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Advice For Online Shoppers

Preston Gralla, executive editor of ZDNET and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Shopping, visited The Early Show to offer advice on how to shop online this holiday season.

According to Gralla, about 70 percent of Americans who have access to the Internet are shopping regularly online, for items as small as CDs to major appliances and furniture. And, he adds, that means that 30 percent are feeling edgy about online shopping.

Even though consumers can't touch what they are buying, Gralla says there is no better place to shop than the Internet.

"We are Santa's helpers, not replacers," says Toby Lenk, CEO at eToys. "We think of ourselves as elves."

This particular crew of elves includes artists who design the Web site, testers and reviewers who play with the products and tell Web surfers what they think, and then there are those who design such features as the gift registry and the workers in the warehouse who pack the boxes for home delivery.

"Holiday time is a real time for us online retail outfits to shine," says Lenk. "The Web site is 7 days a week, 24 hours day, and we custom our services that way so if you have questions in the dead of night, you can call up our toll-free number and get help."

"Shopping online offers unparalleled access to comparative sites, any time of the day or night, anyplace in this country or the world," he says. "Done properly, this puts the power of the shopping dollar back in the hands of the consumer."

Also, online, there are several ways to shop: direct from the manufacturer (like Dell computers); from an online version of a retail store (like The Gap); from a collection of stores linked together on a Web site to create an "online mall" (like iQVC); or at an online auction (like eBay).

Foremost among Gralla's guidelines for online shopping is to shop only on "secure" sites. A secure site will have an icon that looks like a lock or, if you are not sure if a site is secure, you can check with any number of organizations, like the Better Business Bureau or eTrust. A secure site means your credit card number will be encrypted, or scrambled. If you think about it, says Gralla, it's safer than a department store where you hand over your account number to a salesperson.

But every mouse click you make is registered somewhere - what you search, what you "window shop" in a site, what you buy - and some sites do share or sell that information. Privacy policies vary from site to site, and, again, organizations like eTrust can help you select the safest places to shop, Gralla advises.

Also, check a site's return policy. Some online items cannot be returned to real life stores. Places like The Gap and Macy's do take online returns, but that's not always the case.

DO:

  • Only shop at secure sites
  • Pay with a credit card
  • Check privacy, shipping and return policies before you buy
DON'T:

  • Don't wait until the last minute to shop
  • Don't give out extra personal information, such as your Social Security number
  • Don't give credit card information to your children.Nothing But Net: An Early Look at Online Holiday Shopping will continue all week on The Early Show, with gifts for men (Tuesday), gifts for women (Wednesday), gourmet goodies (Thursday), and gifts for kids (Friday).