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Researching Your Purchases Before You Buy Online

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To be a smarter shopper, you need to do some homework before you fire up your credit card. Michael Miller offers some tips to help make your online product research more effective.

Smart shoppers find better bargains. To be a smarter shopper, you need to do some homework before you fire up your credit card. That means researching the products you want to buy—and the retailers you want to buy them from.

Where to Find Product Information

Even if you never purchase anything online, the Web is a terrific resource for product information. You can find out a lot more about the products you're shopping for on the Web than you ever could in the real world. Think of the Web as a giant library of product specs and descriptions, and use that library to research your purchases before you buy.

Industry Web Sites

A good first place to start are the Web sites run by industry organizations, as well as the sites for industry-specific periodicals. These sites are useful sources of information about the general product category. You probably won't find product-specific information here, but you will find a lot of news and trend data.

For example, if you're looking for information about high-end home theater products, check out the Web site of CEDIA (http://www.cedia.net), the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association. Also good in this instance are the sites for the electronics industry magazine TWICE (http://www.twice.com) and the consumer magazine Home Theater (http://www.hometheatermag.com).

For many product categories, there are also independent sites devoted to issues within the particular industry. For example, when it comes to home theater systems, you can't beat CineNow! (http://www.cinenow.com/us/), which features all manner of news and reviews. Also good is the Home Theater Forum (http://www.hometheaterforum.com), which hosts an active message board with lots of comments from audio and video aficionados. Both of these sites can help you fine-tune your next home electronics purchase.

Manufacturer Web Sites

After you've narrowed your shopping down to some specific models within a product category, your next step is to go straight to the horse's mouth—that is, to the manufacturer's Web site. Most manufacturers offer reams of useful product information on their Web sites; all you have to do is find it.

The first thing you need to do, of course, is find the Web site itself. You'd think this would be easy, but that isn't always the case. A good first step is to enter the manufacturer's name into a normal Web site address—that is, adding the name between a http://www. and a .com. So, if you're looking for Sony, try entering http://www.sony.com; if you're looking for Hoover, enter http://www.hoover.com.

You face a challenge when you're familiar with the brand but not necessarily the parent company. In some instances, there's actually a site for the brand, as with Levi Strauss' Dockers clothing brand (http://www.dockers.com). In other instances, you'll have to do some pre-homework homework to find out what company makes the product you're looking for.

When you get to the company's Web site, you have to drill down to that part of the site devoted to the product(s) you're shopping for. Most sites make this somewhat obvious, but if worse comes to worst, just enter the product name into the site's Search box.

TIP

This process is slightly more difficult when you're dealing with a large global company that has offices in multiple countries; you might need to go to a global site and then click through to the U.S. site. For example, if you go to http://www.nikon.com, you find Nikon's global site; the company's U.S. site is actually http://www.nikonusa.com.

Most companies offer a lot of detailed information about each of the products they sell—but some don't. You'll find what you find. And don't be surprised if the company's Web site isn't fully up-to-date; it's quite common to discover that the product you're looking for is too new to be listed on a company's aging Web site. C'est la vie.

If you're lucky, you'll find everything from detailed product specs and pictures to warranty information and downloadable instruction manuals. For example, Fuji's Web site (http://www.fujifilm.com) offers product specifications, downloadable brochures and instruction manuals, zoom photos, and even video demos for Fuji's digital cameras, as you can see in Figure 3.1. This is a great source of pre-purchase information!

Figure 3.1Figure 3.1 Detailed product information from Fuji's Web site.

Searching the Web

Whether you're searching for specific companies or general industry Web sites, it's time to turn to the searcher's best friend—the Internet search engine. Just go to Google (http://www.google.com) or any other major search site, and enter the name of the industry or product in which you're interested. The more general your query, the more general the sites you'll find; for information about a specific product, make sure that you enter the precise product name or number. It's amazing the information you can find when you look for it!

CAUTION

Watch out for sponsored links in your search results. These are actually advertisements that other sites pay for to pop up when someone searches for a specific keyword. Fortunately, most search sites do a good job of identifying these paid results as just that, but make sure that you don't confuse them with the real results you're looking for.

Retailer Web Sites

Many online retailers offer detailed information about the products they sell. Going back to our home theater example, the online retailer Crutchfield (http://www.crutchfield.com) provides extremely detailed information about each of the products on its Web site, as you can see in Figure 3.2. In some cases, the merchant's Web site offers more info than does the manufacturer's site! Just remember, a retailer's site might offer information biased in favor of that retailer—but that's to be expected.

TIP

Some retailers offer links to "similar items" on their product pages, which is a good way to compare other products you might be interested in.

Figure 3.2Figure 3.2 Many retailers, such as Crutchfield (pictured here), offer product specs and pictures.

Product Review Web Sites

For more objective information about a product, nothing beats the opinions of other users. The Web is a terrific forum for customer opinion; there are several sites that offer detailed customer reviews of just about any product you can imagine. Read on to learn more.

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