Skeptical Shopper: Know Who Your Online Seller Is Before You Hit 'Buy'

Do you know who you're buying from when you are on one of the Internet's large shopping sites?

Rita Perenson of Long Island, New York, wasn't sure. Last fall, she and her husband thought they had purchased a 32-inch LG HDTV from Amazon.com. But the seller on Amazon's site turned out to be the online arm of a store in Nashville, Tennessee. When the HDTV arrived, its packaging was already opened, leading the Perensons to suspect that the item had been used by someone else.

The Perensons also discovered that the store's customer service line had more-limited hours than Amazon does. When they reached someone at the number, the rep asked them to ship the HDTV back to Nashville--albeit at the company's expense--so technicians could evaluate it and decide whether to offer a refund or a replacement set. The Perensons finally got the TV they ordered, but the experience was unexpected and unpleasant.

"The confusion is that you are on the Amazon site and the order is processed by them, but they are not [involved] in all aspects of the sale," Mrs. Perenson says.

What You Need to Know

The good news about large marketplace sites like Amazon.com, Buy.com, and Sears.com is that you can view millions of products--and their prices--in one place. Another convenience at Sears.com is that you often have the choice of picking up the merchandise in person at a Sears or Kmart store through the company's MyGoFer service. (For details, visit the MyGoFer Website.)

But keep these tips in mind:

Know your seller: Amazon and Sears have millions of products on their sites, so the chances are good that the seller of the item you choose won't be Amazon or Sears.

Understand how the company and the reseller deal with problems: Ultimately, Amazon didn't get involved in the Perenson's HDTV sale, but on its site it guarantees "purchases from Amazon Marketplace and Merchant sellers when payment is made via the Amazon.com website or when you use Amazon Payments for qualified purchases on third party websites. The condition of the item you buy and its timely delivery are guaranteed under the Amazon A-to-Z Guarantee." (Read the entire Amazon guarantee policy at "A-to-z Guarantee Protection FAQs.") The Perensons called Amazon to confirm that it would back the transaction, and the Amazon operator told them that they would be covered. Amazon didn't need to get involved in their case--but the family did have to deal with several weeks of inconvenience and uncertainty.

Be aware that different sites handle their marketplace sellers differently: Buy.com, for instance, instructs you to contact the seller directly regarding a return or any problem with an order purchased from its marketplace sellers, and says that the products need to be returned directly to the seller, not to Buy.com in the event of a problem. Buy.com's cobranded sites, such as its Wireless Store, have their own return policies. At Sears, Imran Jooma, president of eCommerce at Sears Holdings, told us: "We have a team of customer service representatives who are dedicated to helping all customers resolve any issues. We also help connect them directly with the seller to help them resolve the situation." However, the Sears.com Returns page states that items not sold by Sears or Kmart cannot be returned or exchanged at the buyer's local Sears or Kmart. Each merchant on Sears.com has its own return policy.

Be extra careful when buying HDTVs: Most sellers have even more-stringent policies for large TV returns and/or refunds (and return shipping costs) than for smaller or less fragile products.

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