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BBB: Smart holiday shoppers should do their homework first

Who likes shopping? With the Black Friday melee just around the corner, everyone is starting to think about finding the best bargains on Christmas presents.

People search high and low for the right deal. Department stores, local small businesses and online retailers are sure to promise super savings. No matter where you buy, you want to make sure you know exactly what you’re buying, including brand, quality, measurements, shipping time frames and cost.

Craigslist has created its own booming industry for buying gently used items to repurpose. I recently searched for a large plastic click-together slide-set for my children for an early Christmas present; one that I could put inside during the cold winter months to keep them from climbing the walls with cabin fever. It will only last them maybe two seasons before they outgrow it, so why not pay less for a used one? I started searching and found one on Craigslist for $85. Seemed like a good deal because they sell brand new for $200 or more. I followed proper safety precautions by visiting her house during the day, only took the amount of cash she asked for inside and had a friend waiting in the car with a phone while I inspected the slide. Seems like a transaction well exercised, right?

Not exactly. I got in the rush of wanting to get the slide right now instead of taking time to research and ensure it was the right one. It turns out that my bargain slide couldn’t be used inside because its click-together-pieces were full of water and mold that won’t drain out. I learned my lessons: I should have written out a list of questions ahead of time to ask her over the phone, or ask while I was there inspecting it. At least the kids were not disappointed to have an extra slide set outside.

This time around, I’m going to look for a new one online. According to IMB Coremetrics, Cyber Monday (online shopping the Monday following Thanksgiving) sales in 2011 were up 33 percent from 2010.

The ease of online shopping, though, brings the responsibility of research. How do you know what websites to trust? How do you know your order will be delivered?

As you gear up for your shopping season, here are some helpful tips:

Are you using a secure website? You also can look for a padlock symbol, usually found in the top right corner of your browser’s URL bar, where you can also find an “s” in the URL address. Secure sites begin with https:// while unsecure sites begin with http://.>

Do you know the return policies? Is there a restocking fee higher than the industry norm, 15 percent? In the case of electronics, this fee could be as high as 25 percent.

Don’t let your desire cause you to skimp on research. Compare at least three prices from different sites or locations before making a decision. Don’t buy last minute. Do you know the company you’re ordering from? Having a physical address, phone number and privacy policy can all be helpful in determining where to buy. Knowing you have a way to contact them if something goes wrong with the purchase allows you peace of mind that the company should be legitimate.

And, of course, you can always go to to verify the rating of a company, view complaint details and read customer reviews to make your own informed buying decision. Happy holiday shopping!