Like most of us, your Facebook and Pinterest feeds are probably full of tantalizing products you might want to buy. Maybe you even found Boredwalk this way! If you're an avid online shopper you've probably also been burned by some online transactions. Whether you ended up with a hair dryer that could double as a flame thrower or an outfit that looks nothing like the picture, being ripped off sucks. It's even more frustrating in instances where you don't really have recourse to do anything about it.
Being an e-commerce professional, I hate seeing these slimy websites taking advantage of consumers. It just makes life harder for consumers and legitimate e-commerce businesses like mine that really do care about operating ethically and providing new (and returning!) customers with a great shopping experience. So how can a consumer avoid being scammed? You might think you can depend on reviews or product photos, but unfortunately sometimes reviews are fraudulent and product photos are stolen. Being e-commerce pros, here are the signals we look for to determine if a website is trustworthy and likely to deliver what it offers. You can use these tips to protect yourself, too!
That's me on the left!
1. What's on the "About" page?
Shady companies can often say a lot while still saying nothing. They might ramble on about their "vast distribution network" or their "unmatched selection", but what they avoid telling you is anything substantive ABOUT their company — you know, the whole point of having an "About" page in the first place. They won't show you pictures of the team or share their names. They won't tell you where their offices are located. Unethical companies don't actually want you to know too much about them, so they fill their about pages with vague information about their business.
One phrase to particularly watch out for is "partners with global merchants and artisans." Go ahead and Google that phrase; seriously, you will be in awe of how much it pops up. This is a euphemism. What they mean is they drop ship* stuff from sites trading in low-quality (often counterfeit) products like AliExpress at a hefty mark up. If you want to buy goods of questionable quality directly from China, just go to AliExpress directly. Yeah, there's a good chance you will get ripped off or end up with counterfeit goods (which could even threaten your global entry status if you're into travel), but if you want to roll the dice on that, at least don't pay the middlemen drop shippers.
In summation, when it comes to "About" pages be sure to pay attention to what they aren't telling you. If the details are vague and there's not much of a story about the people behind the business, that's not a good sign. If they're hiding from you, you have to wonder why.
* Drop shipping is a business model where rather than making and/or holding physical inventory in their own warehouse or via a reputable 3rd-party logistics (3PL) hub, an online "store" will just take your order information — what you ordered and where it's going — and relay it to the actual manufacturer to pack & ship on their behalf. Drop shipping in and of itself is not an uncommon business practice OR inherently shady. We used to do this when we first started out before we brought our production & shipping in-house! But it IS a model that is increasingly abused and leads to lots of scammers offering one thing on their website and shipping significantly inferior knock-offs of the product(s) pictured to unsuspecting customers.
2. Does this website provide contact info and/or shipping info?
Being in a global economy, websites can be based anywhere. While it might be cool to discover a legitimate exotic international brand, it also leaves you open to the risk of dealing with businesses in countries that don't take consumer safety all that seriously.
If you're buying goods that come from overseas and you end up at best dissatisfied with the purchase, and at worst injured by the product, you won't have any recourse against the company that sold it to you. If you primarily deal with businesses that are based in your own country you're at least dealing with businesses subject to the same laws you're used to. Legitimate U.S. based businesses all carry liability insurance (we sure do) and know they will be held liable if they sell something that hurts a consumer.
This is why I always look for contact information on websites. I want to see a U.S. phone number and hours of operation so that I know I can call and talk to a real human. I want to know where the company is based and where the products will be shipping from (and a random PO box doesn't count). If a company won't give you their contact information, again, they're hiding from you, and you have to wonder why.
Our website says we're in Los Angeles because we are. Well, technically we're in Pico Rivera, a suburb in L.A. County about 20 minutes from downtown L.A., but most people haven't heard of Pico Rivera, so Los Angeles metro area is a better descriptor to help people understand where we're based. We design, print, and ship all of our products from our L.A. area office, and if you showed up at the address on our website you could talk to the person who wrote this article — hi there! This is the kind of transparency I look for when I'm trying to suss out whether a website can be trusted.
3. What is the return policy?
Sketchy companies have sketchy return policies. They might dance around their return policy with vague language like "if you're not satisfied, let us know" or they may make no reference to their return policy at all. When I shop online I look for a clear return policy. Can I return the product for any reason? What condition must the product be in for it to be accepted as a return or exchange? How long do I have to return it? Where do I send the return?
That last question is especially important. Remember what I said about overseas companies? If you're going to be on the hook for return shipping overseas you'll likely find the shipping costs are so outrageously expensive that it's not even worth the cost to return it. These companies know this and that's how they avoid ever having to issue a refund.
4. Beware of supply chains!
"Supply chain" is just a fancy way of saying who's involved in getting the product from the assembly line to you. When you walk into a store like Bed Bath and Beyond and you buy a Cuisinart food processor, you can be sure Bed Bath and Beyond got that food processor from Cuisinart. You might be thinking "duh, of course they did!" but I'm making this point because with e-commerce, sometimes things aren't what they appear to be.
When you deal with online "marketplace" retailers like eBay or Amazon, you don't really know who's in the supply chain. For example, just because someone says a shoe is a Birkenstock shoe doesn't mean that's what it actually is. If Bed Bath and Beyond sold you a counterfeit Cuisinart in one of their stores they'd be in all sorts of liability trouble and they'd be on the hook. If that fake food processor started a kitchen fire you could sue them. If Cuisinart caught them selling fakes of their product they could sue them. For these reasons a store like Bed Bath and Beyond has plenty of incentive to make sure they are selling exactly what they say they are selling. Online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon are another story, and thus far they've been able to avoid being held liable for selling counterfeit goods.
This would be annoying if you ended up with a product that's just junky and not as described, but it's downright dangerous if you're buying something like eyewear, cosmetics, toys for your kids, electronics or even toys for adults. Buying directly from brand websites, such as ours, or major retailers who source their products directly from the brands, is a good way to ensure that you'll always get exactly what was advertised.
It can be tempting in 2018 to just assume that because the U.S. has relatively comprehensive consumer protections in place that every other country has similar protections in place, or that those protections apply to all products that ship into the U.S. from overseas. The unfortunate reality is that they don't. This isn't to say that the ONLY trustworthy consumer products and/or e-commerce businesses come from and/or are based in the U.S. Sometimes there are disreputable U.S.-based e-commerce companies, and there are certainly LOTS of legitimate retailers selling high-quality goods all around the world. But with the good of a globalized economy: innovation, lower prices, and economic growth for developing nations — comes the bad: inferior quality, unsafe manufacturing practices using hazardous materials, and shady business practices, and it's up to all of us as consumers to use critical thinking and practice good judgment before handing over our hard-earned money and risk getting burned by unscrupulous scammers.
That's it for this week; shop safe & smart out there, and have a great weekend!
Peace, love, and tacos,
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