When you're shopping for products you're not familiar with, what do you do? How to buy online, especially products with technical specs that you don't fully understand? How do you know you're getting a quality product you can be happy with?
Many of the products we review here on Rational Kitchen fall into this category (induction burners, vacuum sealers, even cookware), so we thought it might be helpful to do an article about it. Because you need to know how to shop in order to get the best product for your needs. Believe this: the most popular product is not always the best one! (In fact, with technical products, the most popular product is often the one with the best advertising.)
User reviews help, but they often don't tell the whole story. Manufacturer websites are going to have good technical specs (if they don't, keep looking), but you know they're going to be biased. Review sites, either large ones like Consumer Reports or small ones like ours, are going to be your best bet for good information. But they are not all created equally, either.
How to determine which is the best induction cooker? Or vacuum sealer? Why is the price range so huge, and what exactly do you get if you pay hundreds more than what the most popular model costs?
Here, we give you tips on how to buy products you know little about. How to go about researching them, how to get the most out of reviews in the shortest amount of time, and how to analyze user reviews in a way that helps you make the best buying decision.
How to Buy Online: First, Do Your Homework
Our first bit of advice when buying a technical product is to read. A lot. Educate yourself about the product. Once you check out a few different sites, you'll be amazed at how different the information is--and how different the quality of information can be, too.
Why Read So Much?
Why read so much? Why do you need to check different sites? Why isn't it good enough if Consumer Reports says it's good, or some other well-known review site says so? Or even a smaller site you know and mostly trust?
Many sites have biases that influence their decisions. These biases are not going to be obvious; in fact, you may not realize there was a bias at all until after you purchase the product and find out there were other brands you maybe could have considered that would have worked better for you--but the site you went by didn't include them in their review.
One very common bias is to review only the most popular products (on Amazon or elsewhere). Another is to review products only in a certain price range. These tactics certainly result in reaching a large segment of buyers. And in fact, this is the strategy that most review sites follow. Nobody wants to stray too far from the popular options.
But what if you're willing to pay more for a better product? If you read the wrong sites, you may not even know that such products exist.
(This is why we started The Rational Kitchen: we couldn't find a site that had done comprehensive research and detailed product reviews on a wide range of products at many different price points. So we decided to do it ourselves. For more info, see our About page.)
Some sites also go into more detail than other sites. With technical products--especially those you might not understand very well, like induction burners and vacuum sealers--there may be many more factors to consider than one site discusses. This is true even for large reviews sites; sometimes especially for large reviews sites, because their reviewers can't be experts on everything, and the only experience they have is the time spent testing the product. This might sound like enough, but it can result in a limited view, especially when reviewers lack the technical background to really understand the product and how it compares to others that they don't know about.
The more sites you read, the more insight you'll get; the wider your viewing angle becomes. So read and read and read some more before you decide how you're going to spend your hard-earned cash.
Read the Manufacturer's Site
Manufacturer sites are a good place to start for the basics. Yes, of course the information you read here will be biased--but you know that going in. (Which is not always the case--with other sites, biases are usually harder to spot.) It should also offer the most comprehensive product information, which can be quite helpful when you're shopping for technical products.
You can also learn things you may not elsewhere that can influence your purchasing decision. For example, where a product is made, how long the manufacturer has been in business, and of course, their warranty and return policies (which can sometimes be hard to track down on third party retail sites).
If you have a couple of different makers in mind, you can read both sites to compare and contrast. You might even check a third maker's site to get an even broader picture. These comparisons can result in excellent insights about a product's features you hadn't previously considered and answer questions you hadn't thought to ask.
Sometimes, you even find out a product doesn't have a manufacturer site. If a product is only sold by retailers and you can't find a manufacturer's site, that lack can tell you a lot, indeed! If a product doesn't have a website in today's Internet-driven world, does that seem like a wise purchase?
This happened to us when we started researching Max Burton induction burners. The product gets decent reviews on Amazon and is a favorite of America's Test Kitchen. But when we started our research, we could not find a company website. This may be a fault of our googling skills, but we can say at the very least that if they have a website, they haven't made it easy to find. For this reason, we chose not to review or recommend the Max Burton brand induction burners.
One thing you probably don't want to do is buy directly from the manufacturer, as prices are almost always higher than on third-party retail sites. Not sure why this is the case, but it usually is.
Read Forums/Online Discussions
Forums are old school, but many sites have forums or online discussion areas where you can ask questions, and they can be a fabulous way to glean information in a less formal atmosphere than a user review. The discussions are often terrific, as people ask questions that you yourself want to ask. You can also sign up and ask your own questions.
There are a ton of cooking and food sites with discussion pages (Chowhound, Serious Eats, Chef Steps, and The Kitchn, to name some of the biggest ones). You can also go to Reddit, where there's a subreddit for almost every topic imaginable.
One great thing about these discussions is that they usually include people with a high level of interest and experience (often professional chefs and other food industry experts), so you're going to get top notch advice--and it will almost certainly be different from the "populist" advice you'll find on sites. (Another opportunity to compare and contrast.)
If you google for "cooking forums" you'll see there are thousands of results. You can go to a few sites and search for whatever you're looking for. It may take a few tries but you're almost certain to find a few discussions pertinent to your impending purchase.
Check Out YouTube
Videos have their shortcomings (no product specs, no user reviews), but they can be an excellent way to do at least some of your research. Watching people actually use a product can give you a great feel for using it that reading about it can't.
Read Product Reviews (A LOT of Them!)
Review Sites (like this one, The Rational Kitchen) offer detailed information about specific products. These sites vary greatly in quality and knowledge level, so you should read several to get a feel for what kind of information is available (and just as importantly, which information matters).
In exchange for reviews, these sites make a small commission on sales when people click through their site to buy (like to Amazon). This commission is paid by the seller and does not increase the product's price.
Sometimes, large review sites (like Consumer Reports) have great info, and are all you need to make a decision. But quite often, large sites cater to a median price point and buyer, so they ignore interesting outliers which may be where your sweet spot is hiding.
And sometimes, large review sites simply don't offer enough information because the reviewers are not experts on the particular product they're reviewing. The truth is that it can take years to become well-versed on a technical product like induction cooktops. And, that it usually requires a technical background.
Unless you read several sites, you won't get a feel for this. You may get lucky and choose a great product, or you may get unlucky and get a dud. Until you've done enough research to feel confident in your decision, your purchase is a gamble.
If you find a site that really made a difference in your purchasing process, please buy through that site. This is often how people make their living, and good work should be rewarded.
The small commission reviewers make is paid by the seller and does not increase the price of the product.
Read User Reviews (A LOT of Them!)
User reviews have two contradictory traits: they're very important to read, and they often don't contain much useful information.
At least about technical products.
If review sites can be biased (which they definitely can), then multiply that bias by at least ten times for user reviews. User reviews are based on just that: use. A person's experience with a product. All users know is whether or not the product worked for them, and that's all they're going to talk about.
Can this be helpful? Yes, of course. Understanding how people use a product that they, too, aren't terribly familiar with can be an excellent way to gauge how the product might work for you.
However, user reviews are often going to lack a vital component: expertise. Expertise is essential to decision-making, and is why you read review sites, manufacturer sites, and forums.
(Usually, anyway: there is the occasional exception to this, where the user is an engineer or some other techie type, in which case you should read every word carefully.) how to buy online
We discuss how to analyze user reviews in more detail below.
How to Read Product Reviews Online
Okay, so now you know one of the keys to how to buy online successfully: read a lot. But what does that mean? How do you make the best use of your time and get the most out of what you read? In this section, we'll show you how to do both.
One of the most useful books in existence is a book about How to Read a Book. You wouldn't think you need to be taught how to read, but you'll be amazed at what you can learn from this book. There are many different types of reading, and if you don't understand what they are and when to use them, you're going to waste time reading things you don't need to read. This book should be required reading in all schools, and for anyone who has ever had to do any sort of research project.
Buying technical products--online or otherwise--is a research project if ever there was one!
Look at the Writing
The Internet is overflowing with useful information. Unfortunately, it is also full of drivel--and both useful information and drivel can both end up on page one of your search results. Since there is no real guidance available to help you figure out which is which, it's up to you to decide if you should take advice from any given website.
One way to assess this is by the writing itself: if it's coherent, organized, and easy to follow, then it's probably written by a thoughtful, rational person who may have something useful to say about the topic at hand.
If the writing is bad, if you see a lot of spelling and grammatical errors, or if the writing is confusing and hard to follow, move on to another site. Don't waste your precious time trying to find gems in a dump.
Look at the Organization
How is the information organized? Does it flow logically from one topic to another? Are the topics laid out helpfully in a table of contents? Do they make sense? how to buy online
If the information is poorly organized and hard to follow, it's a good sign that the writer's thinking is that way, too. Keep looking.
Skim, Skim, Skim (or Scroll, Scroll, Scroll)
If there's one piece of advice which will save you time, it's this: don't try to read every word. Skim, skim, skim.
Since most articles on the Internet have to hold their own as standalone pieces, they can contain a lot of information you may already have read elsewhere. You don't need to re-read it. Instead, skip those sections.
Here's one way to read the relevant parts and (probably) not miss anything important: Read the introduction to find out if you like the writing and if the article has aspects you're looking for. Next, read the table of contents (if there is one) and use it to jump to topics you're interested in. how to buy online
If the site is really well organized, it will offer a link at the end of sections so you can pop back up to the TOC to go to the next section you want to read. When articles are really long and detailed, this can be extremely helpful.
If there isn't a TOC, scroll down the page to find relevant topics.
Ideally, a good article should have tables and other tools that summarize information, making it easy to understand and compare products specs and other pertinent information. Make use of these tables, charts, highlighted text, infographics, and any other tools that make finding the info you're looking for easier.
Keep Notes (Because You Won't Remember)
You think you'll remember, but you won't. So keep notes! At the very least, bookmark pages that you found helpful so you can go back and re-read them--and maybe even purchase through a link on that site if you want to help out the person who gave you the most help on your purchasing decision.
How to Read and Understand User Reviews
Because user reviews tend to be short, the same reading advice doesn't apply to them. Rather than getting the most out of them in the least amount of time, your focus should be on:
- Reading a lot of ratings
- The number of ratings
- The distribution of ratings
- The negative ratings.
Read a Lot of Ratings
User reviews can be terribly biased. Most people want to believe they spent their money wisely, so they might over-state the excellence of the product. Or if they're still in the honeymoon phase with the product, they haven't yet had time to discover its flaws.
The opposite can also be true: if they had a bad experience, they may be biased the other way, giving an overly negative review the product doesn't deserve. Sometimes, the negativity is based on people's own ignorance; for example, I've seen negative reviews for induction burners because they "require special cookware." This is completely unfair to the product and is the result of that person not having done their homework before purchasing.
So read a lot of reviews to get a comprehensive overview of a product. You don't have to read every word--remember, skim, skim, skim!--but by reading a lot of reviews, you can begin to understand things like the best and worst aspects of the product, why the product is popular (often it's because it's cheap), and who the product appeals to. how to buy online
Things to pay attention to:
- How long have the users had the product? If it's still new, they're in the honeymoon phase and haven't had a chance to find out the product's flaws.
- Does the user mention specific traits they like or dislike? If so, that's helpful information. If not, the review doesn't tell you much (skip to the next one).
- Does the user seem knowledgeable? Some people's life experience just makes them better judges of a product's quality than others.
- What do the negative reviews suggest? Is there a pattern of many people having the same complaint? If so, is it about the product itself or did they have a bad experience with the shipper or customer service?(More on negative reviews below.)
By reading several reviews, both positive and negative, you'll get a feel for the overall pattern. Does that pattern seem like a good thing or a not-so-good thing to invest in?
Look at the Number of Ratings
If a product has dozens or even hundreds of reviews, you have a lot to go by. If it only has a few, you have to tread more carefully. how to buy online
However, lack of reviews doesn't necessarily mean a product is bad; often, it just means it's too expensive for the average buyer (and actually perhaps quite good). Without a lot of reviews to go by, you may want to focus your research elsewhere.
If you're buying a pricey appliance, you can check out sites like Home Depot, Lowe's, houzz.com, and appliance websites, which often have more reviews than you'll find on Amazon. But you may also be relegated to getting the bulk of your info from review sites--if you can find one that reviews the not-so-popular product.
The main point here is that if there aren't a lot of ratings, you have to use other criteria to make your decision. But don't just automatically assume the product itself is no good because it only has a handful of reviews. how to buy online
Look at the Distribution of Ratings
Also pay attention to the distribution of ratings, if that information is available (as on Amazon). Not just the average rating, but how the ratings are distributed. Two products can have the same average rating and have a very different rating distribution. For example, if a product has 80% 4- and 5-star reviews and less than 5% 1-star reviews, that's a very different situation than if a product has only 60% 4- and 5-star reviews and 20% 1-star reviews. In the latter case especially, we recommend you pay a lot of attention to the negative reviews.
When you've read enough and learned enough about a product--any product!--you'll be able to tell by the number of positive reviews, the number of negative reviews, the issues reviewers discuss, and other common sense pointers, whether a product is as good as its average rating suggests. how to buy online
If there aren't very many ratings, the distribution is less important. Just read them all--particularly the negative ones.
Pay Special Attention to the Negative Reviews (Why People Don't Like a Product)
To paraphrase the famous Tolstoy quote (from Anna Karenina), "Happy users are all alike; every unhappy user is unhappy in their own way." This is really true for user reviews: People are generally happy with a product if it works how they want it to. But people can be unhappy with a product for all sorts of different reasons.
So the negatives are where you'll discover the seedy underbelly of a product: it may be good at most things but really bad at one or two things, or maybe the customer service is awful. The negative reviews will tell these stories.
Of course, sometimes people just get unlucky and get the rare lemon, or have some odd beef that nobody else really cares about (like the guy who left one-star reviews for every Bosch cooktop product on Amazon because it shut off "for no reason" after running for 10 hours--um, hello!?). But if you pay attention, you can figure that out.
Overall, though, you're going to get great info from the folks who've had a bad experience.
How to Buy Online: Tips to Buy Wisely
Once you're comfortable with your choice, the next step is to make sure you buy wisely.
Get the Best Deal You Can
The Internet has ushered in a golden age for consumers. It's almost impossible to not be a well-informed buyer these days. And the competition for your business is fierce, which means you should always be able to find great deals--often much better deals than you'll find at your local appliance store or even a discount warehouse.
Amazon does not always have the best price or the best after-purchase customer service. It's always a good idea to shop around. If you want to buy from a certain dealer, they may price match if you find a product cheaper elsewhere. how to buy online
Besides price-matching, some sites offer other incentives that may make them a better place to buy even if the cost is a little bit higher. You may get free shipping (always include the shipping cost when calculating the total cost!), or some sort of buyer protection plan that other sites don't offer. (More on that below.)
Some sites offer other deals, like a discount for first-time users, or a reduced price if you buy more than one item, or a coupon for another item. These can often add up to significant savings, so be sure to check out all the offers.
This is another reason to visit a lot of sites: not only will you get the best information, you're also more likely to find the best price.
Understand the Terms of Purchase
Buying online can be risky. For example, did you know that many manufacturer warranties are voided if you purchase through Amazon but not from Amazon? It's true: anyone can sell on Amazon, but if they are not an authorized dealer, the manufacturer warranty is automatically voided--as voided as if you'd bought the product on a street corner, even if it's new in the box. (This is true for other sites, as well, BTW.)
To make things even more confusing, Amazon itself is an authorized dealer of many products, so you might think you're okay. BUT: many other dealers sell through Amazon, and if they're not authorized dealers, you're out of luck.
On Amazon, that information is in the main listing at the top of the page:
You can click on the link to get more information about the seller, including whether or not they're an authorized dealer of the product.
Buying From Unauthorized Dealers Or Buying Products Without Warranties
It's not the end of the world if you buy from an unauthorized dealer or if you buy a product that doesn't come with a manufacturer warranty (such as commercial grade induction burners when purchased for home use). In fact, that's one of the great things about buying online: with the competition as fierce as it is, you can almost always get some sort of buyer protection plan. how to buy online
Here are some ways to protect yourself:
- The website's buyer protection plan. For example, Amazon offers a 30-day guarantee on everything they sell. Many reputable sites will have some guarantee like this that covers you completely, if even for only 30 days.
- Use a credit card with a buyer protection program.
- Get the extended warranty from the third-party dealer. Many sites, including Amazon, offer extended warranties with any purchase. For a small fee--a few percent of the purchase price--you can have complete coverage on any product, even if the manufacturer warranty is voided. For any purchase over $100 or so, you should always consider the extended warranty. Yes; it's a way dealers make an extra profit on purchases, and if you DO have a manufacturer warranty it isn't always necessary. But if you DON'T have a manufacturer warranty, this is a no-brainer for expensive purchases.
- Make sure service is available in your area, if applicable: For example, if you're buying an appliance online, don't purchase without making sure there are certified technicians to work on it where you live. If there aren't, even the most minor service call can result in a huge headache--shipping the appliance off, or paying an exorbitant fee to someone who may not even know what they're doing. In fact, a fair percentage of the negative reviews for appliances have to do with bad service experiences.
A lot of online dealers have service contracts with technicians in cities all over the country. Make sure your area is one of them. You'd be surprised at how often this is a problem. If you buy from a large retailer like Home Depot or Lowe's, don't assume your appliance is covered if you don't also purchase an extended warranty. If in doubt, ask.
A lot of how to buy online is simple common sense. But there's a lot to think about, so it's good to have a reminder. Our hope is that by putting all the information in one place, we've made it easier for you to shop and buy technical products wisely online. The Internet is full of great deals; often better deals than you'll ever find at your local brick and mortar stores. But you do have to do a little bit of research to find them, and you have to make sure you protect yourself in case anything goes wrong with the purchase.
What's your experience with online buying? Have you had any excellent experiences or nightmares you'd like to share? Let us know in the comments below--and thanks for reading!