Confessions of an Online Shopaholic: 10 essential do's and don'ts

Confessions of a Shopaholic opens this weekend, and it gets us thinking about our own fave product-acquisition experience, shopping online. Here's the good news for shopaholics: Even though the instant gratification of real-world shopping is missing, buying stuff online can give you an equally appealing buzz because of the ease of separating the good deals from the bad.

That's a big deal, because times are tough, and you want to make every purchase count, especially during this monumental recession we're suffering through. If you're not an online-shopping expert, we're here to help, showing you our best tips for enhancing your experience, while warning you of its pitfalls. Hit the Continue jump for the best and latest advice, and then add your own in the comments section.

Do: Use the best tools for the job. Install the free Foxmarks plug-in (available for Firefox, Internet Explorer and Safari). It saves and backs up password-protected copies of all your bookmarks/favorites and passwords for use on any machine you use on the planet. Also use Google Toolbar, which lets you fill in your address and credit-card info once, and from then on, with one click, all that data is instantly entered into any online form. Of course, do these things only if you're the only one using your computer and you trust your family members or roommates.

Don't: Shop at the same online store every time.
Just like you would in the bricks-and-mortar world, find things on sale. There are dozens of price comparison engines; while you're comparing, be sure to confirm items are in stock and that they ship with a U.S. warranty, and don't forget to calculate shipping costs.

Do: Test out gadgets at Best Buy or any electronics retailer first, then buy the ones you like online.
In most electronics stores, there's a long demo aisle of keyboards and mice for you to touch, cell phones to hold, TV screens to scrutinize (but these might be rigged) — shop at a bricks-and-mortar store, but buy online.

Don't: Try to get Best Buy to match online prices.
All that overhead won't let Best Buy match online prices — it's not even worth asking, because they won't do it, and believe us, we've tried.

Do: Read lots of online reviews.
It's not only pro reviewers who make valid hands-on points about products; everyday people also can often point out the one thing about a product you might like or hate most.

Don't: Fall for products that have been pumped up by paid reviewers.
Consider the source of those reviews, and if there are 10 five-star reviews in a row, all that gushy guff might be too good to be true. Usually, a positive review by someone who finds one or two small things wrong with a product is more credible.

Do: Look for warning signs of scams, use your credit card.
A skeezy-looking web site, a search revealing a long list of angry buyers who couldn't get their money back, complaints to the Better Business Bureau, before-and-after shots of weight loss or beauty, high prices accompanying miraculous claims — all should raise huge red flags. Caveat emptor. Use your credit card so you can quickly cancel ripoff purchases.

Don't: Shop at sites with no secure connection.
If you don't see that closed padlock on the browser's status bar, run in the other direction. The site is not secure and you should keep your credit-card number to yourself.

Do: Buy small and gigantic items online.
Small electronics are perfect for online purchase, because their shipping costs are extremely low. Also, there's a lot of competition to sell these easily shippable and storable items, and the recession is bringing prices down to unheard-of lows. Counterintuitively, gigantic items like a huge snow blower or 60-inch plasma TV are also good candidates for online shopping if you don't own a truck to schlep them home from a retail store. Also important to consider: the lack of sales tax for big-ticket items, which can sometimes offset shipping costs, even with bulky items.

Don't: buy clothes online.
They may not fit, and even if they do, you may intensely dislike the material they're made of. Clothing is high-touch — better to put your hands on it before you buy, and also to see how it looks on you. Unless you find a garment you've already tried on, and it's on sale — or until everyone has their measurements laser-scanned and online simulations can accurately show you exactly how they'll look on you, you're better off clothes shopping in meatspace.