It's convenient, but there are drawbacks. Consumer Reports tackles a big one—those hefty shipping charges that can really inflate your bill.
There are sites that offer free or low-cost shipping, so check for those before you start shopping. Some like Zappos.com offer free shipping both ways, even if you decide to return an item.
Another site that's worth trying is FreeShipping.org. You type in the name of a store, then you can see whether there are coupon codes you can use at the store's website to save on shipping.
And some websites will ship for free—but not to your house. Walmart.com lets you shop at its site—then offers free shipping to a Walmart store where you can pick up your purchase. Borders and Best Buy do it too.
And if there's a must-have infomercial product on your list, beware of the shipping costs. In its infomercial, the Awesome Auger says it's yours for only 19.99 plus shipping and processing. Those shipping fees—listed as "separate P and H"—are tacked on to each item in the offer, including the "bonus" drill.
In the end, they boosted the bill to more than $56. That's more than double the cost of the original $19.99 product.
Consumer Reports Money Adviser also recommends shopping early to avoid sending last-minute gifts to family and friends when shipping costs are at their peak.
Excessive shipping charges are the main reason shoppers don't finish checking out online, according to the Direct Marketing Association. If you think you've been charged shipping fees that are too high or misleading, Consumer Reports says report it to your local consumer protection office.
Good news about gift cards!
Federal restrictions now make gift cards more consumer-friendly.
Under the CARD Act, gift cards sold after August 22, 2010, cannot expire in less than five years.
Stores cannot charge an inactivity fee unless the card has been dormant for at least 12 months.
And Issuers cannot charge a fee to replace a lost or stolen gift card either.