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The Pitfalls to Online Shopping

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By , dealnews Senior Content Editor

Online shopping is supposed to be easy. After all, it lets you buy new clothes without actually wearing any. The appeal is largely its simplicity and immediacy. But as the dealnews staff can attest, online shopping frequently hits user stumbling blocks that complicate the process.

See that rage face? Our editors test (or essentially "purchase") nearly 300 deals a day, and by our very informal count, they make this face at least a dozen times. (This is a modest estimate.) As it turns out, not all sites are actually optimized for ease of use, and a smooth, positive user experience isn't always on the horizon. From buggy shopping carts to unreasonable hoop-jumping for a discount, our editors have seen it all. No merchant is 100% hassle-free, and even some of our favorite sites fall victim to at least one not-so-user-friendly shortcoming.

Because we are experts when it comes to online shopping, we decided to list the most common pitfalls our editors see, with notes about what would help these sites run silky smooth.


The Trouble with Coupons

One unpopular practice among our editorial staff is when a store withholds the opportunity to redeem a coupon code until the final stage of checkout, after all information has been entered — including credit card information. (Kohl's and Amazon are two merchants that do this.)

From a deal hunter's perspective, this is a time-consuming task, and when a coupon turns out to be invalid or expired, it puts a damper on what seemed like a great bargain. From a consumer standpoint, it can also be a bit risky, as it could lead to accidental purchases. (Ask one of our editors what she did with the six boxes of oatmeal she mistakenly bought while testing a coupon.) Most sites don't reject dummy credit card information, which is ideal for those who are "just browsing," but some sites require real data, which means the buyer must be extremely confident in a potential purchase.

And then there are the occasional retailers that really want you to fight for your coupon discount: You must sign in (or create an account) to apply coupons. Fair enough. But then, once you apply the coupon, you're asked to sign in again before you can see the discount. Then, some coupons don't even reflect their discount until the final stage of checkout. (If you've ever tried to redeem coupons from newegg, then you've experienced this at least once.)

Our preference: There should be a coupon code box available in the shopping cart, and it shouldn't require a sign-in or additional information. American Eagle coupon codes and promos at Dell Home both operate like this.


The Search for Shipping Costs

Many stores either offer a flat-rate or tiered shipping system, and the cost for your order is typically easy to figure out in-cart. Other stores understandably charge variable shipping rates, usually based on an item's size and weight, or your shipping location. But when such sites also keep the charge inexplicably hidden until the final stages of checkout, it becomes a major shopping deterrent — especially when shipping costs can make or break a bargain.

For instance, take the ever-so-popular online merchant Amazon. Unless you subscribe to Amazon Prime (which offers free 2-day shipping on anything sold by Amazon), purchases over $25 always ship free, and select categories have set rates. (For example, video games always ship for $4.98.) But how about apparel, hardware, or toys? Shipping costs for those items can vary greatly, and the only way to find out is near the final stages of checkout.

Meanwhile, Walmart, another well-known retailer, only displays shipping costs for select items that are eligible for free or 97-cent shipping. Again, our editors would prefer less guesswork and more consistency in presenting this information.

Our preference: Display shipping costs point-blank on the product page (the way newegg does). Otherwise, provide a shipping calculator in-cart (like HP Home & Home Office), or directly on the product page (like B&H Photo-Video). Above all, be consistent in how this information can be accessed.


Avoid the Flash Mob

Many sites use Flash in small doses (frequently with product images, like at Walmart and Macy's), which is tolerable for our busy web browsers. And then there are sites that heavily rely on Flash to grab a consumer's attention. (It's especially prominent among athletic apparel merchants and restaurants.)

What does a full Flash site bring? Slow load times, browser crashes, and sad faces. Often times, Flash sites have difficulty in remembering search filters when you click the "back" button, and sometimes, the "add to cart" button fails to appear at all. In many cases, the razzle-and-dazzle of Flash-heavy retail sites can be totally lost on our browsers.

Our preference: It seems simple enough — curb the Flash. If it's absolutely necessary, limit it to front page sale banners and/or item images. Remember, everything in moderation!


It's Time to Play "Guess the Stock!"

When shopping at a brick-and-mortar store, you can often ask a sales attendant to check the stockroom if you can't find a particular item on the floor. In lieu of a real-life store employee, most retail sites provide such information by spelling it out or removing the out-of-stock item altogether.

But some sites don't make it as obvious — one example being JCPenney. These sites may leave a product online and within a result page even after it sells out, which means consumers have to wait until the product page loads only to find out that what they're seeking is unavailable. Or, there will appear to be stock — until you add it to cart. This is especially frustrating for items like apparel, which can have several variables: size, style, and color combinations. (Is it completely sold out in blue, or just unavailable in a size small?)

There are sites that display stock information on product pages, but often, they're extremely vague — "Only a few more left in stock!" — or totally incorrect. Some retailers incorrectly label select items as "limited quantities," but do not update their inventory information in real time.

Our preference: If it's not in stock, say so! Or, even better, remove it from the site entirely. And if you want to note that stock is extremely limited, be precise. Amazon is excellent at maintaining stock info in real time.


We've aired our grievances, but now we want to hear from you: What can spoil your online shopping experience?

Photo credits top to bottom: The Meme Store, Retail Chief,
© photo division/bilderlounge/Corbis, Wiz Marketing, and Melissa Mars

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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12 comments
I agree with all of these pitfalls. To which I would add that I've had some trouble getting my credit card approved for purchases at some websites (as opposed to those offering Google Checkout and Amazon Payments which really simplify the payment process) and having shipping address aproved if they aren't the billing address (makes it harder to buy gifts for others!). The worse experience with the first issue I've had was Ebay. Tried to  register my credit card for purchase there and failed. In order to use Paypal it wanted me to jump through all these steps (verifying a checking account in order to register a credit card!). I gave up ...

The other pitfall I would add is ... no warranty provided, especially for used or refurbished items. Makes you think twice of whether getting the deal is worth the risk!
williamhmcdaniel
Nice info, especially for newbies to on line buying.  But us old hands knew it all.  Thanks for it though.  I know many can use the info.
diamondtalon
you hit all the major ones! I'd like to add taxes too! In some states, there will always be taxes but nevertheless I feel it is up to the site on how much tax to put. And like everything else some sites put them at the final steps >=O sometimes a deal breaker too.
Monkadelic
I agree with all of these.  In addition, it drives me nuts when a site accepts paypal, but still makes you  fill out the name and address fields, which in a well designed site, are populated automatically when you checkout via paypal
cynthiak2
Eddie Bauer wins for "worst stock reporting" and it drives me crazy.I shop and find an item and they repeatedly say, Item not in stock.  oh whoops, I think they say "sorry" but they really aren't or they wouldn't adhere to such bad practices.
Kyser_Soze
Enough with the "HATES"! How about what I like: I like free shipping! New egg has it on many items and Amazon has it if you spend $25 or more. I like Amazon Prime, quick free shipping and free videos! I like online shopping because I can price compare quickly, I don't have to look for parking and I don't have to worry about store hours. I like Lastpass to fill in all of those pesky forms with 1 click so I haven't wasted a lot of time if the coupon code doesn't work. And finally, I like Dealnews for finding the best deals! Thanks guys!
bikeral
I HATE sites that make you create and account in order to check it.  They also usually keep shipping charges hidden.   So you have to waste time setting up an account only to find out they are out of stock on the item you want or their shipping charges are ridiculous.  

I also agree FLASH is heavily abused and crashes way too often. 
jaydub
The one I hate is deciding to buy an item with a good value because it offers "free shipping", then the final page of your checkout adds a ridiculous "handling charge"
shellady
J.Jill offered a discount if you spent a specific amount. I ordered enough to meet that and thought I would get the discount. However, some of the items were sold out. They did not let me know that until they sent email confirmation of my purchase. They did not apply the discount and refused to when I contacted customer service. I would have made additional purchases to get the discount if I had been given the opportunity. I have not made any purchases with J.Jill since.
cable305
Land's End has a particularly buggy shopping cart
which after you choose items and attempt to check out something goes wrong
and I have had to ultimately  end up phoning in my orders, they are very friendly and totally aware
of the problem which has existed for at least the last year 
ethanvyce
I hate when the credit card input doesn't have the months as numbers. It's minor, but why even list the months by name? What card ever has the expiry date spelled out?
rbmail
Great article. I hope retailers are listening.  I despise all 4 issues equally. ( although I use firefox's block for flashing ads which works great)  I hate having to put billing info in order to find my shipping cost or coupon applied, but not having current stock info and then getting an email that my order has been canceled  infuriates me to no end!
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