Shopping for Camera Gear: Is It Safe to Buy Online?
The Internet is all the rage these days. Everything is online it seems. Heck, you're reading this online, now aren't you? So if you're in the market for buying a new camera, lens or something else, the question is: is it safe to buy it online?
The short answer is, it depends. The slightly longer one is that you should be OK buying online if you do your homework first. The longer answer is the topic of this week's PhotoTip.
From a technology standpoint, web browsers have supported strong encryption for some time now so you are at least as safe submitting your credit card over an SSL/https internet connection as you are having a physical impression made of it in a brick and mortar store the old fashioned way. Never submit your credit card over a non-secure connection though and don't even think about putting it in an email. All reputable sites handle these sorts of details just fine these days due to such initiatives as the Payment Card Industry's (PCI) Data Security Standard. Pay attention to the privacy policies of websites though in order to avoid sites that will sell or share your email address with other companies. Top tier retailers don't play these sort of games as it would risk compromising their valuable reputation, but some fly-by-night sights do make money on the side this way.
There are countless numbers of places to shop on the Internet. Even if you think you could count them all a few new ones will register domain names while you're counting and at least a handful of those you counted will go out of business in the time it takes you to come up with your tally. Just as you should be wary of buying a wrist watch from a guy standing on a street corner that will almost certainly be gone if you later find a problem with your purchase, you should be careful about doing business with an online reseller that lacks a track record and some degree of stability.
If you don't already have a relationship with a website you trust, there are a few places you can go to do your homework and find out if a site you are considering is worth it. The site I find most useful is known as Reseller Ratings. This independent site started out over 10 years ago and has so far accumulated over a quarter million user-submitted reviews of more than 16,000 online retailers. They don't accept kickbacks and do a good job of weeding out any potential review spamming so that what you see represents as close as practical to an objective summary of what shoppers think of their experiences with various retailers. If a site you are considering isn't listed on Reseller Ratings or has a bad overall rating there, move on and find another company to do business with.
There are other review sites out there too including BizRate.com and Shopping.com and even Amazon.com which are worth comparing against Reseller Ratings if you are looking for additional corroboration. But be careful of review sites that no one has ever heard of as there have been cases of retailers creating fake review sites solely to say nice things about them when real customers won't.
If you're one who did their best to get out of doing homework in school, you can make your online shopping simple too by sticking with sites that have proven their worth without researching. In the field of camera equipment, the hands-down winner would have to be B&H Photo. They carry basically everything, ship quickly and have excellent prices. I've been buying from them for years and have always been pleased. You can sometimes do even better on price by shopping around, but now you're need to do your homework to avoid being disappointed. Some retailers excel by providing personalized service that companies as big as B&H have a hard time matching. Hunts Photo and Video in Massachusetts is one such company. Gary Farber of Hunts does a lot of outreach to NANPA members and local photo clubs and has proven to be an excellent source to do business with.
There are plenty of other good retailers out there and there's no way I could even begin to list all of them here. In fact, that's what sites like Reseller Ratings are for.