A lot of people are rushing to wrap up their online holiday shopping early this week, to take advantage of free shipping offers from retailers. Even as the National Retail Federation predicts overall holiday spending will be down this year, online spending is expected to grow, in part because shopping on the Internet has become so convenient.
Consumers have more information than ever at their fingertips, but it can still be tough to figure out which businesses to trust. A new Web tool from the Better Business Bureau is designed to help.
The BBB has been around for almost 100 years, taking consumer complaints and policing business practices.
"It used to be [that] you would have to call up your Better Business Bureau to ask about a company, and ask whether it had a satisfactory or unsatisfactory record," says BBB spokeswoman Alison Southwick.
But times have changed — a lot — and the BBB has just released a new plug-in for Web browsers. It's designed to make it easier to figure out which businesses have the Better Business Bureau seal of approval. The plug-in was created by a company called Azigo, which has created a similar tool for AAA.
"It kind of overlays on top of your browser," says Southwick, as she enters an online search for plumbers in Northern Virginia.
The plug-in checks the BBB's database against the results pulled up by the search engine.
"Then you'll be able to see immediately whether they are a BBB-accredited business," Southwick says.
A BBB logo shows up next to the businesses that are accredited. Those businesses have agreed to meet the organization's standards, and have also paid a fee.
But this begs the question: How much is the BBB seal of approval worth these days?
"I'm assuming it's still in existence," says Jennifer Smith, outside of a bookstore in Bethesda, Md. "But I haven't heard of anyone using it for years and years and years."
Others who were asked either hadn't heard of the BBB or hadn't used it in ages.
About 3.5 million people do visit the BBB Web site each month, and the site's traffic has been steadily growing. But when it comes to informing consumers, says Damian Roskill, who works for the Web-tracking firm Compete, there is a lot of competition from sites like Yelp, which lets users comment on and rate their experiences with local businesses.
"About 27.5 million people are visiting the site on a monthly basis, so [it's] just orders of magnitude bigger," Roskill says.
He says the BBB site is a bit old-fashioned, falling into the category of Web 1.0, as opposed to the newer, more interactive Web 2.0 model.
"Just go to their Web site. It feels pretty cold," says Roskill. "Contrast that with going to Yelp and see which one feels more like a place where you want to hang out."
Of course, the BBB isn't trying to be Facebook or Yelp, for that matter. Think of it as one more tool to help you make intelligent decisions about where to shop or whom to hire to fix a leak — and it's in a toolbox that has a lot more choices than it used to.