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5 ways to shop smarter and beat online gripes

According to a survey from IMRG and Capgemini, which hoovered up data from 60 UK retail websites, Monday 8 December will be the biggest online shopping day of 2009, with sales of around £320 million. That's a lot of moolah in these tough times.

The benefits of online shopping are crystal clear: no crowds of screaming babies, knife-wielding hoodies and, you know, people. (I hate people.) You can compare prices from the comfort of your own pants, and the chances of being mugged are entirely dependent on the criminality of your own family.

But that doesn't mean you won't lose out - and we're not even talking about fraud. As our online poll shows, there are many and several gripes unique to shopping online. Here are a few of our (least) favourite:

Hidden credit card surcharges. You've committed to buying a product, and you're happy with the price you've 'agreed', but then at the last minute the retailer sticks on a couple of quid to cover the charge issued to them by your credit card company.

Here's the thing: it's an online shop, dummy. Short of stuffing cash into your optical drive bay, there is no way of paying that doesn't involve your vendor having to wear a small fee. So the only reason to leave it until the last minute before informing you, the punter, is to artificially deflate the price you're being asked to pay. It's dishonest and good stores don't do it.

Hidden and complicated delivery charges. It's the same side of a different coin. Or PayPal groat.

At PC Advisor, we always quote prices as inclusive of VAT and delivery. The best retailers do the same, and quote a flat delivery rate. They also allow you to pick up an item without having to pay anything above the quoted product price. And if you think it's okay to shell out a fortune on incomprehensible delivery charges, bear this in mind: most online retailers use the same handful of courier firms. Often, the vendor is using it to boost its margin.

A low price on a comparison site that turns out to be ex VAT. Price comparison sites are a huge business. When you're not constrained by geography, it's deeply satisfying to know, KNOW, that you've grabbed a bargain.

But some retailers are more honest than others in the prices they forward to price comparison sites. Choosing the 'lowest price' only to find it is actually going to cost you 15-, or even 17.5 percent more, is annoying. And pointless. You're not going to buy when you've been lied to, right? DON'T BUY WHEN YOU'VE BEEN LIED TO.

Finding a low price only to discover the website can't despatch for several weeks. Back in the old Web 1.0 days, retail sages used to say that online shopping would never take off because (a) people liked to handle something before they buy and (b) when you buy something, you want it right there and then.

Well, (a) turned out to be true to a certain degree, but savvy shoppers soon worked out that they could paw the merchandise in Jessops and then buy from Fred in a shed at half the price. And with the wide availability of same- and next-day delivery, (b) shouldn't be a problem, but it is.

As with several other points we're raising here, the issue is really one of openness. If a retailer tells you early in the piece that you can't have your chosen product for a few weeks, and you are happy to continue with the purchase, everyone's a winner. But when they leave it to the last minute, it's usually because the product isn't in stock, and they want to use your money to buy it in from a distributor. It's less than honest. Good sites are up front about stock levels of products.

Tempting offers such as 'free delivery' or '25% off' negated by myriad conditions and exceptions hidden in the small print. Just one more area where the letter of the law may be observed, but the spirit of customer service often isn't.

Search engines are the world's biggest shop window, and unscrupulous vendors can dress it any way they like to tempt you into the store with 'offers' that are less than they at first seem. The principle seems to be that once you've decided to buy, you're not going to be put off even by the small print.

NEXT PAGE: 5 ways to be a happy shopper

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