Most stores offer several ways to order, but only the larger, more professional stores offer four or five methods.
If you prefer the familiar, you can still pay using the old-fashioned ways:
• Calling an 800 number and placing an order, using your credit card over the phone (just as fast as it has always been, with shipments going out within a day or two, usually)
• Taking the information about the product, writing a letter, slipping a check or money order into the envelope, and sending it to the store’s snail mail address (delaying the date of shipment by a week or two)
• Cutting a purchase order and sending it in by mail (again, causing a delay of a few weeks as they verify credit and set up a formal account)
If you want to order electronically, there are several ways to do that:
• Going to a secure server, filling out the form with your credit card info, and submitting it
• Printing out the form, filling it in, and faxing it to the store (causing a slight delay, perhaps a day or so, as they verify the credit card by phone)
• Emailing the form to the store with your credit card information (the least secure method, and not recommended)
Of all these methods, we recommend ordering online, as long as you are dealing with a reputable store that has a secure server. The very worst is email. By mistake, you can send your credit card information to your department list at work, or the people on that newsgroup you’ve been following. Uh-oh!
Nothing. So far. Clicking a button like Buy, Order, or Place in Shopping Cart just starts the purchase, placing an item in your imaginary shopping cart. Glitch: Sometimes you have to enter a quantity into the slot next to the Buy button, or else you get rejected because the stupid system thinks you have not asked to buy anything, because you did not select the zero under Quantity and change it to one. (Why do programmers set the quantity to zero? Do they really think someone will eagerly order zero units of the product?)
Generally, you wait a moment, and then you see information about the product you are proposing to buy. Often, this information is displayed in what is known as your shopping cart, or shopping bag, which contains everything you have thought you might buy so far. The shopping cart just lets you make a pile of items you might buy, without ordering any of them yet. You just get to see your order so far, with information like this about each item:
• The product name
• The product number
• The price
• The quantity
• The extended price (price times quantity)
• Perhaps the shipping costs for this item
You have not committed to anything yet. You are just staring at your cart full of items as you rest in the aisle of the online store.
The shopping cart (or shopping bag, or whatnot) is the mechanism by which the store keeps track of your order, as if you were putting items into a cart at the supermarket. The idea is that you don’t have to actually pay when you drop items into the cart, and you can remove them, change quantities, and so on before you go to checkout. In some stores you can edit the order directly, and in other stores, you have to click a button named Modify Cart, or something like that. To remove an item, just revise the quantity to read zero.
In some stores, you can choose shipping methods at this time. Other stores just ship by ground, so you don’t get a choice.
In a well-designed site, you can view your order or shopping cart at any time. In a lousy site you have to pretend to buy something to see what you already have in the cart.
As in a real store, when you have finally decided what you want to buy, you wheel your cart by the checkout counter.
In many stores, this is the time you have to enter your credit card info, or confirm the info you gave when you registered, which now shows up again (except for your password). For instance, your billing and shipping addresses appear all filled in, but you can change them now, although many stores insist that your shipping and billing addresses match the address to which the credit card company sends its bills. You also get one last chance to edit quantities and remove products. Pay particular attention to the shipping method to make sure that is really what you want. (In some systems, you must wait until checkout to pick a shipping method, and find out how much it will cost only during checkout. Ugh.)
When everything is the way you like it, click Submit or Order to send your order in. In a well-designed site, you should immediately get a page confirming the order details and asking you, one more time, to confirm that this is really, really what you want. One more OK, and the order is really, really sent in. (Poorly designed or greedy sites just accept your order the first time, not giving you a moment to reconsider.)
In a few minutes an email should go out from the site confirming the purchase. (You may get the confirmation in a quarter hour, or a few hours, depending in part on the traffic on the Internet and the speed with which your email is delivered.) Be sure to save this confirming email, in case anything goes wrong with the order. You might even consider setting up a folder to save mail from stores so you can find it quickly.
This is a neat way to buy with one click of your mouse. You have to sign up for this privilege, giving your address, preferred shipping method, and credit card number ahead of time. Because the store has all that information on file, and you agree that they should use it whenever you click the Express or 1-Click button, you can now go browsing away, and whenever you feel the impulse, click that button. That’s all you have to do. They confirm that you have ordered such and such, and in a few days it arrives.
Of course, this method is so easy that you may find you order unnecessary or impulse items. We certainly do.
Your billing address helps the credit card company confirm that you are who you say you are.
Most stores will reject your order if the credit card number is wrong, or if your address does not match the address the credit card sends its bills to.
At most stores, then, you must enter a billing address, and for many that must also be the shipping address, so they can be sure you are not a criminal who has stolen a card and wants stuff sent direct to a motel room.
Sites specifically set up for gifts do allow you to have the present sent directly to the recipient, but that is unusual.
Your credit card information is safer online than at your local gas station, convenience store, or restaurant—at least if the online store uses a secure server for your order. A secure server is a computer that uses software that protects your personal and credit card information.
Just make sure that you have gone to a secure site before you hand over credit card info. How can you tell? Well, every time you leave a "nonsecure" area and go to the "secure" site, you are notified with a little pop-up window, saying, "You are about to view pages over a secure connection" (unless you have told your browser to stop showing you this little message). Although this alert sounds like a warning, it is actually a reassuring signal that your transaction will, in fact, be private. Other good signs: the address line changes from http to https, meaning you are using a secure site. Also, in Internet Explorer you see an icon of a lock in the status bar at the bottom of the screen; or in Netscape Navigator, you get a bright yellow key on a blue background at the bottom of the screen. You may also see the letters SSL, which stand for Secure Sockets Layer (a set of standards for plugging in to the secure server), or SET, which stands for Secured Electronic Transaction. You should also see the address change from http to https, for secure, and an icon of a key or lock appears in your status bar.
Techie note: The Secure Sockets Layer, developed by Netscape, authenticates you to the store, and vice versa, and scrambles your messages back and forth so anyone who tapped into them could not figure them out. This encoding is called encryption, like what governments use to hide their messages from prying eyes. Good encryption means that it would take a team of programmers months or years, using a supercomputer, to figure out that you were ordering a hair dryer.
The purpose of encryption is simply to keep messages private and whole, so they cannot be read by outsiders and cannot be tampered with en route.
Encryption takes your order and turns it into a secret code so that only the intended recipient (you or the store) can read it after mutual authentication—that is, confirmation that the store is who they say they are, and that you are who you say you are.
How does encryption work?
That computer, the secure server, has two secret codes, called keys.
One is a public key: a big complicated number sent to you, which is embedded in your messages back to the site, which is itself coded, or "encrypted," which is just a fancy word for "made secret by turning it into code."
The other is the private key, for you alone, which is what the site uses to match up with the public key, to authenticate that this message comes from you. When the keys match, the system can unlock the code to translate your scrambled information.
Techie note: The private key is the prime factors of the public key. Thus, if the public key were 45, the private key would be 5 and 9, the factors that multiplied together make 45.
Once all these keys match up, the server translates your order and sends it to the accounting or ordering system. No human gets to read your credit card number during this, and there are no paper receipts lying around for vicious jerks to steal. That’s why this process is, ultimately, a lot safer for you than giving your card to the clerk down at the dry-cleaning store.
Almost every online store takes both MasterCard and Visa. Many also take American Express and Discover.
At the end of checkout, you are asked whether you want to submit the order or clear the form. Submitting the order just means sending the order in officially, committing yourself to the purchase.
Generally, the system digests the order, checks with your credit card company, checks product availability, then comes back with a confirmation showing what you ordered, where it will be sent, and oh yes, what the order ID or confirmation number is.
Save this number.
If possible, print this confirmation page or save it on your hard disk, because this number is what you need to use to track your order or cancel.