Avoid online returns dramaI’m one of those people who has spent more money on online returns than the actual product price itself. I’ve played the 1-800 game, over and over again. You’d think I’d given up on online shopping: but I have not!

What I should do — and will in future — is practise better online shopping strategy. Here’s what one should do to avoid unnecessary costs and hassle.

Read the Policy

Before you fill your shopping cart and enter your credit card information, click around to read a company’s online shopping policy, and find out how returns work. Since many online retailers are based in the U.S., you may have to search around to find out how things work for Canada. (Some retailers allow you to drop returns at a bricks-and-mortar location. Read further: Canadian buyers usually have to ship back, often to a U.S. address.) If you do have to mail back a return, take note; what kind of shipping does the retailer require? If you have to send by courier, for instance, it’s going to cost you!

What I like to see in a return policy is the fact that a retailer will send you a postage paid return sticker. (The Gap does this.)  I also like to see a 1-800 number in case I need to reach customer service. If a retailer does not have a toll-free customer service line, I’d be wary of shopping there.

Research the Company

Before you click Pay, look up the company you’re buying from if they are not a household name. Do a quick Google search and see if any worrisome reports come up. As well, do a search on the Better Business Bureau’s web site to see if the business has any complaints registered against it.

Keep a Paper Trail

When you buy, print up (or save as a pdf) all documentation of your purchase. If you have to call the company and run into a problem, write down the date and time of your call, who you spoke to, and what happened – this information will come in handy should your complaint escalate up the customer service chain.

Pay by Credit Card

Most Canadian credit cards have some kind of purchase insurance on them. Paying via your card means you have the option of putting a stop payment on the purchase should there by an issue – and reporting the problem will often prompt your credit card company to fight the good fight for you, and with slightly more clout. (Tip: Both the MBNA Smart Cash MasterCard and Platinum Plus MasterCard have extended warranties and purchase protection. Plus we’ll throw in a $100 gift card if approved.)

Consider Online Security

Make sure you  use an updated browser with good security, and that your computer is running an anti-virus program. When you buy, look for a security seal such as VeriSign. There’s no guarantee these things will protect you again all internet fraud and hacking, but they can help.

Be Persistent

If there’s a problem with a product or a return, get on it right away. Call the toll free number, make your case, and try to get things rolling quickly. You don’t want your case to get forgotten or have the problem drag into the holidays so another gift can’t be purchased in time.

Complain if you Must

If things just don’t get resolved, use your documents to file a complain with the BBB. If you have all the information and are able to present it in a factual manner, you will have the best chance of resolution. Companies often do respond to BBB complaints. If you do have a problem, be clear and realistic about what you want: your money back, a replacement product, a refund on shipping, etc.

No need to shy away from online shopping this year. If you buy from reputable companies, give yourself plenty of time and stay organized, you should get good, fair treatment from the companies you buy from.