Shopping online can be so efficient - you find the perfect gift for Aunt Midge, fill in some information and press a button - that it can create the illusion that everything that happens to fulfill your order will proceed with the same computerized smoothness.
But as thousands of online shoppers can tell you from their experiences last year, a lot of mishaps can occur between that final keystroke and delivery, especially when companies are unprepared for the holiday e-rush.
You can do a number of things to make your online shopping experience a successful one. Here are 10 survival tips:
Shop early: The old adage about holiday shopping, preached for decades by the Postal Service and merchants, takes on a new importance when you buy online.
A good rule of thumb is to get on the computer the first week in December to make your orders. If the volume of online shopping is anything like last year or greater, merchants will start to run out of popular products as the holidays approach. And if you wait until the last minute, you'll be paying premium shipping costs.
Comparison shop: You can get some help from a few sites that do comparison shopping for you. Two of the best specialize in consumer electronic products - click on "Latest Prices" at CNET at www.cnet.com or go to PriceGrabber at www.pricegrabber.com. Both show you the range of prices being offered online for hundreds of individual items and reviews of the products.
Both sites also let you know if a distributor has an item in stock, but it's a good idea to check directly with the merchant before making an order. Especially at this time of year, items can run out before online information is updated.
Customer-service number: When something goes wrong, nothing beats talking to someone. Most merchants list a customer-service number somewhere on their Web pages although some, like Amazon.com, make it difficult to find. If you can't find a phone number, e-mail the site and inquire.
Return policy: Know what it is before you order. In most cases, a merchant's return policy is spelled out on its Web site. If you can't find it or it's vague, that might be a warning flag. If you like the merchandise, call the customer-service number to check on the policy.
If the online retailer also has a national chain of brick-and-mortar stores, ask if a gift bought online can be returned to one of its retail locations.
Security: Most security experts agree that there is little danger in using your credit card for online purchases. But there's no use taking unnecessary chances.
Your best protection is to make sure you are on a secure site - one that uses encryption technology to protect data such as your personal and credit card information. Most sites make use of this protection when it comes time to enter payment information. You can tell if a page is secure if you see a little padlock near the bottom of the screen (on Internet Explorer, it's on the right; on Netscape, on the left).
Sales tax: One of the major reasons to shop online is to avoid paying sales tax, but it's a tricky game. As longtime mail-order customers know, many out-of-state companies do not collect sales tax.
Congress has had a moratorium on sales taxes since 1998. It expires in October.
Web stores that have either a physical presence in the state where items are being shipped or are complying with a state's wishes on tax regulations will charge tax. If you're buying a big-ticket item, tax can add up.
Many sites have a tax-information page that will show you in which states taxes apply for goods bought from them. Also, if taxes do apply, they should appear on your final statement. If you're in doubt, call.
Shipping and handling: Shipping prices should not be a mystery. Shortly after you reach the point in the ordering process where you type in your shipping address, the site should give you a delivery price. If the figure seems high for the items you ordered, call and ask how they arrived at that figure. (If you're not satisfied, you can ask the weight of the package, then call the shipper to get the delivery price).
Some sites do not charge for shipping, even for overnight service. Outpost.com at www.out post.com is one. And as it gets closer to the holidays, some sites will waive shipping costs to lure shoppers.
Tracking numbers: If given a choice of shipping methods, it's good to go with one that will offer you a tracking number, although it might not be the cheapest choice.
Airborne Express, Federal Express, United Parcel Service and the U.S. Postal Service's Express Mail issue numbers so you can track your package's progress and delivery.
The Postal Service's Priority Mail tracking number won't track progress, but it will let you know where and when a package was delivered.
The final bill: Any honorable e-commerce site will present you with a final bill, detailing charges, before you commit to the purchase. Read this page carefully. Then, before you click on that purchase button, print out a copy.
After you make the purchase, you often will get a confirmation or order number in the form of an e-mail. Print this out and save it.