10 secrets to successful online shopping

The number of consumers making purchases online is growing. Here’s how to be a savvy Internet shopper

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The future of shopping

Canadian consumers dropped $15.3 billion on online shopping in 2010 (the latest year for which figures are available), according to Statistics Canada. And fashion was one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry, with 36 percent of all online shoppers purchasing clothing, jewellery or accessories, up from 30 percent in 2007. The beauty of shopping online is that it can save you a lot of money and time. Says Sandra Hanna, the Vancouver-based CEO of the personal-finance website smartcookies.com, it allows you to seek out a specific item and search for the lowest price, “without having to drive all around town.”

That said, if you don’t completely understand all the charges and don’t take advantage of price breaks, you can actually end up paying more for your fashion passions. And because you can shop any time all the time, online shopping can be dangerous for your budget. Hanna recommends sticking with a list and creating a set of personal “online shopping vows.” Her suggestions: “I will not order anything after 10 o’clock at night. And absolutely no drinking and clicking.” You don’t want temptations when your inhibitions are on holiday. Read on for a few more timely tips to help you get the most for your money online:

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1. Buy Canadian

Canadian department store-type and multi-brand sites such as thebay.com, sears.ca, eluxe.ca, clearlycontacts.ca (for designer eyeglasses and sunglasses) and shop.ca, as well as brand-specific sites with Canadian e-commerce such as bananarepublic.ca and gapcanada.ca, ship from within Canada, so you won’t be surprised by extra charges for taxes, duty and processing at the border.

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2. Get a final total if you buy from U.S. sites

When you purchase from a U.S. site, duty, Can­adian taxes, credit card fees for currency con­version and customs brokers fees (sometimes charged by courier companies to get packages processed at the border) can easily double the cost of your “bargain.” Some U.S. sites such as saksfifthavenue.com, shop.nordstrom.com, ae.com (American Eagle) and shopbop.com at least tell you the total cost of shipping to Canada before you “check out.” For shopping sites that don’t, try the duty calculator at crossbordershopping.ca. It also offers U.S. mailing addresses for Canadian shoppers, for a fee. The catch: You still have to pick up the goods at a post-office box or a parcel pickup service in the U.S. and bring them over the border yourself. That involves declaring them at the border anyway.

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3. Cut down on shipping fees

Some sites, such as shop.ca and lululemon.com, offer free shipping most of the time. (Check first to see whether certain conditions apply: For Lululemon, for example, it’s free with standard shipping only.) Others offer promotions at peak shopping periods such as the Christmas holiday season. And many sites, like garage.ca (casual clothing) and simons.ca (a popular Quebec-based department store), ship for free if you spend over a set dollar amount. Don’t want to fork out that much? Consider teaming up with a friend and split or eliminate the delivery charge.

Another alternative: Some e-tailers (such as sears.ca, softmoc.com/ca, zara.com and rw-co.com) will arrange delivery to their bricks-and-mortar stores for free, or at a lower cost than the fee for home delivery.

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4. E-clip a coupon

Many sites (such as clearlycontacts.ca, oldnavy.ca and gapcanada.ca) offer coupon codes for discounts. Make sure you actually enter the code when you check out or you’ll be charged full price. No coupon code available on the site? Prior to shopping, search for a code at bargainmoose.ca or smartcanucks.ca, or Google the product name, followed by “coupon code.”

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5. Sniff out a deal

Bargainmoose.ca and smartcanucks.ca track deals on many different fashion websites, including aldoshoes.com, suzyshier.com, reitmans.ca, guess.ca and roots.ca. When we checked, Aldo had 30 to 50 percent off in-season styles and Roots’ online store was offering up to 50 percent off select styles.

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6. Use price-comparison sites

To find the lowest price on an item, use price-comparison websites such as shopbot.ca and dealgenius.ca (which compares prices in Canada only, or in both Canada and the U.S., including an estimate of the shipping, duty and brokerage fees you will have to pay).

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7. Get notifications on deals

Hukkster.com acts as a kind of personal shopping concierge to suss out deals on U.S. sites. Here’s how it works: Install a “Hukk It” bookmark on your web browser. If you see something you like on, say, the J.Crew website, click the “Hukk It” button. If the item goes on sale or the price drops by at least 25 percent, you get an email notification.

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8. Know the return policy

Can you return items for free for a full refund (as at eluxe.ca, thebay.com, shop.ca or sears.ca)? Or will you get a credit you can use to purchase more merchandise (thepeacockparade.com and beyondtherack.com)? Make sure you return items within the allotted time, which can range from two weeks (eluxe.ca) to a year (many items at shop.ca and clearlycontacts.ca). Some retailers (such as bananarepublic.ca and reitmans.com) provide postage-paid envelopes for returning merchandise free of charge. For others, you pay the delivery fee.

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9. Take the credit

Some online shopping sites (shop.ca, for one) allow you to accumulate credits for shopping that you can use later to buy other goods. Shop.ca also offers $25 when you refer a friend who makes a purchase of $75 or more. Even better, the friend gets $25 off on a minimum $100 purchase for signing on as a new member.

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10. Try to make sure it fits

Clearlycontacts.ca has a virtual mirror that allows you to upload your photo and then check out how various eyeglass frames look on your face. Other sites (e.g., shopbop.com) include inter­national sizing charts. Beyondtherack.com and thebay.com include the measurements of the item; get out your own tape measure before ordering. Some sites (eluxe.ca, roots.ca, aritzia.com, asos.com and shopbop.com) give the model’s height and/or measurements and what size she is wearing; you can note if a garment runs true to size to help gauge if you should buy your usual size or go up or down. Stuck between two sizes? Search product reviews, or contact the vendor directly with questions. Of course, until you slide that dress over your hips, or ogle yourself in those pants, you’ll never know for sure if the fit is to your liking. Still, given the bargains to be had online and the joy of trying things on at your leisure in your own bedroom, it may just be worth a shot.

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