Thoughts, ideas, suggestions and education from financial adviser Jim Ludwick, Founder of MainStreet Financial Planning, Inc. of Odenton, MD; Washington, DC; New York City, and Santa Barbara, CA

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Be a Diligent Online Consumer

In the past few weeks I’ve been online making purchases. No big deal these days. Most of us like the convenience, sometimes avoidance of sales tax (this may not last much longer), and competition that we can observe in real time.

So why am I blogging on this issue? Well, there’s lots of dollars at stake and in all three cases I’m going to detail, each amounted to over one hundred dollars that stayed with me only because I was diligent.

Encounter Number One. I booked online our family vacation cabin at the beach for two weeks, instead of one, for the first time. This was a much larger amount than I’m used to paying so when the total came back it looked OK to me. I have used this company’s site one time before so I was comfortable booking online, but opted to pay by check since their credit card “fee” seemed excessive. My first red flag. As I was making out the check I observed they had added a $117 insurance fee I had declined to check off on the online form while making my reservation. Hmm… I thought. Not a good practice and something I’m sure the North Carolina Board of Realtors might be interested in if this is a pattern. I got a quick email apology in response to my email questioning this charge so I decided not to turn them in, but I’m still suspicious and won’t use them again. If one of the owners is present when we check in, I may speak to them about this issue. As a business owner, I like to know when customers are dissatisfied, or worse yet, deciding not to come back and use our services.

Encounter Number Two. I got the bright idea of buying my wife a new laptop computer for Christmas. Now this bright idea came to me after two embarrassing public conversations where my wife pointed out she always got my hand-me-down laptop. But I might be straying a little, so back on topic. Off to the internet and reading reviews of the latest laptops and features I wanted to make sure she enjoyed with her new computer. I narrowed it down to two models and then went price shopping. Price comparison is pretty easy these days. Thank you internet.

Bingo. The most popular shopping site had it on sale and a rebate to boot. I emailed both of our sons to make sure dad was making a good decision. They are both techno-geniuses, in my humble opinion (yes, I know that I’m prejudiced). Less than an hour later, and I’ve been OK’d to make my purchase. I go back to number one and BANG. Price is up $100 and no rebate. Ouch. Now I had already been to the manufacturer’s website and saw the rebate there, so I wasn’t too worried about that, but how can the price change in less than an hour? Off to search and I’m not happy. Then I get bright idea number two, my browsing history. I click on the oldest link for that site and wowee I’m back at the sale price, but no rebate. No biggee, I buy immediately and the price is confirmed. Off to the manufacturer’s website, download the rebate. Two weeks later an email tells me the rebate is accepted. Final conclusion, I get the price I want and the rebate I deserve, but only because I was very diligent. Savings: $150.

Lastly, I need to buy an airline ticket. I’m reminded of that fact when Yapta.com sends me an email that the price has dropped on the date and flights they’ve been tracking on my behalf. Off to the airline website and the price is $160 higher. Rats. Well, the email is over an hour old, and I know prices change fast in this industry based on seats sold.

Just to be sure I go to Orbitz.com and whammo there is the original price. I call the airline because I can’t get their online site to give me the price Orbitz is quoting. The CSR says she can’t help and sends me to web support that tells me they can’t replicate the price either and that I should go ahead and buy at the higher figure and then put in for the price match plus $100 if you can find the same ticket price within 24 hours of purchase. So I buy it and go right back to Orbitz to document the lower price. Screen print for documentation and then complete the application. Ten minutes later I go back to Orbitz to see about the price and wouldn’t-you-know-it, the price is now $160 more not only for my airline, but the five other airlines that were also at that lower price. Coincidence? I don’t know, but after two weeks I was awarded a $260 certificate for future purchases on that airline.

Moral of this story. 1. Learn how to do a PRINT SCREEN (Google this if you don’t know how) 2. Remember you have a browsing history and might need to make use of it. 3. Look over invoices to make sure only what you intended to pay for is included. 4. Capture rebate forms as soon as you see them. Don’t forget to read their terms and conditions. In my case, it excluded stores like Best Buy, and Target, but not number one online shopping. Lastly, remember that even though in my case all three online companies are well known and mostly dominant in their area of commerce, you have to watch them very closely. Buyer Beware.

Happy New Year. Some things never change, but we can be hopeful, or lacking that, be diligent.

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