Online sales are the rage in everything from electronics to dog toys. The US Commerce Department lists online sales as exceeding $255 trillion (yep, that’s a “t”) in 2011 for the US alone1 and in home appliances, including air conditioners, sales are in the billions of dollars. According to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, in a 2009 white paper2, there were about 60 million home appliances shipped that year, down from a 2007 high of 75 million. That’s about one appliance for every other household in the US on average. So, with everyone doing it, how can you make the experience a good one?
Rule Number One: Know who you are dealing with.
Without the ability to show up, face-to-face to complain and get some resolution, you are left relying on the reputation of the seller. There’s no excuse not to investigate, and this means more than just reading sales material on their website. The Guardian did an expose of how fake reviews are clogging up websites with bogus information.
A quick and dirty trick is to type in the company name with the word “scam” into Google and see what comes up. Another is to research the site through whois.net to see how long a site has been up. Some sites are completely bogus. As of this writing, ScamBook 3 shows some entirely fake sites, full of product listings and wonderful prices for all kinds of items. Don’t be fooled by a flashy website – check them out.
Here is an example of how convincing a fake site can look: http://designsfauxreal.com/ (This domain has since been seized by Homeland Security and is being used to inform the public about fake sites and counterfeit goods. –acboy)4
Rule Number Two: Pay with a credit card
If you do get scammed, and you have a credit card that allows it, you can dispute the charge. Eventually, you get your money back. It’s also instructive to see what company name appears on your card as the biller. If you think you purchased from Sears and something else appears instead, it might be worth a phone call to sort it out.
Rule Number Three: Read, read, read
A reputable online air conditioner seller will post warranty information, shipping charges, and a host of other goodies on their site. Pay close attention to the return policy and understand what’s involved – you may be stuck for shipping or other charges. While you are at it, get the model number of the unit you are interested in and do a search on that to see what reviews you can find. Read those too.
Rule Number Four: Make sure you order what you thought you ordered
Websites are notorious for not keeping up with changing information. Don’t be a victim of “stale” info. If you find a product you like, see if you can use the model number on the manufacturers website to pull up information on color, manufacturer’s warranty and accessories needed.
A popular and current model of air conditioner will show many results in a search because many online shops are selling it. This isn’t the case with old stock that’s no longer being manufactured or supported. For example, the LW1511ER, a 12,000 BTU window air conditioner I bought several years ago shows up as discontinued at both the LG site5 and at a big box store, AJ Madison6. Anyone else offering it for sale would be a bit suspicious.
Accessories are important here, you don’t want to be stuck with a unit and no way to purchase a filter for it. Check the invoice too. The model number you are buying has to match. If it doesn’t or if you are concerned, call the online store to make sure it’s in stock and ready to ship.
Rule Number Five: Count shipping in the price
While a lot of retailers who deal online offer free shipping, an air conditioner is a heavy, bulky item – someone is paying the cost to ship it. That someone is usually the customer. When price shopping, roll in the shipping costs too.
You can sometimes save money on shipping by finding an online retailer who is near you, but be aware that large operations may ship from another location or even have a deal with the manufacturer to ship direct. Others offer in-store pick up with free shipping to one of their physical stores. Take advantage of this if you have a location reasonably near you.
The worst situation is where a seller is making money on the shipping itself. This kind of bait-and-switch, a low price with “enhanced” shipping, is a red flag and identifies someone you don’t want to deal with. If they are scamming here, they are likely scamming elsewhere, and if something goes wrong, you aren’t likely to get much satisfaction.
It’s becoming more popular to shop around to see what you like in a store near you, then take that information online to get a better deal. This is fine, as long as you realize that buying local usually comes with some other benefits: repairs or a store warranty. You might try getting the best of both worlds by taking a printout of the online price (with shipping) and seeing if the offline retailer will bargain with you.
The window unit mentioned above was purchased through Walmart online. One of the best selling points was that they offered shipping to my house for $1. That’s hard to beat, especially since it was a great price going in and my local Walmart didn’t carry the product. So don’t overlook the big box stores when shopping online. They will often have deals that only appear on the net.