Experts answer questions about e-commerce

E-commerce is safe. That's the final answer to one of the most-asked farmer questions about buying inputs on computers.

E-commerce experts are confident of their answer - no lifelines are needed - despite recent reports of credit card theft in non-ag areas of cyberspace. The risk is minimal, they say.

"Millions of people are buying products on the Internet every day," says Larry Kline, chief operating officer at ForTheFarm.com. "Most are using their credit cards, and it's very secure."

"There's enough security in the system that I have no qualms about ordering over the Internet," agrees Diane Becker, Internet instructor and consultant from Norfolk, NE.

"I have no hesitations buying things online," adds Steve Drazkowski, a University of Minnesota extension educator.

Most e-commerce sites have security devices that encrypt credit card numbers so they can't be stolen en route from your computer to the seller's server. Look for a padlock or other insignia that indicates the site is secure.

Security devices make e-commerce transactions safer than handing your credit card to a waitress at a restaurant, Drazkowski believes.

A bigger concern, he says, is the safety of credit card databases stored by dot-com companies. If those lists aren't secure, a hacker could break in and steal them.

You wouldn't lose a lot of money - most credit cards have a $50 limit on liability for unauthorized purchases. But if given the option, don't give any company permission to keep your number on file, says Drazkowski.

Here are answers to other questions farmers often ask about e-commerce:

Can I save money buying online?

For many farmers, that's the million-dollar question. The correct answer: Maybe. But lower prices aren't e-commerce's main drawing card, according to Kline.

"Buying online is convenient and efficient," he says. "You can look at a lot of products in a short amount of time. In some cases, you can save money, too."

Who will provide the service that has traditionally accompanied input purchases?

In some cases, it will come from the same dealers and salespeople you've worked with for years. In others, though, those suppliers will be bypassed, and no local help will be available. It depends on the type of dot-com company you buy from and other factors.

In the long run, says Drazkowski, e-commerce will reduce the amount of service available to farmers.

"Some of the dot-com companies say they want to maintain the relationship between the local salesmen and their customers," he says. "The extent that they're able to do that is still questionable."

What about warranties?

Most products are backed by the manufacturer, not by the dealer, Kline points out. If no local dealer was involved in the sale, many dot-com companies will help you contact the manufacturer, he adds.

"We'll provide the customer service to help them with that. We'll get them in touch with - or get on the phone and call - the manufacturer."

With so many e-commerce sites selling the same products, how do I decide which ones to patronize?

Several factors may influence your decision, according to Kline. These include: downloading ease, neutrality and customer service.

"First, make sure the site is secure," says Becker. "For now, especially with big money items, I'd go with the ones that are affiliated with established companies, such as a magazine or national implement business," she adds.

Also, it's probably a good idea to phone a friend. Get advice from others who've bought online before making your first purchase.