Beware of Wildly Inconsistent Online Shopping Rules

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Before you sit down at your kitchen table and lose money shopping for Christmas and holiday gifts, you'd be well advised to learn the rules of the online shopping road. They can be very different from one vendor to another, so shop carefully.

Some companies do a great job with customer care. Others don't. I have been both delighted and burned several times, and I'd like to share some of my personal experiences to help you shop more safely.

Amazon, the leader in online shopping, does it right from the customer perspective. It keeps the customer's interests first. Prime customers never worry about buying there, because they are always protected.

Customers can purchase from Amazon or from third parties that use the site to connect with Amazon shoppers. Many of them offer their wares through Amazon's Prime program.

With Prime, Amazon's protection is wrapped around you like a warm blanket. Its reassuring policies let Amazon keep customers for life. Amazon makes it quick and easy to shop, and delivery is speedier than you can believe.

Even for non-Prime purchases on Amazon, you often will find comparable policies and performance -- but when making transactions that are not under the Prime umbrella, be sure to check the fine print first.

I used to love shopping at Walmart until it damaged our relationship. Walmart can be both great and terrible, depending how you buy.

For in-store purchases, you are covered -- you can return any item. Customers love this policy. When you buy from Walmart.com, you are also covered. I have bought many items online, picked them up at the neighborhood store, and returned whatever wasn't right at the neighborhood store. It was a great way to shop, and the system built Walmart's corporate brand.

However, a few months ago I went online to Walmart.com and purchased an extended battery for my iPhone. It arrived, but it wasn't right, so I went to the store to return it. The store wouldn't take it back. I didn't understand -- did Walmart suddenly change its policy? The people behind the counter didn't know what to tell me.

Finally, after stopping by several Walmart locations, one person told me I would have to return it where I bought it. I said, I bought it from Walmart, and showed the receipt emailed to me.

When I searched through my email, I found that a third receipt had been emailed to me after delivery. That one mentioned another company, called "SaveTronix." That was the first time I realized I was not buying from Walmart.

So, I contacted the company and was instructed to return the item. I did, paying for shipping. That was new, but at least it was done. After the company received the return, it issued a refund, minus a restocking fee. What! This is a huge mistake on the part of Walmart.

So, what went wrong? Apparently, Walmart, like Amazon, now lets other companies use its website and search engine, providing an online shopping mall kind of experience. There is nothing wrong with that. However, if the rules are different, it's up to every company involved to make sure the rules of the transaction are spelled out clearly.

It's not up to the customer to have to do research and try to uncover every rock before making a purchase. There was no mention of SaveTronix on the first two receipts I received. Had I known the details, I would not have make the purchase and lost money.

So, both companies made mistakes that diminished the trust value of the Walmart brand in my mind. If it happened to me, I am sure it also has happened to countless others as well.

Target seems to be growing its brand value in the minds of its customers. I have made several purchases, both in-store and online, and I have never had a problem. Target has improved its site and kept its brand value.

That's why when I shop online at Target, I don't worry. That's the way a retail giant should act. So, thumbs up for Target.

Increasingly we are seeing retail stores moving into the online space. There are right ways to do this and wrong ways. For example, Barnes & Noble sells both in brick-and-mortar stores and online. However, they functioned like separate businesses.

That meant if you purchased online, you had to make returns online. You couldn't return a purchase at one of the retail stores. That posed a problem for many customers. I don't know what the company does today, because frankly I have not spent much time wandering around its stores since then.

If you own an iPhone, iPad or MacBook, this will ring a bell with you. The devices themselves are often great, but the accessories often are not. For example, the cords you use to charge your devices last only a while before they stop working. Maybe it's something in the connector, or maybe the cord comes out of the plug, or maybe it just stops working -- but for one reason or another, the Apple cords stink.

Earbuds are another weak link in the Apple chain. The earbuds may work for some, but they fall out of my ears. I have much better luck with a wide variety of earbuds with soft rubber earpieces. Why can't Apple figure out earbuds after all these years? So, customers both love and hate Apple.

There are plenty of other online sites that hit a home run every time. Companies like L.L.Bean and Land's End score well for high quality clothing and a perfect way of interacting with customers. If a customer ever has a problem, all they have to do is return the item without hassle. That is a comfort level I have always loved, and that's why I have been a customer for decades.

There are plenty of companies that screw up the way they interact with customers. Grundig is a great example of how a company can lose good customers with poor customer care. I loved Grundig radios and listening to broadcasts from around the world. I've had them for years -- and yes, we could communicate around the world even before the Internet.

However, Grundig used a black, rubbery coating for a period that over time broke down and became tacky and sticky. So, the few radios I recently purchased have been sitting in the corner unused.

I called the company and was told there was nothing it could do. That shook my relationship with Grundig. While I loved Grundig in the past, not standing behind its products and making me pay for its mistakes means I can't trust the company any longer.

Trust is critical in building strong customer relationships and a strong company brand. It is an ongoing process that every company should take seriously. The reason is simple: If you take great care of your customers, you will have them for life. If not, then you will burn your relationship with them and your growth will suffer.

Customers should be very careful as they shop online this holiday season -- and, in fact, at any time of the year. Make sure you fully understand who you are buying from and what the policies are, even if you think you're dealing with a giant, national brand. Never assume.

Every company should think about following the Amazon, Target, and L.L.Bean way of doing business. Always take care of the customer, and you will have that customer for life. Happy holidays!

E-Commerce Times columnist Jeff Kagan is a wireless analyst, telecom analyst, industry analyst, consultant and speaker who has been sharing his colorful perspectives on the changing industry for 25 years. Email him at [email protected]

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