Online shopping can seem like magic. A few clicks and a few days later, a box is at your doorstep. But it can also feel like playing a digital dodge ball game. Buyers should exercise caution to avoid fake reviews, unsafe or mislabeled products, or counterfeit products that hide behind seemingly legitimate listings.

This is because we are living in the age of the market. Third-party sellers peddle their wares through Amazon’s digital bazaars,

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Walmart,

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Target and now even Urban Outfitters and J.Crew. The deal could be seen as a win-win solution: customers get more product choice and retailers get reduced sales. The problem? This adds a layer of mystery for buyers. Instead of buying from that site you know, you’re buying from a seller you don’t know, and it’s often a product you’ve never heard of from the brand.

In addition, the return and refund policies may be different from those for items sold directly through the site. Most do not control the quality of third-party products. And the competition among sellers is so intense that many manipulate their ads to increase ratings.

After years of covering the ways in which markets can be manipulated, I have developed three key principles for internet shopping:

• Know who is selling what you are buying.

• Make sure there is an easy return policy.

• Don’t trust reviews.

Easier said than done, especially with the Amazon Prime Day buying frenzy, so here are my specific tips, grouped around these three topics, to help you avoid getting ripped off.

Investigate third-party sellers

The most important information on a product page (the seller’s name) is often in the smallest font. You can find the “Sold By” information under the price on Amazon, Target, and Walmart.


Photo:

Nicole Nguyen / The Wall Street Journal

Locate the “Sold By” section of the page. The seller of the product, one of the most important information on the page, is often presented in a lowercase and lowercase font. On Amazon, you’ll find it under the “Buy Now” button. On Walmart, you will see “Sold & Shipped By” under the “Add to Cart” button and the shipping options. On Target is right in the middle, below the price. If in doubt, search the page for the keyword “sold”.

Take a closer look at third-party sellers. Click to view the seller’s page. If his grades are poor or people are complaining about recent issues, beware. Look for other clues: A working customer service phone number and a dedicated off-market website are two good indicators the company is at least trying.

On Amazon, check “Shipped From”. It’s just below the orange “Buy Now” button. Products shipped by Amazon benefit from the company’s customer service and returns management, as well as delivery guarantees on most items. Prime qualifying items that are shipped by the seller also enjoy the same benefits.

Buy direct when safety is a concern. In 2019, the Journal found thousands of items on Amazon that were declared unsafe or even banned by federal regulators, or mislabeled. To secure your order, buy direct from the retailer or manufacturer, especially children’s items, health and beauty products, electronics, and anything that covers your head or face (such as a diving mask). Amazon, for example, requires that proprietary product brands have sufficient insurance. You can filter searches for direct purchases on Amazon, Walmart, and Target.

To ensure easy returns, filter the results to display items sold directly through the site. On Walmart, select Sort & Filter, then scroll down, expand Retailer, and tap Walmart.com.


Photo:

Nicole Nguyen / The Wall Street Journal

Avoid anonymous brands if quality is a concern. Amazon and Walmart offer cheap products from anonymous labels with prices almost too good to be true. I call these brands “alphabet soup” – they’re usually a jumble of letters, often in all caps – and they mostly come from factories in China. While these items have a great deal, you will likely save time and money by going for the more expensive brand name item.

The “Amazon’s Choice” label does not indicate quality. Amazon has awarded the badge to items that violate its own policies.

Beware “Buy Again”. On Amazon, Walmart, and other marketplace retailers, you shouldn’t go for a quick buyout without checking it out. If the seller who last supplied it is out of stock, these sites may exchange another one, potentially affecting the price, turnaround time, and refund options.

Confirm the ship date at checkout. When you land on a page, you can see a next day shipping estimate. But if you choose another variant, for example a different color, it could affect your delivery for several weeks or even months.

Want a deal? Search for “Amazon Warehouse”. An ad may have a section called “New and Used” (on the right, under “Add to List”). Here there may be items sold in the Amazon warehouse. They may have scuffs or missing packaging, but they are generally in good working order. A bike lock I ordered recently was available for a 24% discount.

Use price tracking apps. Some sellers increase the price of products before making an “offer” for a shopping vacation. Make sure you’re getting a good deal by checking out CamelCamelCamel, which tracks price history on Amazon listings and sends out price drop alerts. Shopping in the capital is a browser extension that automatically compares prices on Amazon to those of other retailers. (If you use it, Capital One collects information such as product pages viewed and purchase history.)

Evaluate return policy

Prime items can be returned within 30 days. Tap the Prime toggle at the top of the Amazon search results page to filter results only on those products.


Photo:

Nicole Nguyen / The Wall Street Journal

For easier returns, buy Prime or directly from the site. Items sold by Amazon.com and Amazon Warehouse or items eligible for Prime – in most cases – can be returned within 30 days. Many items can be returned to Whole Foods, Kohl’s, or UPS stores without a box or tag.

The return window for items sold by Walmart is 90 days. Walmart sets minimum standards for third-party returns (14 days for electronics and luxury items, 30 days for everything else), but each seller has their own policy. Some readers have emailed me expressing frustration at not being able to contact Walmart Marketplace sellers for refunds through the Walmart website. A Walmart spokeswoman said if something goes wrong, contact customer service.

Target offers a 90-day return window for all items, even those sold by a third party.

Research the cost of returns. On Amazon, the return policy for the product is listed to the right, under the orange “Buy Now” button. Many items can be returned for a full refund, but certain types of products, such as a mini-fridge, may incur high restocking fees.

Check your credit card terms for additional coverage. Look for purchase protection or the benefits of extended warranty. Amazon’s Prime Rewards card, for example, extends warranties from three years or less to an additional year and covers new purchases for 120 days against damage or theft, up to $ 500 per claim.

Comb through the reviews

Analyze the authenticity of the reviews. I appreciate ReviewMeta because it provides a lot of context behind the adjusted rating of any Amazon listing. I cross-reference this evaluation with Fakespot, who can also rate reviews on Walmart and eBay.

Keep in mind that these tools are just estimates – many fake reviews coordinate off-platform and appear as verified purchases.

Look for “gift card” or “free”. At the top of an Amazon listing, click the star rating to go to the reviews section of the page. Scroll down to “View all reviews”. There you can search for customer reviews. Reviews that mention a gift card or free product may indicate that the seller is increasing ratings through financial incentives.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

What are your top tips for shopping online? Join the conversation below.

Sort reviews by most recent. In the customer reviews section on Amazon, you will see a drop-down list that says “Top Reviews”. I found changing the order to the more recent offers provided a better mix of reviews.

Look at the global reviews. Some sellers merge reviews of completely different products from other countries into US listings to inflate the ratings.

Don’t put too much stock in reviews. No matter how hard you scrutinize the ratings, you’ll never know with 100% certainty if any reviews have been tampered with. My advice? Go through the text, read negative reviews for any repeated mention of glaring flaws, and cut down on any product with only five-star reviews. You’d better trust a good friend’s recommendation or rely on the return policy if there is any problem.

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The New Ecommerce Ecosystem

Write to Nicole Nguyen at [email protected]

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