Q: I'd like to do my holiday shopping on eBay and other auction Web sites. How can I be sure I'll be buying authentic gifts for a good price and that will arrive on time?
A: Common sense is key in online auctions - and even more so during the holidays. Competition is fiercer and fast shipping is critical, so buyers must take extra care to find items that will be genuine, reasonably priced and delivered at Santa-level speed.
More people are turning to the Internet for holiday shopping. According to an AC Nielsen International Research survey of people online commissioned by eBay Inc., 84 percent of the respondents will buy gifts over the Internet this year, up from 75 percent last year.
Many will be turning to online auctions over the next few weeks, especially as more new items, from clothing to electronics to home decor, are now being auctioned,
"In the beginning, eBay was a marketplace for collectibles, used items, miscellaneous items," said Jim Griffith, who heads eBay's user education programs. "As we've grown over the last nine or 10 years, the quantity of brand new marketable merchandise has grown as well."
But while pointing and clicking is certainly faster than navigating your neighborhood mall, don't rush.
"I put my whole word behind online auctions - if you know how to shop correctly," said Adam Hersh, who has his own auction site.
First, take time to research your gift ideas by browsing online. How much do these items normally cost? If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. The last thing you want is to order your wife an Hermes bag, then watch her unwrap a knockoff.
"If the price is unbelievable - something that's normally $5,000 offering for $1,500 - bells should go off in your head," Griffith said.
On the flip side, don't let yourself be needled into overbidding. Because more buyers participate in online auctions during the holiday season, prices may veer toward the steep end, Hersh said.
Before bidding, read the item's description and examine the photo - it sounds obvious, but you can't assume anything when buying online.
"If there's any question in your mind it may not actually be authentic or accurately described, contact the seller before you bid," Griffith said.
For those in the market for a brand new gift, as opposed to a used vintage item or a collectible, the ad should spell that out, or at least abbreviate it with NIB, meaning "new in box," or NWT, meaning "new with tags," Hersh said.
So the item looks legit - but what about the seller? Before bidding, it is imperative that you check the seller's rating and read the feedback. This allows you to gauge the items authenticity, as well as learn about the seller's shipping practices.
"If there's a really reputable seller, you can be assured it's going to be a safe transaction," Hersh said.
Griffith recommends using sellers with at least a 95 percent positive rating and reading both negative and positive feedback from the past three to six months.
Additionally, keep your eye out for special holiday offers. Want your purchase gift-wrapped? How about express-delivered directly to the recipient rather than to your billing address? Many sellers offer extras this time of year, so ask about shipping options.
Contact the seller also if there's any uncertainty about payment. Sellers who accept credit cards or use services such as PayPal are preferable because buyers are then protected from fraud, should the item be damaged in transit, not arrive at all, or turn out different than advertised.
Credit cards and PayPal also speed up the whole process. According to Griffith, paying with a check or money order often adds about two weeks to shipping time as the seller waits for the check to clear.