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How To Shop Online

Morwenna Ferrier’s guide to being a successful online shopper

This hair? Groupon.co.uk. The shoes? Topshop.com, ta very much. Same goes for this outfit (eBay.co.uk), the bra (M&S online), lipstick (Debenhams.com) and the cool song (Friends’ “I’m His Girl”; iTunes) playing on a loop in my head.

For almost a decade I have bought virtually everything I own online. It started in 2002. I was living in Italy and didn’t know how to buy a flight home in Italian, so I used the internet. So easy! Then, back in the UK, I found Amazon and my entire university reading list for under £50. In 2004 I discovered eBay and its wealth of mid-90s Levi 501s and finally, circa 2009, I broke the other golden rule and bought drugs: Suan zao ren tang tablets from China for me, potassium drops for the cat and codeine for us all. Dubiously sourced medication, yes, but so cheap.

It’s not an addiction: I can stop, I just don’t want to. According to e-commerce site Pitney Bowes, 98% of us have shopped on the internet (although I’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t been on Amazon). There are various reasons for the move online: people working during normal retail hours, for instance, or living in an obscure, Westfield-less place or, suggests Zia Zareem-Slade, head of online shopping at Selfridges, wanting to “get a sense of control” and to “learn to budget”.

All lovely, logical reasons, none of which apply to me: I work from home, live in London and don’t need to budget because I only hanker for tat. I shop online because I don’t like shopping. I was once mildly groped through the changing-room curtain of Topshop in Yeovil aged 16, which put me off somewhat, plus I’m a fainter with low blood pressure – hot, airless department stores are a minefield. Internet shopping allows me to browse Lakeland products while drunkenly buying a song from 7digital because I can’t be arsed to locate the CD upstairs. I’m also brilliant at eBaying. To not use those skills would be like Gigi Buffon not using his enormous hands.

To my mother, the internet is cold and vast, but to me, provided you play by the rules, it’s a safe place in a brutal world which prevents you from having to leave the house. Here’s how:

1. How to bid successfully on eBay

When it comes to eBay, so proficient am I at selling stuff that people ask me to do it for them for a cut. Or a skirt. I’m also excellent at bidding and more than capable of stringing together an outfit for under £9. I am basically the MacGyver of eBay.

Successfully eBaying requires two things: dedication and a willingness to wear dead people’s clothing. So, when browsing, an open mind is far more effective than knowing exactly what you want – eBay works topically, so avoid anything worn by Kate Middleton and all high-street capsule collections, eg last week’s Versace line for H&M, which wily types bought en masse and are currently reselling at marked-up prices.

Always search for items under “Newly listed”, not “Ending soonest”, and try to check eBay with some frequency: bi-hourly, seven days a week or thereabouts. Like I said, dedication. Even the secondhand stuff gets snapped up very quickly. Likewise, know that people sell stuff when they’re a) hungover b) bored, so be ready to bid on Sunday afternoons between 3pm and 5pm and weekday mornings between 9am and 11am. Additionally, the “Save search” device will alert you by email to specific items as and when they appear.

Be prepared to operate in different time zones. The US is good for vintage and Apple, China for wigs. Also, set yourself a budget and, should you win, pay quickly using PayPal. I once sent a cheque abroad which failed to materialise and spent the next 10 days negotiating a refund with a buyer in Hong Kong using BabelFish.

Sniping is key. Try Auctionstealer, an online tool which bids for you at the last nanosecond, meaning you can watch The Cube while simultaneously winning a grater. Some friends think sniping spoils the fun of bidding. I think these people have a gambling problem.

2. Why coupon sites are fraught

Much like Ryan Gosling gifs, deal-of-the-day sites are currently experiencing an online explosion. These are sites which sell vouchers online that you then use in real and online shops. Like supermarket coupons, but marginally less naff.

I can personally vouch for two sites: the largely underrated Vouchercloud, which offers meagre but worthwhile discounts off meals and toasters, and Groupon, because it understands that most people are vain and want to shellac their nails for a song.

A warning before you start: buying coupons for stuff you didn’t know you wanted until you read an email requires proper evaluating. Weigh up the merits of those acai-berry supplements. Ditto a pedicure in February. As someone who has bought three cut-price haircuts at three different salons since May I can safely say that, nice hair aside, presenting a printed-out coupon to a cashier feels deeply uncool. Stick to discounted meals, or save face and buy vouchers for online goods: eco bulbs and cases of wine. Those sorts of thing proliferate on Groupon.

Elsewhere Ocado, Sainsbury’s and Asda offer discounts off your first online shop, vouchers for which can be found at Mycheckcoutcoupons. I also recommend Oscaruk, which gives hefty discounts for things like season tickets and holidays to the over 50s, and Moneysavingexpert, the website of Radio 2’s Martin Lewis, which provides links to regular, legit print-off coupons for high-street stores such as Gap and Kurt Geiger. These do come with the Faustian twist that you have to provide your address and email, but a discount is a discount.

3. Why it’s OK to buy clothes you haven’t even touched

Ten years ago, nobody dared buy clothes online. Then someone dared to dream and the shopping site Net-a-porter was born, and suddenly thousands of us were buying clothes we’d never handled, let alone tried on.

In order to participate, it’s crucial that you know your measurements. This, friends, requires a tape measure, because sadly “four hand spans” means very little on My-wardrobe. However if, like me, you only found out you were a 30D and not a 32B in late 2010, then you can just about wing it if you know your dress size.

Also: stick to safe colours, don’t be hoodwinked by the fit model (most websites tell you which size she’s wearing anyway), and check the returns policy, which is almost always “within 30 days” provided the item is unworn – although you may have to pay P&P. Failing that, enlist some outside help. The digital dressing service Dressipi takes your measurements, skin tones and budget to calculate (bear with) your “fashion fingerprint”, while Meemee deploys avatars to try on clothes so you don’t have to. Or you can always do as I do and view Net-a-porter as a really expensive tombola.

4. Where to go if you want a complete one-off

Etsy is a site that allows its users to sell handmade goods, and its buyers to commission bespoke items. I first discovered it after misgoogling Lady Gaga and finding a rather spectacular oil portrait of the singer eating a bloodied unicorn in the savannah. What the artist lacked in subtlety she made up for in entrepreneurial flair, because via Etsy someone had actually paid hundreds of dollars for it.

On Etsy you can buy everything from appliqué and pendants to lanterns made of Quavers. Not wildly encouraging, granted, but delve deeper and you’ll also find an array of pottery, wall hangings, scarves and brooches. Thanks to the decent photographs one rarely gets stung, although watch out for the multitude of fake Louis Vuittons found bafflingly under “Pets”. And remember: nothing is too weird for Etsy, the best of which you can find on Regretsy, a non-affiliated “fail blog” based on the fact that the demand for quilted spats goes on.

5. Why buying food online and locally is not an oxymoron

One of the major ethical arguments against online shopping is the damage it causes the high street and, specifically, local shops. Thankfully a number of companies are gradually offsetting those evils. Hubbub, an online delivery service for local independent shops in London, was set up just over a year ago by Marisa Leaf, a former barrister with a pretty gung-ho dislike for Tesco. It works thus: you pick out what you want from a slew of local shops, and for £3.50 a man in a van delivers it to your house after work, a sort of posh meals-on-wheels meets Ocado. It started in Islington and has since progressed to Hackney. By this time next year it plans to be all over London, and in five years all over the UK and, says Leaf, has already earned “tens of thousands in revenue for local businesses”.

An equally promising site is Thefarmshed, a family-run all-organic business in Cumbria, and Hobbshousebakery in the West Country, which delivers delicious frozen bread to your (local) door. More of the same please, internet.

6. How to ensure you are getting the best deal

Jarring adverts aside, comparison websites are an irrefutably brilliant means of getting a good price if you know precisely what you want. You search for an item and up pops a page on which varying brands offer you their best price. While the moneysupermarket.com family has accrued a fairly cultish following, I would gladly recommend these alternatives: Tunechecker, which allows you to look beyond iTunes to MP3 pastures new for the cheapest deal on music. Kelkoo, which is excellent for flights and lawn mowers, includes the best offers it can find on eBay, too. Thefashionpixie provides price comparisons on high-street clothing and Simplifydigital is an Ofcom-approved site for finding cheap broadband.

Equally good for specific items are those websites which sell labels for very little. Some which are well worth a look are Outnet (which sells Net-a-porter’s out-of-date stock), which is ace if you’re indifferent to catwalk developments, and eBay’s relatively new Fashion Outlet, a shopping experience infinitely more fun than Bicester Village. Of course there is an argument that life is too short to “shop around”, but if you’ve the time and inclination, it is estimated that you can save on average £10 a pop.

7. How to be safe on the internet

We lose on average £30bn a year to online fraud. Cheeringly, a third of this is at Christmas. I’ve no idea how much I spend online a year – I would estimate upwards of £1,500 on cat accessories alone – but I’ve never lost a dime. How? By following these six rules:

1) Only ever shop on reputable websites. These come under the umbrella of Websites Your Mum Has Heard Of.

2) Before purchasing anything, momentarily view that website as a Where’s Wally – ie re-read the micro print, check that the web page has a small padlock in the bottom corner (this means it is secure) and ensure that the web address starts with https. All this means that it is fun and safe.

3) When using eBay, only pay with PayPal. Don’t email bank details and never send cheques.

4) Register your cards with the anti-fraud services Verified (Visa) or SecureCode (MasterCard).

5) Don’t shop online using public computers. Buy your own computer (it’s 2011) or, if you do use a shared one, log out when you’re done.

6) If you’re spending more than £100, pay with a credit card, as your bank should refund you if something goes wrong. Banks: not completely evil then.

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