Holiday Shopping Tips

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Retailers say scanner technology has several advantages: speeding checkout time, lowering labor costs, and improving sales and inventory records. They also say that scanning results in fewer pricing errors than manual entry.

Electronic scanning is not foolproof. The reasons: human error or oversight, poor pricing practices, or poor management. Although the UPC symbol has replaced the traditional readable price tag, it's still possible for consumers to spot pricing errors at the register. Here's how:

  • Watch the display screen for prices. If you think you're being overcharged, speak up. Ask about the store's policy on pricing errors, and ask the cashier to make the adjustment before you pay.
  • Bring a copy of the store's flyer or newspaper ad to the checkout counter.
  • Consider jotting down prices or special sales as you wend your way through the store.
  • Check your receipt before you walk away. If you notice an error, ask the cashier to adjust the total. If you've already left the cashier's lane, see the store or department manager or the customer service department to correct any mistakes.


Many consumers enjoy the convenience of shopping by mail and telephone — overall U.S. mail order sales in 1995 exceeded $219.9 billion.1

The FTC's Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule requires merchants to ship mail-order merchandise within 30 days of receiving a completed order unless a longer time is clearly specified in advertisements or catalog listings.

For orders that cannot be shipped on time, the merchant must:

  • Notify the consumer of the new shipping date and give the consumer the option of cancelling for a full refund (if the consumer does not respond to this notice, the merchant can presume the consumer has agreed to a delay of up to 30 days).

If the company cannot meet the revised shipping date, it must:

  • Send the consumer a second notice and, unless the consumer expressly consents to a second delay, cancel his or her order, and issue a prompt refund.

If a consumer cancels the order, the rule requires a merchant to:

  • Make a full refund within seven days for cash, check or money-order sales, and within one billing cycle for charged sales.

Consumers should remember that the above requirements apply to telephone orders, including sales where a computer, fax machine or similar means is used to transmit an order over a telephone line. Many mail-order companies provide telephone numbers, including toll-free "800/888" or fax numbers, to make purchasing easier.

The FTC offers consumers the following advice on making mail/telephone-order purchases:

  • Order early to allow plenty of time for shipment and delivery. The holiday season is traditionally the busiest time of year for both mail-order companies and the Postal Service.
  • Read all product descriptions carefully and do not rely solely on pictures.
  • Keep a copy of the company's name, address, phone number, the date of your order, the ad or catalog from which you ordered, the order form you sent to the company, and a cancelled check or charge account record.

Of course, calling a company can help determine a product's availability, the order's total cost, and the company's refund policy.


Online shopping gives new meaning to convenience and choice. With a few keystrokes and a click of the mouse, you can shop at home right from your computer. But before you "surf the net" to your favorite online mall, here are some basic tips about shopping in cyberspace.

  • Unsecured information sent over the Internet can be intercepted. Use a secure web browser, such as one that complies with industry standards — Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (SHTP) — which will "encrypt" or scramble purchase information.
  • Shop with companies you know and always determine the company's return and refund policy before you place an order.
  • Never give out your Internet password. Be original when creating a password, perhaps using a combination of letters, numbers or symbols — CUL8R or $2BURN. Also, be cautious if you're asked to provide personal information, such as your Social Security Number. It is rarely necessary and should raise a red flag.


Consumers use credit cards more than usual during the holiday season. Fraud can result when cards are lost or stolen, or when people “misappropriate” credit-card numbers — that is, use card numbers, not the card itself, without permission. Sometimes a dishonest clerk or telemarketer copies a credit-card number and uses it illegally. Similarly, a thief can find numbers from discarded receipts or carbons and use those numbers illegally.

The FTC recommends that consumers take the following precautions to guard against credit-card fraud:

  • Never give a credit-card number over the telephone, unless you have initiated the transaction and know the company you are dealing with is reputable.
  • Keep an eye on credit cards during transactions and retrieve them promptly.
  • Avoid signing blank receipts. When signing, draw a line through the blank space above the total, and keep copies of the receipts to compare with charges on the monthly billing statements.
  • Review credit-card accounts promptly every month and immediately report any questionable charges by writing to the company that issued the card.
  • Sign new credit cards as soon as they arrive and keep records of your credit-card numbers and their expiration dates, along with the card company's address and telephone number.
  • Never lend credit cards, or leave credit cards or receipts lying around, and never write credit-card numbers on a postcard.

Lost or Stolen Cards

If a credit card is lost, call the card company immediately. Most companies have toll-free numbers to report missing or stolen cards. Consumers may be liable, up to $50, for unauthorized purchases made on each card prior to reporting a loss or theft. Under federal law, they are not liable for any unauthorized charges after they call each company.


If consumers experience mail-order or credit-card problems, the FTC recommends that they first contact the retailer or the card issuer and attempt to resolve the problem. If that does not work, they should contact the local Better Business Bureau or local and state consumer protection offices.

For mail order, contact either the U.S. Postal Service or the Direct Marketing Association, an industry-sponsored organization. The Association can be reached at 11 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036-8096; 212-768-7277.

The FTC also is interested in hearing from consumers. Although the agency does not intervene in individual disputes, information from consumers relating their experiences is vital to the agency's law enforcement. Consumers may address their complaints to the Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commis sion, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580.


For a complete list of consumer and business publications from the FTC, request a free copy of Best Sellers. You also can access FTC publications on the Internet at, or by contacting: Public Reference Branch, Room 130, Federal Trade Commission, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222; TTY 1-866-653-4261.

1  Sales figure supplied by Direct Marketing Magazine.

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