm the ship date at checkout. When you land on a page, you might see a shipping estimate the very next day. However, if you choose a different variant, for example a different color, this could affect your delivery by weeks or even months.
Do you want a deal? Look for “Amazon Warehouse”. An entry may have a section called “New & Used” (on the right under “Add to List”). Items from the Amazon warehouse can be sold here. They may have scratches or missing packaging, but are generally in good working order. A bike lock I recently ordered was available at a 24% discount.
Use price tracking apps. Some sellers raise the price of products before offering a “deal” for a shopping vacation. Make sure you’re getting a good deal by visiting CamelCamelCamel’s website, which tracks the price history of Amazon listings and sends out price drop warnings. Capital One Shopping is a browser extension that automatically compares the prices on Amazon with those of other retailers. (When you use it, Capital One collects information such as product pages viewed and purchase history.)
For easy returns, buy Prime or directly from the website. Items sold by Amazon.com and Amazon Warehouse, or Prime Eligible items – in most cases – can be returned within 30 days. Many items can be returned to Whole Foods,
or UPS branches with no box or label.
The return window for items sold by Walmart is 90 days. Walmart has minimum standards for third-party returns (14 days for electronics and luxury items, 30 days for everything else), but each seller has their own policy. Some readers have emailed me expressing frustration at my inability to reach Walmart Marketplace sellers through the Walmart website for refunds. A Walmart spokeswoman said if you have a problem, contact customer service.
Target offers a 90-day return window on all items, including those sold by third parties.
Take a look the cost of the return. On Amazon, the product’s return policy is listed on the right under the orange “Buy Now” button. Many items are eligible for a full refund, but some types of products, such as: Such as a mini fridge can incur a high restocking fee.
Check your credit card terms for additional insurance coverage. Look for purchase protection or perks with an extended warranty. For example, Amazon’s Prime Rewards card extends warranties three years or less for an additional year and covers new purchases for 120 days against damage or theft, up to $ 500 per claim.
Analyze the Authenticity of reviews. I like ReviewMeta because it gives a lot of context behind the customized rating of each Amazon listing. I check this review with Fakespot, which can also rate reviews on Walmart and
Remember, these tools are only estimates – many fake reviews are coordinated off-platform and appear as verified purchases.
Look for “gift card” or “free”. Click the star rating at the top of an Amazon listing to jump to the Ratings section of the page. Scroll down to “See All Reviews”. There you can search for customer ratings. Reviews that mention a gift card or free product may indicate that the seller is increasing their reviews through financial incentives.
Sort reviews by the latest. In the Customer Reviews on Amazon section, you’ll see a drop-down list labeled “Top Ratings”. I’ve found that changing the order to get the latest offers is a better mix of reviews.
Check out global reviews. Some sellers merge reviews of completely different products from other countries in US listings to puff up the reviews.
Don’t put too much emphasis on the reviews. No matter how hard you examine reviews, you will never know with 100% certainty whether reviews have been tampered with. My advice? Skim through the text, read negative reviews for repeated mentions of glaring flaws, and discount any product with just five-star reviews. Better to trust a recommendation from a good friend – or rely on our return policy if something goes wrong.
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Appeared in the print edition of June 21, 2021 as “A few rules will prepare you for online purchases”.
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