Enter the maze

Online shopping: big savings or big scam?

By Ramesh Kanji, Mohammed Kadiri, Ziaul Hoque and Won-Jung Kim

a shopping trolley with an enormous present inside it

This year more people will do their Christmas shopping online than ever before. Are they smart or suckers? A group of Queen Mary students looked at both the good and bad of online shopping for their Computers and Society course. Here's what they had to say.

Do you think online shopping – e-commerce – has changed lives? And if it has, do you think it is for the better or worse? If you are struggling to come up with some answers, maybe you should read on. If you have got an answer, see if we can change your mind…

Now there are many advantages associated with e-commerce…

People are so much busier nowadays than they were before (we're sure you are), and will do whatever is possible to save time. E-commerce is surely the solution on saving time isn’t it? You can shop 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year and have your stuff delivered straight to your door. This means no more travelling to the shops, going around looking for what you need and waiting in long queues!

You can also save a lot of money shopping online. Businesses often give discounts on some items online as they want more people to use their website so they can gather and analyse information about what they buy. You can find great bargains on websites such as eBay. For instance, Ramesh's sister purchased a brand new laptop on eBay for £465. That laptop sells in the shops for £599, which means a substantial saving of almost £135. Plus, because anyone can sell products on eBay, you can find items that may not be available in shops such as collectables.

E-commerce has changed some people’s lives as it makes setting up a business easier. Even if you haven’t got the expertise and resources to set up a transactional website, websites such as eBay and Amazon give you a platform to do so. There are many people operating businesses through eBay and Amazon like selling memory cards, mobile phones, MP3 players, books and much more. At the time of writing, the unemployment rate was increasing. Who knows, e-commerce may be the way forward for some people who are losing their jobs.

There’s always a downside and e-commerce is no different…

E-commerce, like any other service, has its own problems. The internet can never be deemed a safe environment. Arguably, one of the biggest dangers with e-commerce is fraud. Sites take steps to protect users’ financial details; for example on eBay, the seller cannot view any of the buyer’s bank details as eBay uses its sister website PayPal as a go-between to transfer money between the buyer and seller. However, using PayPal doesn't mean that you cannot get scammed. For example, you may get an item that did not match the description of the product you paid for or you may not get a product at all. Although there are various procedures that you can do to get your money back through PayPal, this can be a long and stressful process and in some cases, you could do all that in aid of a lost cause.

It is difficult to tell whether goods are genuine or counterfeit when buying online, especially on websites such as eBay where anybody can sell products. What’s more, you may find that benefits like warranties you take for granted in shops aren’t available online. For example, Ramesh had this experience with a USB key which he purchased from eBay. It was cheaper than in the shops and should have come with a 1-year warranty. After a few months, no computer was responding to the USB key. Ramesh emailed the seller lots of times but did not get any response. He could not do anything about it which meant that he paid for an item which didn’t do as it said. This could be different when you purchase from a shop as you can physically go there and they will have to deal with your problem.

One of the biggest problems of online shopping is that your experience of the product before you buy it is limited. We can see pictures, hear sounds and read text about a product online. However, the web does not allow full scope for our senses. We can see images of flowers, but not smell their fragrance; we can see images of a hammer, but not feel its weight or balance. After receiving a product, you may change your mind about wanting it. In this case, most of the time, you will be responsible for postage charges which could be high depending on the product.

So what do you think?

Will you be heading online to find bargains and discounted products? Or do you think it’s not worth it and would rather go to the shops than take that risk of getting scammed?