We use it to keep in touch via e-mail. We get our news from it, check the weekend weather, even rent DVDs on it. But have you really taken advantage of the Internet's power when it comes to improving your 4x4's performance? The world is literally at your fingertips when you're connected to the Internet, offering parts possibilities way beyond what your local 4x4 shop can keep in its inventory.
Here's a quick rundown of the most common places to find performance parts on the Web, along with some tips to help you use them like a pro.
Very few companies anymore haven't augmented their mail-order business with e-commerce. Yes, it's still easier to take a printed catalog into the throne room or out to the workbench. And yes, sitting at the computer isn't as fun as shooting the bull down at the shop. But no local retailer can match the depth of inventory available through online channels, or compete with the Internet's ability to process orders 24/7. And the convenience of having FedEx/UPS/DHL deliver parts directly to your front door can't be beat.
True, you pay for that convenience, and shipping charges can add up for heavy or bulky purchases like a crate engine or a set of tires and wheels. Then again, your local 4x4 shop had to pay shipping charges for those items too. You're just not aware of them because they were factored into the purchase price.
Shop carefully enough online and you can avoid paying freight charges at all. "We often waive the shipping charges through various promotions," said Kevin Rourke, 4Wheel Parts Wholesalers' director of e-commerce. "We encourage consumers to compare the net prices of what they're buying when they're shopping around."
Worried about the security of online business transactions? Or that you may be dealing with a fly-by-night outfit that's out to take your money and doesn't actually have the parts you're buying? Whenever you're making online purchases, make sure the transaction screen is a secure one. Look for things like a Web page address that starts with the letters "https"; the "s" means it's a secure page. Sometimes there'll be a locked padlock icon at the bottom corner of the page. A logo on the page from a company like VeriSign means the retailer has hired that service to secure its transactions.
How do you know your online retailer is on the level? Rourke offered these tips: "First look to see how easy it is to contact the company-convenient phone numbers, a 'contact us' page, or an actual physical address. Less reputable sites won't have that information. Look for indications that they offer secure transactions. You can also check independent sites that rate and monitor online businesses, like bizrate.com and the Better Business Bureau."
Ebay is the 800-pound gorilla among online auction Web sites, but there are others to check out too, among them Yahoo Auctions and AuctionFire. But we've found that eBay is tough to beat for its sheer number and variety of cars, trucks, and parts for sale. Vehicles are such an important part of eBay's business, in fact, that it launched eBay Motors, an auction site devoted purely to things automotive.
An auction site works like a silent auction: Items are posted for sale and bids are accepted during a set period of time. When the auction ends, the highest bidder is obligated to buy the item for the final amount bid, provided that high bid exceeds the reserve (minimum) price set by the seller. If an item is listed as "no reserve," there is no minimum price to exceed.
On eBay, some sellers can opt to list a "Buy It Now" price, which allows a bidder to circumvent the whole auction and agree to buy the item at the price set by the seller.
Once you've bought an item, you'll need to make arrangements to have it shipped or to pick it up. Some sellers will offer to pay shipping and handling; others won't.
Buying someone else's stuff sight-unseen can be an adventure, but some homework can keep you from getting burned. Many sellers list contact information on the auction page, so you can call or e-mail to get more detailed info about the truck or part you're looking at. EBay also has a seller rating system, where you can check the seller's reputation with previous customers. Most sellers who do a lot of business on eBay work hard to keep their positive ratings, as it helps keep their business going.
And we mean "business." EBay, for the most part, isn't just an online garage sale any more. Quite a few professionals are working the site, from traditional retailers using eBay as an additional outlet for new parts to people who have figured out how to make a living-yep, paying the mortgage, feeding the kids-buying and selling on the site. That can be a good thing, as their professionalism lowers the risk of buying junk or getting otherwise stiffed in the process.
Speaking of lowering your risk, if you're going to buy via eBay, it's a good idea to enroll in PayPal. The PayPal service allows you to use a credit card to buy items online, but PayPal manages the transaction, and your card information isn't given to the seller. Plus, certain sellers will offer PayPal Buyer Protection on their sales, which is like an insurance policy that pays you a fee if you don't get the item or if it's significantly different from what the seller described.
(If you're buying a vehicle on eBay, it also offers a Fraud Protection Program that'll match the purchase price, up to $20,000, in cases of fraud or misrepresentation.)
Craig's List (CL) is probably the most popular classified site on the Web these days, and for good reason. It's local (if your city doesn't have a List, another city close by does); it's free; it receives 9 million classified ads each month; and even if you're not buying or selling, it's a fun place to explore, with its discussion forums (including an automotive one), rants and raves, and other interesting postings. Note, though, that there is some adults-only content on CL, so be careful if you're letting your young ones shop there.
As with any classified ad section, you browse the ads and contact the seller for more information or to buy the item. Some ads have photos, but not all do. A downside to CL: Searches for particular parts aren't exact, because sellers can put any sort of searchable term inside their ad. So, for example, when we searched the Los Angeles auto parts pages for "headers," seven of the first 10 listings were for tires, wheels, and stereo equipment.
Unlike eBay, CL has no involvement in the sales transaction. There's no special "buyer's protection" or "certified seller" plan on CL. If you see something like that listed in the ad, "it's rubbish," said CL rep Susan MacTavish Best.
Other CL tips from Best: "Deal only with people you can meet in person. Under no circumstances should you wire money to a buyer or seller. Payment schemes involving wire transfers are mostly fraudulent." If you're selling on CL, "fake cashier's checks and money orders are common, and banks will hold you responsible, even if the fake is discovered weeks later. Cash is best!"