Here are a few tips on mail-order shopping (pertinent to non-photographic purchases as well):

1. Know exactly what you want to buy. If it's a camera, know the model number, the basic features, and, if possible, whether it is a current model or a discontinued one. The best place for timely product information is the manufacturer or the company that imports the stuff. Another good source is, of course, the product reports which are published in magazines, such as POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY and CONSUMER REPORTS.

2. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER use any form of payment except a major credit card. Do not send checks or money orders -- if they get lost or misplaced, tracing them could be a long, slow process.

3. If you are not sure about which advertiser to use, check with the Better Business Bureau of the city in which they do business, with the consumer affairs agency or with friends who have purchased photographic equipment. If you are on a computer network such as America Online, you might send out a general inquiry to see if anyone has had experiences with that advertiser. Very often, the telephone manners of the salesperson answering the phone will provide a clue as to the advertiser's general attitude. If they are rude or curt, refuse to answer questions and try to pressure you into buying in a hurry, just hang up and try another advertiser.

4. Don't use mail order for purchasing used equipment or for trade-in transactions. Very often, an item offered as a trade-in will have a higher value on the phone than when it reaches the store. As for used equipment, there are too many variables to make it a safe practice. The best places for these types of transactions are local camera clubs or swap meets. Only buy used equipment if the store has a "no questions asked", 100% refund, return policy. You'll still be responsible for shipping costs.

5. Read the ads very carefully including the fine print. Note, for example, that a lens for a "Brand X" camera is not necessarily one made by the camera manufacturer, but by another lens company. Also note that prices for lenses may be for relatively unpopular mounts. The same lens for your camera may be considerably more. Our advice -- look for ads that state "same prices for all mounts."

6. Be aware that two types of products are currently being advertised: "Grey" market which are products imported through channels other than the regular manufacturer (also known as "parallel imports") and "U.S." warranty merchandise imported by the manufacturer and carrying the regular manufacturer's warranty. There is no difference in quality between the two, despite what some imaginative salesmen may claim. Our recommendation is to go with U.S. warranty merchandise.(Note that in some cases, stores may describe either their own store warranty or that from an independent service company as a "U.S." warranty. This is not at all the same as the manufacturer's warranty. Some companies will not service merchandise purchased through grey market sources so make sure the correct paperwork is packed with your purchase.) It's common today to see extended warranties for up to seven years from the manufacturer and the camera store. Purchase they at your own risk. They may provide some limited protection, at a cost, and you may need to return the camera to the warehouse to get it repaired.

7. Don't let a salesman talk you into buying something you don't want, even if they assure you that you can return it if you're not satisfied. You can return it, but you are still liable for a restocking fee plus shipping and handling costs. If they refuse to sell you what you ask for, don't argue: just hang up and try another advertiser.

8. Before you order, compare prices among the various advertisers. You'll find that there is a "normal" price range listed by several advertisers, roughly comparable. If you come across a price which seems too good to be true, chances are that it is too good to be true and may be a "bait and switch" lure. Companies have been known to strip equipment and advertise a lower price. What you get is a camera without a battery, lens cap, case, strap, etc. By the time you've purchased all these items separately, you've paid more than you might have if you purchased it complete. Ask the salesperson what comes with the equipment.

9. Allow plenty of time for delivery -- at least two weeks. Often, salespeople will give delivery dates which are based on their expected deliveries. When they don't get their merchandise, very often you don't get yours. Another approach is only to place an order only if the the item in stock and can be shipped immediately. Some businesses will take orders even though they don't have the item, and can't get the item. Since they have your order, they hope to get you to switch to a product that they do have at a later time when you are impatient to get your camera.

10. Do not pay for any merchandise until you receive it. It is a common and legal-practice to enter a charge as soon as the order is taken. However, just because there is a charge is no reason to pay if you haven't received your order.

11. Remember that you are a consumer, not a martyr. If you call up to find out the status of your order and are treated rudely or even ignored, just cancel the order. Be sure to tell your credit card company when you do cancel so that any charges will not accrue to your account.

12. If you do have a problem or a complaint, contact the Consumer Affairs Division of the Attorney General's Office in your state. They will probably need a written letter of complaint before they can take any action. Also, make sure you include your telephone number so that they can get in touch with you if they have to.

COPYRIGHT @ 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 by Joe McGloin. All Rights Reserved.