Smart Consumer: Happy Clickmas
John Cradden on why Irish people will spend €257m online this festive season
As Christmas fast approaches, the advantages of doing your gift shopping online only seem to multiply.
For a start, it's the most hassle-free way to go about your festive business thanks to the rapidly expanding range of online retailers. There is now a huge choice, and you can shop any time of the day or night.
Online shopping also allows you the opportunity to research your purchases more thoroughly, as well as compare prices and save money.
It's not always cheaper, but generally the costs of doing business online can be far lower for retailers, allowing them to undercut high-street stores on price.
For this year, last Monday was designated 'Cyber Monday', the busiest online shopping day of the year, by Visa Europe. Its recently released survey suggests that Irish consumers will spend €257m online on Christmas gifts, with each person spending €155 on average.
Meanwhile, online auction site eBay.ie was forecasting that last Tuesday would be the busiest Irish online shopping day of 2011, with 57% of shoppers here expected to shop online at some point this Christmas.
1 Is online shopping not a bit risky?
Online shopping still gets a bit of bad press, thanks mainly to unscrupulous or rogue retailers, particularly unfamiliar or newly-established ones.
However, standards appear to have improved now that online shopping is practically a mainstream thing. Studies indicate that almost €3bn was spent online by Irish consumers last year.
It may also surprise you to learn that you actually have more rights as an online shopper than you do as a shopper in stores.
2 What can I get online that I can't get in stores?
If you are looking up retailers who have both an online shopping website and an actual shop, the chances are you won't find anything online that you can't buy in the store.
A quick way to search for some discounted bargains from the best-known names in retail is to check out online shopping directories or aggregator websites, such as An Post's iloveshopping.ie, which features more than 600 retailers in Ireland offering items at a useful discount over items in stores.
If you're looking for something truly original, you may need to widen your search and concentrate on online-only retailers.
Many of the most interesting, quirky and desirable items are likely to be in the hands of online retailers based in the UK or further afield, but there are several independent or niche Irish retailers to watch out for too.
One good example is Hairybaby.com, which won best online trader at the Irish Internet Association awards in 2010. It sells only t-shirts, but they come in an inspired range of colours and funny Irish slogans.
The best known international online retailers are worth checking out including Amazon.co.uk, which now has free shipping to Ireland if you buy an item or items worth over £25 (€27).
eBay.ie has bargains aplenty -- but watch out for counterfeits. "Every year, we are contacted by consumers who thought they had got a great deal on a must-have product only to discover that it was counterfeit," said a spokeswoman for the European Consumer Centre Ireland.
As well as plenty of new stuff, eBay is also an obvious place to check out bargains in secondhand or used items.
Indeed, with Christmas household budgets likely to be tighter, there are a huge variety of local classified sites dealing in secondhand or used items, such Donedeal.ie, Buyandsell.ie, Gumtree.ie and Adverts.ie.
If you're looking for toys for babies or young children, try sites like Babybay.ie, which has plenty of items that are either new, surplus or little-used.
You could also check out sites through which you can swop or trade items. BuyandSell.ie has an "Exchange and Swapshop" section.
3 I do still prefer shopping on the high street, especially for Christmas stuff.
Most of us probably still do, but that's not to say you can't still do your research online.
According to Deloitte's annual 2011 Christmas shopping survey, more than half of consumers surveyed in Ireland said they plan to use a "cross-channel" strategy in their efforts to find the best gifts.
In other words, they will research their purchases both online and offline.
4 Online shopping is handy, but it's not so good for last-minute stuff, isn't it?
While many sites can dispatch items within days, it's certainly recommended that you order as far in advance of Christmas as possible, particularly if you are dealing with an overseas seller, especially one based outside the EU.
That way, if there is a problem with the item, you can send it back in enough time to get a replacement if you want.
Incidentally, An Post is keen to remind customers to think about what delivery address to use for online purchases.
For instance, it may be better to have the item delivered to a work address, or to the home of a relative or friend who will be at home during the day.