the Ins and Outs of buying online

Simple inquiries can answer your questions and put you at ease with e-business.

You've seen it on television, heard it on the radio and read about it in nearly every newspaper and magazine you've picked up: E-commerce. It's everywhere. And although much has been written recently about the e-commerce evolution that affects virtually every marketplace, you're still not sure if it's safe. And why should you be? While e-commerce is a topic covered almost daily by the media, not a lot, proportionally, has been relayed to us about security measures. How can you know it's safe? Start by using these indicators and trying it for yourself.

Join us in the 21st century E-commerce, simply defined, is any business activity that results from exchanging information, goods or services electronically, primarily on the World Wide Web. The power of the Internet has freed traditional brick-and-mortar businesses from their geographic trade restrictions and time-consuming selling processes. It has enabled manufacturers and distributors the chance to make special offers, update prices, refresh product information and provide market news in real-time. Once buyers find what they need, they are only a few mouse clicks away from ordering products online. This newfound efficiency has enabled sellers to streamline their operations and reduce transaction costs.

Forrester Research recently conducted interviews with 80 executives of Fortune 1,000 companies and found that 93 percent expect some of their business to flow over the Internet by 2002. These firms expect to more than triple their participation in online marketplaces. As one top computer company executive said, "We are doing business e-commerce to be more efficient, offer better customer service, reduce processing costs, create savings and utilize volume discounts through negotiated volume deals."

Consumers have certainly benefited from the e-commerce explosion in travel (, book retailing ( and even buying and selling personal possessions ( But while e-commerce may have begun in the Business-to-Consumer (B2C) world, it quickly has moved into Business-to-Business (B2B) arenas, including the turf and ornamental marketplace.

Thanks to a proliferation of new e-commerce companies who have specifically targeted the green industry, landscape and lawn care contractors, golf course superintendents and grounds managers suddenly have a plethora of new options for buying everything from mower blades to chemical controls online.

Benefits for buyers Of course, the e-commerce revolution would not be occurring if sellers were the only party realizing value. For buyers, the Internet has several advantages:

- More choices. Buyers are no longer limited to the suppliers in their local area. Depending on freight charges, buyers may be able to economically source products from anywhere in the United States.

- Convenience. Buyers can place orders with online suppliers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No need to wait for callbacks, price checks and order confirmations.

- Better information. The latest product information, technical bulletins and prices are instantly available and are being continuously updated by suppliers.

- Lower prices. More options for the buyer increases competition and can have the effect of lowering prices.

The benefits are so compelling that Forrester Research estimates $6.3 trillion will be conducted in B2B e-markets by 2004.

So... why wait? With such obvious benefits, why isn't everyone jumping on the bandwagon? The answer lies in healthy skepticism: "If something seems too good to be true, it usually is." However, if you do a little homework, it can dispel your misconceptions.

When investigating any e-commerce company, look for the same elements sought in a successful and trustworthy brick-and-mortar business: security, reliability, product warranty and great customer service.

Normally, you can find answers and additional information by looking at a company's web site and visiting their Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) page. You can also learn more about their online policies by checking out their online user agreements that set forth the terms for buyers, sellers and the e-business itself.

q Security and Privacy. The No. 1 concern among buyers is the issue of financial security: What happens to your banking or credit card information when you input it via the Internet, and who is privy to all of the information?

Only conduct financial transactions on web sites that become "secured" once you reach the portion of the site where transactions can occur. Most web sites are non-secure while you're browsing, but go to secure status once you log on and get down to business.

Notice the change in the address bar from http:// to https://, which indicates that all future web transmissions will be encrypted using Secured Socket Layers (SSL) technology. There will be an SSL "key" (that looks like a lock) in the lower status bar of the browser window for Internet sites using this technology. When you see these indicators, all communications are secure. Look for companies who have licensee agreements with independent Internet trust services, such as VeriSign, that validate companies' security policies for communications over networks.

An e-commerce company's privacy policy is usually well defined in its user agreements. The agreements spell out what the company will and will not do with personal information and transaction history. Investigate any concerns you have about a company selling personal information to other business interests by reviewing their stated policies. Look for sites that have arrangements with independent Internet privacy services, such as TRUSTe, which validate that e-businesses comply with their stated privacy policies.

q Reliable Fulfillment. Obviously, you want assurance that you will receive exactly the goods you ordered for the agreed delivered price. Important questions to ask are:

- Before clicking the "buy" button, will I know precisely what my total delivered cost will be, including freight and handling fees, taxes and other charges, if any?

- Will the web site handle all the payment and delivery processes, or must I handle that off-line with the seller?

- Is my payment held in escrow by the web site until I receive and inspect the shipment?

- Is the e-commerce company bonded?

- Who do I call if there is a problem?

q Product Warranty. Another frequent question that routinely surfaces is, "Will manufacturers stand behind their products purchased online?" A good rule of thumb is that manufacturers do honor their product warranties provided the goods in question are sold in the manufacturer's original, unopened package and that authorized retailers sell them. In fact, many times the e-commerce seller is the manufacturer. If you're unsure, it's always a good idea to check first.

q Customer Service. As with any dealer or local outlet, assurance that someone is there behind the scenes - real people available during your business hours to answer questions - is critical.

- Does the web site prominently display a customer service phone number to call for questions and/or complaints?

- Do the customer service representatives understand your business?

- Are customer service representatives available at convenient times?

- Does the web site have live online assistance available so you don't have to drop your Internet connection to call them when you have a question?

The future of e-commerce As with any step-change in technology, the adoption rate of players in the e-marketplace will start slowly, then build quickly as buyers and sellers become more aware of its benefits and as they begin to trust the medium as a secure venue for conducting business transactions. While e-commerce can never replace local retailers of chemicals, seed or parts and accessories, Internet sellers do provide excellent value to a growing population of online buyers who seek to expand their supplier base and simplify their purchasing processes.

That's the true "IN" of buying on-line.

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