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When you buy something online - whether it's a book at Amazon, a trip at Expedia, or heaven-only-knows what on eBay - there's a word for that. E-commerce.

E for electronic, that is. In contrast to what folks in the industry call "bricks and mortar" - you know, getting in your car, driving to a store, picking up an item from the shelf, waiting on the checkout line, and so forth. And of course that's one of the promised (if not always delivered) advantages of e-commerce: no hassle. A few clicks, enter a credit card number, and soon the brown or purple-and-orange truck shows up with your package. What could be easier?

Of course the reality's a little more complex than that, and not quite as hassle-free. But it's true that you can buy just about anything online these days - and much of the convenience is real. (72 million consumers were expected to shop online this year on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the holiday season's top online shopping day. That's a lot of sales which would've once been made in the malls.)

What You're Buying

For years, the #1 category of retail merchandise bought online was computer hardware and software. But that's changed. In Shop.org's report, "apparel, accessories and footwear" took over the #1 spot, at $18.3 billion and growing fast. (Which means customers are getting more and more comfortable that their online purchases really will look and fit right.)

Computer stuff's #2, but you might be surprised at what's #3: autos and auto parts ($16.7 billion). Fourth? Home furnishings, at $10 billion. And we've left out something gigantic: online travel bookings at sites like Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz - which generated more revenue than all five top retail categories combined.

Some Common Sense Online Shopping Tips

A lot's changed in e-commerce since the first primitive Web stores opened in 1994. For one thing, online and offline have come together: you can now buy on many sites and pick up (or return) your item at a physical store. And increasingly, stores and e-commerce sites are working together to track how you're planning and making your purchases. But one thing hasn't changed: you still need to use common sense to have a good buying experience. Here's how:

  1. Use review sites like epinions.com and tripadvisor.com to get independent viewpoints on the products and services you're looking for (and don't forget the huge numbers of reviews posted at amazon.com, whether or not you intend to buy there).
  2. Shop around. Some sites, like Pricegrabber.com, will do your comparison shopping for you, displaying current prices on dozens of sites at once. But don't forget to get accurate shipping & handling prices: some sites have been known to low-ball pricing and make up for it on more expensive S&H.)
  3. Check return policies in advance. If returns are too costly or complicated, you want to know that before it's too late.
  4. Use the Web to save money. Before you buy something new, price it used on eBay. Before you go to the mall, do a Google search for printable coupons. Before you throw away that busted appliance, check for cheap spare parts online.
  5. Online buying is generally safe: make it safer. Check site reviews (and be cautious before buying from amateurish-looking sites you've never heard of. Make sure you're on a secured Web site before providing your credit card number. (Look for a golden lock and a web address that starts: https://, not http://). And don't provide your credit card number on a public computer or on an unsecured wireless network (like the one at your local coffee shop).

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