The Key to Successful Buying Online

I have to admit, at the time I was writing this column, I had barely started my holiday shopping. Normally, I try to be well ahead of the game, with at least half the Christmas gifts bought and ready to throw under the tree by this point. Yet, for various reasons, the holidays snuck up on me this year and I find myself way behind and feeling a bit frantic!

It's situations like these that make the Internet a very tempting shopping alternative. I have co-workers who are capable of completing their entire holiday shopping in a lunch hour. Alas, I tend to follow the "kick the tires" mentality - if I can't see it, feel it, taste it or hear it, I'm a skeptic. I haven't been disappointed with an online purchase yet, but I'm also very cautious about the sites where I'll shop.

Given my skeptical nature, I'm always amazed when I hear about contractors using the Internet to purchase big-ticket items such as heavy equipment. Internet sales of equipment have skyrocketed over the past few years, as have the number of sites offering either outright purchase transactions or auction services.

Even more surprising is the fact that most contractors come away satisfied with their purchases. Though the risk of "getting taken" is ever present, it appears these web users are actually getting what they pay for. So what's their secret?

Clearly, the key is to understand who you're buying from, and what you're buying. Start by checking out the web site handling the sales/auction transaction. Does the site have a good reputation? Do you personally know anyone who has successfully used it? Are there safeguards in place to protect you should a transaction go sour?

Also look into the types of services the site provides. For example, some sites will assist in financing the purchase, or making delivery arrangements. Take advantage of those services that make sense for your particular situation.

Find out as much information as possible about the seller and the equipment, particularly when purchasing used. Some direct purchase sites, such as Amazon.com and eBay, offer rating systems on sellers; essentially, past purchasers provide feedback on the quality of their purchase experience. Other sites, such as IronPlanet, offer inspection services to verify equipment condition prior to purchase.

It may not always be possible to determine a seller's identity. But if you can, it's worth investigating further. You may learn the individual/company has a history of abusing equipment, or vice versa. In some cases, you may even be able to obtain maintenance records for the machine you're considering.

Of course, there are other commonsense tips to follow when buying online. For example, never give out personal or financial information over an unsecure web site. Get pictures of various angles of the machine if you are unable to visit the location in person. Better yet, consider hiring a local inspector/technician (neutral third party) to conduct an equipment inspection. Essentially, as with any purchase, let the buyer beware.

Given how busy many of you are likely to be not only during the holidays but year round, the Internet offers tremendous opportunity to find and potentially purchase the equipment you need. Just make sure you do your homework before signing on the dotted line.

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