Buying On The Internet: What to Do and What to Avoid

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Posted 23 Aug 2007 in Back to School, Soulville

Buying on the internet can be very beneficial when doing your back to school shopping and any other time of the year. Whether you’re buying books, clothes, electronics or furniture to fill your room/apartment there are plenty of places to buy and many things to consider: price, seller, shipping/pick up costs and quality.

Though there are certainly the bigger name stores (which I’ll mention in each section), I’ll also turn you on to some smaller places to buy things and give you the vital information to protect your money and guarantee you get what you ordered.

Simple enough, eh?


So you have that booklist for your classes and know which books are required and recommended. You’ve figured out which ones your professor will actually use (why blow $500 on books that you’ll never touch??) and go to the bookstore to price them (or use the online book price lists that many universities use now [check your university bookstore website]) and the prices are OUTRAGEOUS. So what to do? You need it quick fast and in a hurry and don’t want to pay much.

Check out Big Words first – it searches several places that sell new and used books and gives you the best prices by the quality and store. It points you in the right direction to get what you need and it’s a free service. Plus the jokes as you wait on it to compile an answer are great corny ones. Some sites Big Words overlooks are TextbookX, Books-A-Million, Borders, etc. Check them too, but considering that Big Words looks at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and among others, you’ve already got a pretty great bargain in front of you.

Do know the ISBN number for the book you are looking for as a general rule – with many texts having multiple editions and changes year to year, you want the exact copy your professors are asking for. If the booklist or syllabus doesn’t give this information, take the book name and edition and plug that info into Amazon’s search box.

Example: Principles of Epidemiology by Gordis, 3rd edition is the book; in the search box type “principles of epidemiology gordis 3rd”.

The search results will be pretty deep but the right one should be in the first five or six. Check the results with title and author and edition (year if you know it) and look in the book info section for the ISBN 10 number (you have to click the link to get to the info page on that particular result). Even if you were calling a book store, knowing the ISBN number is the best way to get the right answer fast.

Shipping is quick from most places online. Though they are rarely there, check Craigslist or Facebook or your college’s LiveJournal (LJ) community (or similar sites) for people who have had the classes you are taking and are selling their books – quick pickup and happy exchange. If you are a member of your college’s LJ community, create a posting and maybe you’ll come up lucky.

Don’t ever let anybody borrow your textbook(s). Especially if it’s one you want to keep for future reference because you’ll never see it again and they’ll claim they don’t have it or they have it and will give it to you later. However, if you have a friend or two you really trust and you have classes together, go in together and split the costs of the books. This works well for general classes you don’t care about (or that have so many books to purchase, you can’t possibly read them all), but if the course is of particular interest to you both, someone won’t have that book to add to their professional library later because one of you will be the one to keep it.

Decide ahead of time what happens to the books after the semester – if you’ll pay for the other half of the text so you can sell it or keep it or if you’ll both just sell it together and split the profit (not a great idea in the spring semester – you’ll both forget this over the summer). And don’t send a “friend” to resell your books – you might not see that money.


First off let me say ONLY buy clothes online if you actually know your sizes as they run in that particular store. This means get someone to measure you (no offense, but your roommate may not be the best choice). This person could be a parent or an actual seamstress (what is the male version of seamstress??) or someone who works in a clothing store – these people know what they are doing and it’s generally a free or very very cheap service. Reputable online stores will have a sizing chart somewhere on their site so make sure to match up the info. There are flaws in the online sizing charts (and in real life ones too) especially for plus size women and taller people.

Note the return and exchange policies before you buy if you haven’t purchased from that store before, just in case it doesn’t fit. If they don’t allow returns or exchanges, don’t buy if you aren’t sure. The XXL tshirt you thought you were buying might be a tube top or a toddler’s tshirt– and wearing that in public would be HILARIOUS.

There are some bargain websites for clothes – sierra, ubid, ebay (in bulk only) – but I suggest going with quality before cost here. If you are wanting something that will last, cheap won’t get it. Do look for sales and coupons and ways to get discounts (short of a credit card – don’t fall for that trap when it comes to clothing stores). Signing up for mailing lists is a sure way to get a coupon every week. I’ve been flooded with 20-70% off coupons the last month.

If you want something just cheap to wear, hit up Walmart. During undergrad I shopped at Walmart for clothing religiously. I could find nicer clothes, grunge clothes, some workout clothes (I’m really picky about workout clothes so that was the drawing line), chill clothes and stay under budget. I still wear Walmart jeans (faded glory!) all the time because they are cheap but take a beating for at least 2 years and fit and look good.

I’ve started to pay a bit more for some other items like career clothing, but as I’m still a student, my budget is on the low low. Buy clothing in cycles – don’t buy everything at once because they all end up wearing out at the same time and you’ll end up spending a lot at once. If you buy a few pieces each month or every few months, it spreads the cost out and ends up making it more affordable and you well dressed.

When it comes to shoes, hands down my favorite place to shop online is – free shipping and returns plus awesome prices and a wide variety of styles and color and sizes (I can wear anywhere from a women’s 11 to a 13 depending on the shoe style and maker and they have my size). I’ve bought running shoes, dress shoes, winter boots, etc there. If they don’t fit, send em back with the printable prepaid label from their website and you’re done. Exchanges are easy as well.

Others to look at are, Rockport and Neutralizer. Find a style you like in a store or elsewhere online and find places that will give you a price match or guarantee so you can get the best price and have them quickly. If you like New Balance shoes, check out Joe’s New Balance Outlet – they’ve got all the types of shoes New Balance makes and are always having awesome deals on shoes and clothing plus accessories.


I’ve gone into a lot of the offline and online buying for electronics in a previous post, Technology for Students, that you might want to check out if you are a new reader to Soulville. There is a Part Deux of that tech post here.

Random Items For Room/Apartment

There are lots of things you truly need and things you want for your room or apartment. Some you’ll go buy in a store but others you’ll think of as the year goes by. I trust places like Bed Bath and Beyond, Walmart and Amazon for buying online pretty much all the items I’ve needed (microwave, bed in a bag, dishes, painted wine glasses, etc), though I buy some of my toiletries on (I am a fanatic for adidas women’s body wash and I have a women’s electric razor) and some specialty stores that I’ll probably never shop at again.

I used PriceGrabber to find the cheapest price for my noise proof headphones and will never buy from that guy again (except maybe for someone else as a gift) [and yes, noise proof headphones are a must if you live in a dorm room or like to study in Club Library (whatever happened to being quiet in the library????) or just really like to actually hear your music while flying].

Some stuff you can get for free: Check classifieds and Some house items and fun items you might want to search for online –

  • Musical instruments (Musicians Friend is where I buy all music gear online, guitars and basses and amps etc. a friend of mine who uses synthesizers and keyboards buys his stuff here. When I buy my new trombone, I’m getting it here)
  • Home surround sound system (Walmart’s got a 1000W system for $200 online and it’s not durabrand)
  • Printers and scanners
  • Cameras
  • Furniture (craigslist is a first stop – I bought a HUGE desk, a couple of chairs, and a smaller desk on there for way cheap)
  • Storage shelving
  • Air conditioners
  • Backpacks (eBags is my favorite place to find all types of bags, wallets, luggage, etc)
  • Posters and tapestries
  • Software
  • Planners (Payne Publishing is who I always buy from…I’ve used the same type planner for the last 5 years)
  • Sports gear
  • Stuff to show your school spirit – get that team flag on eBay, some shower curtains that rep your team, the garbage cans, the koozies, etc; the options are limitless!

Quick Tips for Everything:

  1. Buy from a reputable dealer – if the website looks shady or doesn’t use some kind of secure checkout, don’t touch it
  2. If the site needs your social security number or whole birth date, just say no!
  3. Use paypal when you have the chance – it keeps your info secure
  4. If using eBay, read ALL the details in the listing before buying. There’s nothing like buying that “new phone” and it’s just a toy phone they use for displays.
  5. Look at the shipping time and method before you hit “purchase” so you’re not sorry later – You might like USPS but I wouldn’t trust them to get anything to me on time (their time frame must have been developed by Greyhound because neither has one that makes sense in practice)….look to find someone that has 2-3 day shipping and/or cheap FedEx and or UPS shipping with the purchase. Some of the places, booksellers especially, can have 4-14 day shipping policies for general shipping or the ‘free’ shipping that generally happens when you buy X amount of merchandise. You might need the book faster than you need the money you’ll save by just using their free shipping (aren’t first week assignments great??).
  6. Don’t be afraid to shop from multiple stores. Your parents do an awesome job of bargain shopping for groceries and clipping those coupons – you can do a similar thing online buy grabbing the best overall price with your items. If you can get both books from site A for $60 but can buy a book from site A and one from site B for a total of $50, which one would you choose? That $10 could be a pizza or four loads of laundry. You choose.
  7. Speaking of coupons, many online stores have discount coupons that you can use for a percentage off of your purchase price before taxes and shipping. If you’re on their mailing lists, you’ve probably gotten one via email but if not, just Google “coupon STORE X” (where STORE X is the store or website that you’re shopping). That percentage off could be about what their expedited shipping cost is, meaning all you are paying is the cost of the books (essentially).
  8. Some online stores have no tax and some have tax. The ones who actually have land stores in the state where you live or are being billed will charge tax. Others won’t. Sometimes it makes no difference. But on big ticket items this can be a deal breaker. However, do remember that some stores (Frys for example) has deals all the time, but sometimes their online deals are even better than in the store even with the tax still added in – advantage internet.
  9. If you’re buying used and it’s in “good” condition or it’s a book “with cover damage” or “highlighting”, beware that you might end up with a less than satisfactory product. Learn how to read phrases between the lines – cover damage could mean water damage, doodles, broken spine, pages separated from the spine, etc; highlighting could be slight or it could mean the last owner thought the pages should be yellow. Find an item that has the least amount of damage that you can deal with and go for it.
  10. RESELL – Unless you’re obviously going to need it again, or you just really liked it, resell what you buy online. If you resell textbooks on campus or even at a local bookstore, you are almost never going to get anything back for them ($15 back for a book you paid $130 for and they are going to resell for $120 is not a good deal). Some websites allow free listings and I recommend those ahead of paying to sell (the point of doing it is to save not spend) –, ecampus marketplace, textbookx marketplace, etc. Watch what their cut of what you sell is – some places have extremely high cuts (read: fees) for selling there. Only sell if you agree with the amount they will take. And be competitive with your pricing – if you bought it for $80 and never opened it, yeah list it for $80 or a price that is at the high end of what they are selling for in similar quality. But if you bought it for $80, used it and all the others are selling for $40 and are in similar condition, list it for a price that is somewhere in the fray of everyone else and give it some attributes in the listing that will make it stand out. Many sites give you a few bucks to mail the item so it’s not totally out of pocket for that (you can set up direct deposit into your bank account which usually takes a few days after the sale is completed to make it there or get a check via snail mail…read previous comment about USPS and opt for the direct deposit). The more you resell and make back, the more you have to spend on the next semester’s books or on those “other” college necessities (don’t even act like you don’t know what I mean).
  11. If you are a bibliophile (and technophile) like me, you’ve already got memberships at big booksellers and places that sell things helpful to students. If you don’t have one, please think about it. True they cost you up front, but I can’t tell you how much I have actually saved because I use them so much. If you’re only going to buy 1 or 2 items, it’s not worth the cost. But, for example, I buy textbooks every semester (and fun books), my sister buys textbooks every semester, two of my brothers buy textbooks every semester and I LOVE getting my tech stuff online (and occasionally cereal and candy) – so I got the Amazon Prime membership for $75. With that I get free 2 day shipping and for the number of books we’ve purchased in the last year, it would have cost over 300 bucks for shipping alone (you can share it within a household….loose definition on household). Compare that to $75 and there is no question it was the better choice.


Thanks for reading this week and I hope this info helps. Take a good look at the places you spend your money online – everybody isn’t honest or fair, even some of the sellers on or other marketplaces. Know the rules of where you shop (read the FAQs and help forums they offer before buying – if you don’t find an answer, message them). I’ve written another post for this week as well as a makeup to Ellie for being late with last week’s post – it’s an addendum of the previous technology post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, or as I’ve dubbed it Technology Part Deux.

I’ll be back next week (August 30) with a how-to for using a planner for class/being organized and keeping up with school and everyday life. I’ll delve into different types of planners and how everyone can benefit from five minutes of planning and followup each day to become more productive.

Here’s the schedule for September:

September 6 will be a how-to on planning a service project then September 13 I’ll be writing on doing library research. September 20 & 27 will be a two part how-to on website building (HTML & CSS + an overview of some programs).

I’ll post the October schedule in a couple of weeks.

Thanks for reading and keep up the comments! If there are any topics you would like to see addressed, stick it in the comments and I’ll get to work on it.

HarriMac enjoys a well lived life with a large serving of soul. Her special feature, Welcome to Soulville, appears every Thursday. Subscribe to the Welcome to Soulville feed to get new installments in your feed reader. This post is part of the The 2007 Back to School series, is designed to help students be more successful!

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  1. Thanks for the link and info to Big Words. Books are so expensive!!!!!!! One year my books were nearly $850 and that was for one semester!

    • Oh wow! That’s crazy! I hope you at least learned something that semester!

      I think the biggest scam is that you can’t sell your books back at the bookstore for reasonable prices. I once bought a 100 dollar book and they’d only give me 10 bucks for it, but then sold it to somebody else for 75! That’s a rip off!

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