Still Nervous About Online Shopping? Really?

Last fall, I wrote about Assurz, a service that-for a small up-front surcharge-would let you return anything you bought at a participating retailer, on very generous terms: no questions asked, a 90-day window, and no shipping charges or restocking fees. Sadly, Assurz is no more. PC World's Steve Bass has written about the Assurz debacle, but the gist of the story is that Assurz filed for bankruptcy protection in late June after informing its retail partners that it was ending service because of excessively high return rates. What a shock: Whoever came up with the company's business model apparently didn't anticipate that the type of person who'd sign up for the service would be far likelier than the average customer to use it.

Another Type of Guarantee

Other third-party services still seek to assuage the fears of nervous online buyers. I recently looked at BuySafe.com, which rates e-commerce sites for security and privacy features, and offers merchants that it deems to be up to snuff the option of offering BuySafe's bonding service. Basically, the service is a guarantee-good for up to $25,000 and backed by the likes of Liberty Mutual and Travelers Insurance-that the e-tailer will meet all of its obligations on a sale.

BuySafe's service (which, like Assurz, must be paid for either by the merchant or by the consumer as an extra-cost option) seems designed to reassure people about shopping at small, obscure sites. But I'm not overly impressed. I've shopped on all sorts of sites for years now (none Buysafe bonded) and have never run into serious trouble.

A more interesting development at BuySafe is a free browser toolbar (though it works only with version 5 or later of IE). The BuySafe Shopping Advisor toolbar provides information on key secure shopping features for all U.S. e-commerce sites (not just BuySafe merchants) that appear in search engine results.

After I installed the beta, some search results on Google, MSN, and Yahoo sported BuySafe ratings in the form of one to four check marks.

The first check mark indicates the presence of SSL Encryption (which shows that a site has an e-commerce component, useful if you're wondering whether a manufacturer sells directly to consumers). A second check mark indicates that BuySafe has detected a privacy policy; a third check mark means that the site is known to use a third-party service to detect security vulnerabilities; and a fourth check mark denotes a BuySafe bonded merchant. In eBay searches, BuySafe-bonded sellers sported seals (but no other ratings.)

Clicking a toolbar button shows the top-rated sites: for example, Shoes.com, Zappos, Victoria's Secret, and Amazon topped the list when I googled for espadrilles. None is BuySafe-bonded.

A Safe Shopping Results button lets you search BuySafe merchants for the same keywords. But results in my tests suggested skimpy merchandise offerings: With my espadrilles search, the lead item was a Barbie doll with espadrille sandals.

BuySafe might have made sense when e-commerce was young, but in 2008 it seems somewhat anachronistic.

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