Four Tips for Stress-Free Cyber Shopping

What if tack shops were like fast-food restaurants? There'd be one on every corner, a grouping in every shopping mall, and several lining the exits of every major roadway. Plus, they'd all be open into the wee hours, letting you shop at your convenience--even if that meant 1 a.m. Sadly, that's not the case. But the Internet gives you the next best thing. With a few keystrokes on the computer, you have access to hundreds of web sites selling horse products around the clock.

The Internet is no shopping utopia, though. Pitfalls do exist. We quizzed web-savvy equestrians to come up with four simple tips to help you sidestep trouble and reap all the benefits of convenience, selection, and pricing that online shopping can offer.

1. Target Reliable Sellers

The anonymity of the Web makes it an ideal atmosphere for con artists. Shopping with stores you know and trust is a great way to avoid scams, and most major tack shops do have web sites. Susan G. Holtzman, an equine-industry marketing professional and frequent online shopper, sticks with companies that have a physical store or are manufacturers/distributors.

"Most likely, I've already ordered from their print catalogues and/or been in their stores," she explains. To find such known entities on the web, enter the store name into a search engine (see "Twelve Top Search Engines/Directories" below) or check the company's catalogues and ads for a web site address.

Karen Pautz, New Media Design Director of The Blood-Horse, Inc., and founder of the HayNet online directory (www.haynet.net), suggests that you jot down any site addresses where you see intriguing companies or products. "I use the 'bookmark' function of my web browser to keep a list of web sites that I might want to return to later," she says.

But don't limit yourself to the major catalogues and stores, advises Jessica Jahiel, an author, clinician, and lecturer with a long-time web presence. "There are some smaller shops with wonderfully knowledgeable, helpful owners and staff," she says.

Pautz values stores because she can touch and try products before she buys, something she especially appreciates when shopping for leather goods. And let's not forget that tack shops play a supporting part in every local horse community. Your favorite neighborhood tack shop might even have a site.

To find out, plug the store's name into a search engine, or call the store and ask. If you prefer to shop locally, but don't actually know any nearby stores, seek them out in the Yellow Pages, through your city's chamber of commerce, or through an area-wide web directory.

You can also ask horsey friends for recommendations of their favorite online shops. And, you can check other equine-related web sites such as those for breed associations, local farms, or general information sources to see if they have links to stores.

Jahiel notes that you can often visit manufacturers' web sites to find a list of retail stores that sell the company's products.

However, you don't need to know a store name to start shopping. You can simply type a phrase like "tack shop" or "saddlery" or the name of a specific product you're hunting (like "D-ring snaffle") into a search engine. Or you can use an equine web site directory such as HayNet.

If you do consider buying from an unfamiliar store, take steps to help ensure that it's a reliable retailer. Ask around on forums (bulletin boards) and chat lists to see if anyone has had experience with that company, recommends Pautz. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also suggests that you check the shop's reputation with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbbonline. com) or the state attorney general's office. The bottom line, says Pautz, is to trust your gut. "If the site looks shoddy and amateurish, think hard before purchasing from it," she says.

2. Don't Be Fooled by Price

Online shopping is frequently touted for its bargains. And, says Holtzman, sometimes you can unearth Internet specials not found in stores or catalogues. But prices on the Internet aren't always low-ball figures, especially when you factor in shipping charges. "Often what seems like a better deal ends up even when you take shipping into account," says Pautz.

For a true picture of online price, factor in the product's cost, shipping charges, and any state taxes (if you and the business are in the same state). Then compare the total to the product's in-store cost plus taxes and, if the store is a distance from you, add in some cost for gas.

While you're comparison shopping, realize that price can also vary significantly from web site to web site. Since there aren't any equine-related sites offering "shop-bots" (search engines that price-compare for you), you've got to do the surfing yourself if you're determined to find the best deal.

Remember, warns Jahiel, if you do find an amazing bargain, it could be too good to be true. "Don't expect to get a top-name, $300 bridle for $30 just because the store is 'click-and-order' instead of brick-and-mortar," she says. "Know what you're buying. Stay with known and trusted brand names and specific models, unless you're willing to experiment and don't mind wasting a bit of money."

Of course, you might find that other online perks matter more to you than price. For instance, Holtzman says, "Convenience is important to me over price. I like ordering from the Internet over picking up the phone because product choices are at my fingertips." In addition, you can sometimes find products online that aren't easily available otherwise, like a rare old equestrian book or a new European product not yet sold in the United States.

3. Know the Terms

When you shop at a store, return policies are posted by the cash register. And, since you deal one-on-one with a store employee, your worries over privacy and security are limited. Not so with online shopping, where a little investigation makes a good investment. Before you place an order, learn about the site's terms of purchase, especially these important policies:

Returns and Warranties--As with traditional stores, web-based sellers often place restrictions on returns, refunds, and exchanges. In some cases, they might even charge you a "restocking" fee when you return an item. And, in many cases, you'll have to pay shipping costs to send the product back to the company if it's not what you had in mind. Look for warranty or guarantee information, too. If it's not posted, it might not be offered.

Security--Whenever you transmit personal data over the Internet (whether your address or your credit card number), make sure you're using a secure site. Look for an unbroken key, a padlock, or a site address that starts with https: (instead of http:). All of those indicate that information will be encrypted (coded) for transmission. Or, you might be able to place your order online and phone or fax in your card number.

Other security measures include using different passwords when you register at different sites and reserving one credit card just for online usage. In fact, the FTC notes that credit cards are a relatively safe payment method, because issuers might offer extended warranties on purchases and might limit your liability in case your credit card (or card number) is stolen.

Privacy--The FTC recommends shopping only with online vendors that post their privacy policies on the site and give you choices regarding the use of your personal information. (Many sites sell your e-mail address and other data to be used by other companies for marketing purposes, and that usually results in junk mail, electronic or otherwise.)

Shipping fees--As with catalogues, you usually have several shipping options to choose from. In some cases, shipping is free if your order total meets a minimum dollar requirement. Just check the details before you order, so your next credit card statement doesn't hold any pricey surprises.

Delivery--An online retailer should tell you when to expect delivery of your purchase. If not, the FTC expects them to deliver the goods no more than 30 days from the date you placed the order. If the seller falls behind schedule, it must notify you and give you the chance to cancel your order and receive a full refund.

To find terms offered by a specific online store, look for sections labeled "terms," "policies," "privacy," "shipping," etc. And, says Pautz, "If you can't find the policies posted on the web site, call and find out. If you can't find any contact information, take a pass on that web site."

4. Keep Track

Once you do place an order online, print out proof, urges the FTC. You'll want a copy of your completed order form, showing the date and the total cost, including shipping fees and taxes. You'll also want the store's name and contact information (physical as well as online). If the retailer sends you an order confirmation, order number, or customer number, print that, too. As further insurance, run off the store's terms of purchase.

More on Web Shopping

Even if you're totally captivated by the notion of online shopping for your horsehold, keep your catalogues. Often you can express order online if you can input a product number from the store's catalogue. In many cases, adds Jahiel, catalogue photos are also clearer than web images.

Buying horse products online can save time, but usually that's true only if you know exactly what you want and where you want to buy it. In general, Pautz doubts that there's a truly fast, efficient way to do the job. "If you get on the web expecting instant answers, you'll end up frustrated," she cautions. "It takes time to find good information on the web, but not nearly as much time as filling out dozens of 'request for information' forms and mailing them in."

The bottom line? Buying products online isn't a snag-free endeavor. But, with a few precautions and some web-buying savvy, you can make the Internet a handy addition to your stable of shopping options.


STARTING POINTS

Twelve Top Search Engines/Directories

Search Engine vs. Directory: They're not the same. Search engines use your keywords to automatically roam the web, explains Pautz. They work best with exact terms or phrases (like "Miller's Collegiate saddle"). Directories--such as Yahoo!, The HayNet, and About.com--include only sites intentionally added by the directory's creator, she says. They work best if you're searching a category of products (such as saddles or boots).

No single engine searches the entire Internet, so if your first search doesn't find what you're looking for, try rephrasing your request or using a different search engine. Here are 12 commonly recommended search engines/directories:

  • www.about.com
  • www.altavista.com
  • www.ask.com
  • www.dogpile.com
  • www.excite.com
  • www.go.com
  • www.google.com
  • www.haynet.net
  • www.hotbot.com
  • www.lycos.com
  • www.webcrawler.com
  • www.yahoo.com

Different search engines have different ways of reading the words you want it to search for, so review an engine's help section. But the following methods work on most:

  • Use quote marks to link words that should appear in a specific order. For instance, inputting "Dover Saddlery" should pull up sites about the store rather than everything on the web referring to Dover or saddleries.

  • Use Boolean operators--AND, OR, AND NOT, and parentheses--to narrow down a search. If you want information on Troxel horseback riding helmets (rather than the company's biking helmets), you might enter: Troxel AND helmet AND horse NOT bike.

  • Use plus (+) and minus (-) signs the same way as AND and AND NOT. For instance, if you want to find Justin boots, you might enter +Justin +boot. Note that there is no space between the plus sign and the word it's linked to.

    Combine the above tools to help clarify your request. For instance, to find a retailer in Detroit, you might enter: +"tack store" +Detroit.

    Not working? Try rephrasing your request or using a different search engine.

About the Author

Sushil Dulai Wenholz

Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.

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