Shopping and Shipping 2020 Style

If you ask us to pick one word to define the 2020 holiday shopping season, we’d say “paradoxical.” With the pressure on to buy early and ship early, there’s no doubt you need to move fast. But at the same time, you should take a step back and carefully consider everything you do.

First, why the rush? Why do you need to shop early? Two reasons come to mind: 1.) You want to make sure you can get the gifts you want, and 2.) you want to make sure it can be delivered on time.

Let’s look at that second point first. It’s no secret that our major delivery services are already overtaxed. Many retailers contract with major shippers, such as UPS and FedEx, to deliver a specific number of packages during the season. They have already told the retailers they may not be able to pick up everything that’s on the loading dock every day, so it’s likely not all packages from the retailers will be delivered on schedule. We’ve seen major delays all year long because of the pandemic, and now we’re entering a time of traditionally high shipping volume. We need to take this into account if we’re ordering products that will be sent directly to the recipient.

In a sense, the retailers are competing with anyone who sends a package for that increasingly precious space on the trucks. There will be many people who will want to buy a number of items and put them in a single box to send to a family member or friend. If you’re planning on doing that this year, it’s even more reason to shop early – just so you can ship early. UPS and FedEx, which normally boast a 97 percent on-time delivery success rate, and the Postal Service, which normally boasts a 95 percent success rate, have all moved up their deadlines for the holidays.

And in the chaotic rush to send packages on time and ensure they’re received, here’s a scam tactic to look out for -fake shipping notices. We referred to it in our email, and it’s worth repeating. Scammers can send notices with fake links for tracking information. If you receive a notice, look carefully at the email address it comes from. Scammers are really good at making them look real, and it’s easy to copy and paste a logo. The better idea – if you want someone to know you sent something – is to send them the tracking info directly without any links to a website. The recipient can go to the website from a browser and add the tracking info.

Now for the products.

Don’t be so bargain-obsessed that you get sucked into a trap. There are too many to describe out there. If you see a price that’s too good to be true, be wary. This is the time of year that fake stores pop up online, including those that claim to be Amazon stores. When you do your comparison shopping, look at more than just the price. Look into the retailer. Sellers get ratings and comments just like products, and you should go to independent rating sites for retailers just like you do for products.

Make sure that phone numbers and addresses on store sites are genuine, so you can contact the seller in case of problems. Also take a second look at URLs and app names. Misplaced or transposed letters are a scam giveaway but easy to miss. Finally, carefully read delivery, exchange, refund and privacy policies. If they are vague or nonexistent, take your business elsewhere.

If you see a really good price, make sure it’s for a current model of a product – or understand you’re getting a clearance price on an older, lesser or discontinued model. That can be especially true with electronics.

Once you’re satisfied, you’re buying a legit product from a legit seller, use a credit card to pay for it – and make sure the site has the proper security. That can be tough because it’s easy for a scammer to use a fake https:// in the URL and just as easy to throw up any kind of graphic. You can always pick up the phone to complete an order. Don’t pay by wire transfer, money order or gift card. You won’t have any way to effectively dispute any charges if you’re dissatisfied with the purchase or have been duped. Sellers that demand these types of payments are generally scammers.

If you’re giving a gift to someone in your household or nearby, ordering online and picking it up at the store may solve a number of potential problems. You’ll be able to verify you got what you ordered, and you won’t need to worry about shipping delays. We’ve been using curbside pickup more and more and highly recommend it if it’s a feasible option.

We’re here to help in many ways during this holiday season. If you think you may have accidentally compromised your online security in any way, call us – 973-433-6676 – immediately. If you need help with setting up electronic gifts, email us.


“Buyer Beware!” is a more important warning than ever before if you’re buying phones, computers, tablets and other electronic devices online. We all like online bargains, but the looting that took place as peaceful demonstrations fell apart will put a lot of stolen goods on the market. It’s a fact of life – not a political or social statement. Here’s what you need to know.

First, mobile phones, tablets and computers have built-in tracking. If the merchant from whom the devices were stolen reports the identifying information to the manufacturer, a message can be displayed as soon as the device is connected to any kind of network. It will tell the user that the device is stolen and cannot be put into service.

Second, in all likelihood, if you bought tainted goods on the internet, you bought it from a less-than-reputable seller, which means you won’t get any support from the manufacturer or a cellular network carrier. We can’t say for sure, but a manufacturer or merchant who knows where a stolen device is could initiate action to get it back.

Third, if you used a credit card, your account information is now in the hands of people who can monetize it at some point.

In short, you’ll have no consumer protection, and you could have a lot of liabilities. That puts the onus squarely on you to make sure you visit only legitimate merchant websites and buy from legitimate sellers.

Everyone can expect to be bombarded with offers from sellers, legitimate or not. We’ve been bombarded for years. Some offers come through phishing expeditions, which can look legitimate but may have one slight change from a seller that might be familiar to you. You might see an ad on a website, and that can be a tough call. Huge businesses have been built – legitimately – by tracking your browsing history and then sending you ads. It’s easy for a “fencing” operation to set up a website that has every appearance of legitimacy.

Our advice is simple. Only click on links that you are 100 percent sure are legitimate websites. Only buy electronics from legitimate sources. They may be well-known retailers as well as vendors vetted and supported by services such as Amazon. You can be reasonably assured you are getting a legitimate product and that your credit card information will be properly protected. And if your product is defective or not what you expected, you should be able to exchange or return it within a clearly stated policy.

If you have any questions about a product you’re shopping for, don’t hesitate to ask us about its properties or things to look for in a seller. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us if you have any questions.

What Will Change When We’re Healthy Again?

Be careful of what you wish for. Employees have pushed to work at home, and employers – for the most part – resisted it. More remote working – and learning – will become the new norm as our coronavirus ends, and dynamics will change.

Our workplace and school dynamics are under scrutiny, for sure. People are adapting – at least for now – to the reality of not being able to gather and interact. Are they more productive? Our collective adrenalin is still pumping, and we’re all finding ways to make this new environment work. But what will happen as time goes on?

If working from home becomes more the norm, employers will add more tools to monitor the productivity of their remote workers. A lot of them are already available in the office, where the computer can be just like the boss sitting on a worker’s shoulder and recording every work-related and non-related movement. Will that kind of oversight extend to the home? Right now, an employee suddenly working at home can probably take a break to do some cooking or laundry, especially if they need to meet the needs of a family that’s suddenly at home all the time. What’s going to happen next?

My personal feeling is that everyone is going to miss the personal interaction of the office – and for kids, the interaction at school. There’s much to be gained from the social experience of collaborating in person – and it’s a huge part of a young person’s development. Yet, at the same time, I also think that working and learning through online channels will eventually become more stressful for people who have felt the need to be at the office or in the classroom.

We are social beings, and the people who need to mingle will want to return to an office. We see signs of it as we socially distance ourselves now. When we met some neighbors to walk together, we walked on one side of the street, and they walked on the other side. We came upon other neighbors who were having “picnics,” with their picnicking partners each on opposite sides of the street. Anyone with kids who go to school knows that the kids are trying to find more ways to connect and engage with their friends. Even homeschooled kids have needed social interaction.

The internet will continue to provide a way for people to gather, but it will always be a remote gathering. Will we be able to accept some of this as a new norm? I believe we’ll need to come to grips emotionally and politically with new ways of working, learning and socializing before we address the technology needed to make it happen. Once we decide on our direction, we’ll be able to add the required internet capacity and build the necessary security infrastructure.

Are there any insights into what may be our new way of life? If the observations of our neighborhood UPS driver are any indication, we’re setting up more home offices. He said his most-delivered items are boxes from Staples, monitors and office chairs. Once we have the means to work at home in place, the more likely we’ll all be to work at home exclusively or to a greater extent.

And what about our relationship with online shopping? We’ve taken Amazon and our entire package delivery system for granted; overnight delivery is the rule. Will next day become next week?

In the meantime, we can help you keep up with the technology you need now to meet your evolving everyday-living needs – and maybe help you map out what you might need going forward. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to talk about it.

Convenience vs. Competition: What do You Think?

The Department of Justice is beginning an investigation of “big data” companies and their hold on your online activity. This is not intended to be a political rant, but we’d like to know your thoughts on convenience vs. competition.

Here’s the executive summary of the DOJ’s investigation:

  • DOJ is reviewing whether and how market-leading online platforms – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and the rest of the usual suspects – have achieved market power and are engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers.
  • The review will consider the widespread concerns about competition that consumers, businesses, and entrepreneurs have expressed about search, social media, and some retail services online.
  • The goal of the review is to assess the competitive conditions in the online marketplace in an objective and fair-minded manner and to ensure Americans have access to free markets in which companies compete on their merits to provide services that users want. 
  • If violations of law are identified, the DOJ will proceed appropriately to seek redress.

The investigation – or review – caught our attention because Amazon’s recent Prime Day blew projected numbers out of the water. Why not? When you want to buy a product, what do you usually do? You use Google to find the best price or fastest delivery, and you generally go to an Amazon website – where Amazon has your address and credit card info on file. Yes, it’s basically one click or just a few, and your shiny new object is on its way – sometimes with same-day delivery.

I admit, that’s how we sometimes shop for products and make our purchase decisions. I don’t know if the size of Google and Amazon limits my choices – or if they limit them significantly. I might never know if a local merchant has a better product, price or customer service because smaller businesses don’t have the numbers to show up in a Google search where I can easily see it. I don’t know if another search engine (not Bing, which is Microsoft) would give me better results because Google is ingrained in my mind. It’s even become a verb.

We recognize that technology and laws are complex fields, and we’ll all have different opinions about what makes a good law. But we’d like your thoughts on competition and convenience. If you would answer a few questions either by return email or by leaving comments for everyone to see, we can share what’s important to us:

  • Do you automatically use Google for product searches?
  • Would you use another search engine if it were readily available and gave the results you needed?
  • Do you go to websites only at the top of a Google search?
  • Do you click on the ads at the top of the search results?
  • Do you go to a product provider’s website directly before or after seeing Amazon results?
  • Do you really care that Google and Amazon are so big that they might be stifling competition and limiting your choices?

Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

Kohls and Amazon Starting a Trend?

“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is an old adage. It applies to today’s retail environment, in which we love ordering stuff online but hate the process to return the stuff we don’t love. Kohls and Amazon may solve our problem while they help themselves with a new program.

Beginning in July, the companies will roll out nationally a program that began two years ago at 100 selected stores in Los Angeles, Chicago and Milwaukee. It should be a win-win-win for consumers, Amazon and Kohls when the program goes operational in some 1,150 locations in 48 states.

We expect to be able to return merchandise that doesn’t work out or when we change our minds. It’s especially true when we buy online because we’re buying it sight-unseen or without having tried on or tried out the product. In a report in the publication Retail Dive, more shoppers than ever factor returns into their purchasing decisions. They cite a report from Stockholm-based payments company Klarna, which shows that 82% of shoppers consider returns a routine part of shopping, while 84% say they’re more likely to buy from a store offering free returns. Sixty-two percent say they wouldn’t purchase from a store that doesn’t offer free returns.

The numbers show online shoppers want a more seamless experience and will reward retailers who deliver it. Nearly half (44%) of respondents say slow returns are the most frustrating part of the returns process, as anyone will attest to. You have to put the product back in the box (a challenge of its own), seal it and bring it to a designated shipper. Still, 86% say they are more likely to return to a retailer that offers free returns.

Clearly, we demand mulligans, and that creates logistics issues for online retailers.

First, Amazon, which could handle 50% of online purchases by 2023, doesn’t have many retail outlets. Yes, you can pick up Amazon-ordered merchandise at Whole Foods, and the company is experimenting with cashless retail stores, which can be pick-up points. But those types of stores are not equipped to take back large volumes of clothing or household goods. The return program with Kohls gives Amazon customers a convenient place to bring back unwanted items, and Kohls must obviously have the logistics network capable of handling the returns.

Kohls can win by getting traffic into its stores. That’s a no-brainer. Just because you return something doesn’t always mean you don’t need the item. Who knows? You might find just what you need or want – in the right size or better style – while you walk through the store. And if you carried an item into a store, you can certainly carry it home.

The return policy covers “eligible” items, which may have something to do with size. You’ll be able to find out when you initiate the return process online, which is a requirement. You’ll need to take care of authorizations and paperwork through your Amazon account.

Our only advice: Make sure you maintain tight security for your network and account passwords. Any questions, call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us.

Protect Your Security

Along with avoiding shopping scams, you should take special precautions to protect the security of your financial information and access to your computer – as an individual and a business. This is no time to let your guard down. You know the drill for protection, but here’s a short refresher course.


Be really careful about email. That’s good advice at any time, but it’s especially important at this time of the year. Because of all the ways unscrupulous people have to hijack email addresses, a message from a name you know and trust might be from a scammer.

A new type of malware known as Cryptolocker is being spread by email. It appears to be coming from shippers, such as UPS or FedEx, and it targets personal and professional computers. The virus quickly scrambles or encrypts your data and can lock up your computer. The sender does offer to unlock your computer and restore your data if you pay a ransom. But there are no guarantees that the virus will be removed and that you will get all files back.

If you have your data backed up, we can clean out the virus and restore your files.

Trust your instincts on emails. If the name and email address look right, you still may be getting a bogus email. Look at the subject line. Do you normally get messages like this from the sender? Are there grammatical errors or syntax issues you don’t normally see in messages from the sender? Is there an attachment along with other things that don’t seem right?

If you have a problem with your answers to any of the questions in the paragraph, your instinct likely will be delete the email. Instead of responding it or acting on it, you can send a new email to the sender and ask if they sent you the email in question.

You also may be part of an email “phishing” campaign. Just in case you haven’t come across the term, phishing is a way for scammers to troll using fake or malicious websites and email addresses to get you to sign up for something that isn’t real or that is very expensive. Phishers can also use your response to get access to your computer and either mess it up or steal valuable information – or both.

Phishers generally use an identity related to a financial institution or services organization, such as a bank or PayPal. Two tipoffs that it’s a phishing campaign are: 1.) a domain name that looks similar to a well-known domain but is not the same as an official name and 2.) bad syntax in the subject line, generally a string of words that most native English speakers would not use.

Phishing campaigns rely on busy people not reading the message and its identification info carefully and just clicking through or responding. If you’re not sure about the legitimacy of a link in an email address, you can hover your mouse over it, and it should give you the origin of the link.

If you think you may have a problem with a bank, merchant or other organization, find their customer service information independently of the email and make a telephone call.

Online Purchases

When you buy online, make sure the webpages on which you are giving your credit card information and shipping address are secure. The best indication of security is that the pages will have addresses that start with or The “s” in “https” stands for secure. The address is usually accompanied by a small gold padlock icon.

If you don’t see a sign of security but absolutely must buy from that site, you might be best to make a phone call. There can be a number of legitimate reasons for security not displaying, but make sure the company knows this is a problem for you. They may need to fix something or make some other changes.

Above all, remember that it’s your money. Don’t let anybody make you feel uncomfortable about spending it.

Additional Protection

You should have up-to-date anti-virus and malware-protection software installed on your computer, and it should all be running in the background. Your network should be behind a firewall, and that software should be up to date and running.

You can set up most protection software to run scans and updates automatically, and you can set them for various levels of protection.  We can help you select the best systems for your needs and we can help you install them and manage them. Just send us an email request or call – 973-433-6676. No matter what you select and run, always remember that common sense and an occasional deep breath will always enhance your security.

This article was published in Technology Update, the monthly newsletter from Sterling Rose LLC.

Make Cyber Monday a Winner

As sure as the sun will come up, Monday, Dec. 2 – Cyber Monday this year – will be the busiest day of the year for online shopping. There are traps and pitfalls all over the place. Here are some ways to avoid them.

  • If it’s too good to be true… You know that line: “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.” Have a healthy skepticism about prices, shipping costs, return policies and the rest of the “fine print.”
  • Look for free shipping. There is a lot of competition for your business, and there are many ways for online retailers to put together a deal for you.  Once you start to compare the prices, you’ll find some really low prices and prices that are lower than the average of all the places you’ve shopped. Free shipping can be a real deal maker with all things being equal. With all of the competition and all of the deals, you shouldn’t pay for shipping. Besides, shipping costs are one of those blind items when you buy. A retailer can offer you an unbelievably low price and make a ton of money on the shipping charge.  So, look for a good price with free shipping, and you’ll likely get a better value.
  • Check merchant reviews. I buy a lot of merchandise online and do a lot of research for clients, and reviews hold a lot of weight. I look for places in the middle of a price range, and I look for patterns in recent reviews. Is there a rant or a litany of problems? With the rise of social media, we find ourselves taking the advice of people we’ve never met, so you really need to read them carefully and see if there’s anything going on “between the lines,” so don’t be afraid to drill down to satisfy your good or bad impressions. There are severe penalties for fraudulent reviews. If a merchant has a lot of reviews, most of them should be positive – if not glowing. Major chains with a strong Internet presence and good reviews should be your most reliable source.
  • Make sure the item is in stock or available in a reasonable time. If you need to have a product delivered by a specific date, make sure the merchant can make it happen.
  • Read all of the website’s policies carefully. Every merchant should have clear policies about returns and any charges associated with returns. Make sure you understand them and they are acceptable to you. You don’t want to buy something – or give something as a gift – and then find that it’s impossible or next to impossible to return the item or exchange it. If you can’t understand a policy or set of conditions or can’t get straight answers to your questions, buy the product somewhere else.
  • Use a credit card. Credit cards are the only way to have some recourse when you have a dispute with a merchant. When you use a credit card, the credit card company stays in the middle of the transaction. It gives the merchant faster access to the money from your purchase (for a fee) and collects the money from you, collecting interest on unpaid balances. If you have a legitimate complaint, the credit card company has the clout to reverse the transaction – and it also has a vested interest in making sure the merchant conducts business properly. When you use a debit card, the merchant draws the money directly out of your bank account – just like if you paid cash. If you have a dispute with the merchant, you’ll have to fight that battle by yourself.
  • Think about what you’re buying. We discussed a number of points to consider to get the best deal online. You should also pay attention to what you’re buying. We’ll use cameras as an example. Some of you might be thinking about giving somebody a new DSLR. People who really get into the fine art of photography may really appreciate one, but they are likely to be very particular about the camera’s features and capabilities. You might be better off giving that person a point-and-shoot camera if they just want to take pictures and not make pictures bigger than 8 x 10. And, if they just want to take pictures to share immediately online, a better smartphone with built-in camera for stills and videos might do the trick. We’ll be seeing lots of tempting new gadgets, so run your own reality check to make sure whatever you buy is appropriate.
  • Don’t feel pressured. Not sure about something? Wait a day. You might pay a few extra dollars over the Cyber Monday price if you wait a day or two, but you might find it’s worth the peace of mind to make sure that you bought the right product from the right merchant at the right price.

We can help you have a better shopping experience. We buy a lot of products online, and we love looking at all kinds of technology and gadgets. Email or call us – 973-433-6676 – with any questions you have for the holiday season. We want to keep the “happy” in the holiday season.

This article was published in Technology Update, the monthly newsletter from Sterling Rose LLC.