How We Find Reliable Retailers and Shop Wisely Online

How We Find Reliable Retailers and Shop Wisely Online

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Imagine this scenario: After you finally find what seems to be an amazing deal on the backpack you’ve been eyeing for months, the package arrives at your doorstep. Giddy with excitement, you tear open the packaging, only to realize the finishes look different and the threading at the seams is already starting to unravel. On closer inspection, you start to wonder: Is this even what I ordered? And you realize that you’ve been duped—and you have almost no recourse.

We never want that to happen to you, which is why we post deals only from sellers we’d be happy to recommend to a friend (or use ourselves). This is the most important rule we follow when the Wirecutter Deals team hunts for bargains, and it becomes even more important when there are shortages or other pressures that create a sense of urgency. It’s also especially critical around deal holidays like Prime Day: When everything seems like a steal, it’s easy to get swept up and make a mistake. We bring intensive research to every deal, whether we post it on our Wirecutter Deals page, in our daily deals newsletter, or during events like Presidents’ Day or Memorial Day sales. Here’s what we keep an eye out for—and what you can look for, too.

Is this seller reliable?

We vet sellers year-round, but that need becomes much more apparent during Prime Day, when we see deals from the wide variety of third-party sellers Amazon hosts on its site. In fact, in times of scarcity—or when supply-chain issues are present—Amazon leans even more heavily on third-party sellers.

Having more options available is all the more reason to examine every retailer thoroughly. Smaller stores on sites like those of Amazon and Walmart may have different return policies or slower shipping times than their host sites do. That’s one reason we don’t necessarily pick big online stores over smaller retailers when we scan for deals. Here’s how the Wirecutter Deals team evaluates potential retailers:

  • Search for retailer reviews: Doing a simple Google search (merchant name plus “customer reviews”) is often enough to bring up extensive reviews of any retailer. Take individual reviews with a grain of salt; instead, look for red flags such as a repeated failure to fulfill orders, fulfillment of the wrong items, attempts to call customers post-purchase to sell a variant, or multiple instances of poor customer service.
  • Read the policies: Scan the site (you can generally find customer service info at the very bottom of the homepage) and, if applicable, read the individual seller’s policies (click the seller name in a product listing) regarding shipping, returns, and warranty information. We prefer a one-year manufacturer’s warranty for newer and more expensive items. For refurbs, we favor warranties of 30 days if the item is cheap and durable, and 60 days or more for expensive or complex electronics like cameras or TVs. Additionally, we check to make sure a fair return policy is in place.
  • Dig the digital-wallet services: We look for major digital-wallet services, such as PayPal or Amazon Pay, when we get to checkout. Their presence isn’t necessarily an indicator of good customer service or policies, but judging from our experience, it is a reliable indicator of a legitimate seller when the seller is PayPal verified, which requires the seller to provide additional identifying information to PayPal. Additionally, both digital-wallet services create an intermediate payment method that insulates your actual card or bank account info from the view of the retailer or seller. You can dispute unwanted charges with PayPal or Amazon Pay rather than with the retailer if your purchase doesn’t go according to plan.
  • Revisit and repeat: We periodically recheck the policies of retailers we’ve vetted for one simple reason—they can (and often do) change. The most common change is in return windows, which can shrink or even disappear for certain categories.

Take extra caution with big-ticket items

A big purchase shouldn’t be a big risk, so when we evaluate deals on expensive goods, we take pains to determine whether the store offering the item is an authorized reseller (often indicated by a badge that says so but verifiable on manufacturer websites). If you buy from a seller that isn’t authorized, some manufacturers won’t honor the warranty—even with proof of purchase—if something goes wrong with your item.

Shop third-party sellers safely

When you pull up your digital cart to check out at a large retailer like Amazon or Walmart, you might think that the item you’ve been coveting is shipped and sold by that retailer. That isn’t always the case.

  • Look out for third-party sellers: Things can get dicey if you’re dealing with a store within a larger store, namely a third-party seller. Large retailer sites that host third-party sellers include Amazon, eBay, Newegg, and Walmart. Third-party sellers aren’t hard to spot: Focus on the “sold by” language, which you can usually find near the price listing. Recent reports detailing how popular third-party seller brands on Amazon are bought or “flipped” with regularity add another layer of complication. Ultimately, these small, successful sellers existing under one larger third-party company’s umbrella could create a more, not less, stable experience for customers, but only time will tell.
    • With Amazon, we prefer when items from third-party sellers are at least fulfilled (processed and shipped) by Amazon, as that adds peace of mind—but we research the seller regardless to ensure that the seller isn’t a bad actor (more on this topic below).
    • eBay, which consists entirely of third-party sellers of varying quality, has done an admirable job of adding more buyer protection in recent years, but we still recommend doing seller research. If a third-party seller claims to be an authorized seller for a manufacturer, and if you have any doubts, verify that claim by checking with the manufacturer.
  • Be skeptical of reviews: Although third-party sellers are largely legitimate (they’re generally smaller stores without their own e-commerce infrastructure, though as we mentioned, such small storefronts can be part of larger conglomerates), certain bad apples have made a living selling counterfeit items or promising free stuff to induce people to provide five-star reviews for things that don’t deserve them. Reviews written by organic, verified purchasers are your first line of defense. Most platforms have satisfaction ratings for sellers listed as a percentage—typically, 98% or higher indicates a safe bet.
  • Read the shipping and return policies: Further complicating matters, third-party storefronts can sometimes have their own shipping and return policies that differ from those of the umbrella retailers. Always click through to read a retailer’s profile and double-check. If you can’t find specific language or a notice that the storefront abides by the policies of the larger site, be wary. If you buy the item and something happens, you may be able to push back on an unfair policy by writing to the umbrella retailer. You can also check whether your payment method protects you from harmful retailer practices, as PayPal’s buyer protection or your credit card might, but it’s much better to avoid such situations in the first place.
  • A word on counterfeit items

    Wirecutter’s Ganda Suthivarakom wrote extensively in 2020 about counterfeits on Amazon. Issues with e-commerce sites offering fake or otherwise unsatisfactory (or even unsafe) products are ongoing, and Wirecutter is working to provide you with actionable advice and to expose myths about online shopping and counterfeit items. The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) and The New York Times have also highlighted problems with counterfeit products and content, specifically at Amazon. The mounting evidence is all the more reason to vet third-party sellers, which seem to be the primary culprits in selling fake products.

    We lean heavily toward posting Amazon deals that are both sold and shipped by the online retail behemoth, and for deals on products sold via third-party sellers, we’re especially diligent in checking reviews and policies. Although federal officials (subscription required to read article), and Amazon itself, have taken an interest in stemming the tide of counterfeit products, we’re going to continue thoroughly researching our posted deals to ensure we’re doing our part.

    Scrutinizing retailers is a fair bit of work and not something most people have the time or inclination to do—and that’s why we do it for you. Happy shopping!

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Hafta Ichi
Source: The NY Times
Keyword: How We Find Reliable Retailers and Shop Wisely Online

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