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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Cameron Huddleston, Online Editor
| Originally published May 2015
Shopping online certainly has its advantages. It’s easy to compare prices without spending time driving from store to store. You can read product reviews at your leisure. You can quickly search for coupon codes to get better deals on purchases. And, of course, your order can be delivered to your doorstep -- no parking lots or pushy salespeople to contend with.
Convenience is surely a major driver behind the growing popularity of online shopping. E-commerce sales in 2014 totaled about $305 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a 15.4% increase from 2013. Yet e-commerce accounted for just 6.5% of all retail sales last year. Consumers are still doing most of their shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.
Sometimes it’s smarter to make purchases in person rather than online. It can be easier to judge quality, for example, rather than relying solely on what you see on a screen. It’s also easier to ensure a good fit. And some items, especially large ones, can be expensive to ship. You’ll pay even more if the seller doesn’t cover return shipping for orders you decide not to keep. Finally, you can more effectively haggle over the price of certain types of merchandise when you’re negotiating face-to-face. Here are nine things in particular that you should probably not buy online for any or all of these reasons.
The Internet is a great place to research bicycles. You can read all about bike geometry and the latest carbon fiber frames. But most cyclists should visit a local store to test-ride bicycles before buying. “When you spend that much money, you need to make sure you get the right size and fit,” says Katherine Karrick Gianini, a certified cycling and triathlon coach. By going through a local bike shop, you can purchase a bicycle tailored to your measurements, she says.
In addition, it can be a hassle to get repairs done under warranty on a bike ordered online. You’ll need to pack it up and ship it to the seller or manufacturer. With a locally purchased bike, you can just take it over to the shop to get the work done.
Kids grow up so fast. No doubt you’ve heard the expression before. Their feet are no exception. Considering that children grow so quickly, it's better to visit a store and have someone measure their feet to fit them for shoes, says Kristin Cook, managing editor of deal and coupon site Ben’s Bargains.
Even if you think you know the correct size based on their current shoes, keep in mind that sizing varies among brands. So if, say, your child wears a size 4 in one brand, she might need a size 3 in another … or 3.5 ... or 4.5. It can take more time up front to try on several pairs of shoes in a store, but it can save you the effort later of sending back shoes bought online that don’t fit. It will also save you the added cost of return shipping if you buy from an online retailer that doesn’t offer free returns.
Ordering flowers online can be convenient, especially if you’re sending an arrangement to someone in another city. But a study by product-review site Cheapism.com found that it’s worth the time to locate a local florist near the recipient because you’ll likely pay less and get a better bouquet for your money. Consumer complaints about mishandled orders and poor service from major online floral delivery services are rampant, according to Cheapism. A 2014 J.D. Power survey found that one in five customers of online flower retailers reported a problem with a delivery.
The Society of American Florists’ directory of florists can help you find local shops to arrange and deliver flowers. You can check reviews of local florists on sites such as Yelp.
Although some brick-and-mortar furniture stores charge a delivery fee, many online furniture retailers charge a standard shipping fee plus a delivery surcharge. Typically, the larger the item, the higher the surcharge. For example, the surcharge on a Pottery Barn armchair purchased online is $65; on a sofa, $100. These charges can add up, making buying furniture online an expensive proposition. In person, a furniture salesman might be willing to knock down the price or throw in free delivery to close a sale.
But Andrea Woroch, who offers advice to consumers on saving money, says an even bigger reason to buy furniture in a store is to see the piece, touch it and sit on it to verify color, quality and comfort. This is particularly true with upholstered items. If you order online and aren't pleased with the item when it shows up at your doorstep, you could find yourself on the hook for return-shipping fees and more, Woroch says. CB2, for example, won’t refund the original shipping fees on furniture, and return shipping is the responsibility of the customer. There’s also a restocking fee that starts at 25% of the purchase price if a furniture return isn’t arranged within seven days after delivery.
Shopping online for groceries and having them delivered to your doorstep is convenient. But if you want to ensure that you’re getting the choicest meats, fruits, vegetables and dairy items, you should head to your local grocer and pick out everything yourself, says Offers.com vice president Howard Schaffer. After all, can you really count on the employee who fills your online order to select the jug of milk all the way in the back with the longest expiration date? Probably not.
Plus, ordering groceries online can be more expensive than buying them yourself from a local store, Schaffer says. Peapod, an online grocery service that operates in parts of the East Coast and Midwest, can charge $10 or more for delivery. And if you think Amazon.com must surely offer lower grocery prices than local stores, think again. When we researched the worst things to buy at Amazon, we found that warehouse clubs and supermarkets beat Amazon’s prices on most food items. Walmart handily beat Amazon’s prices on paper products such as paper towels and toilet paper.
You won’t be taking much of a risk buying an inexpensive saxophone online for your kid in the middle-school band. But musicians who need higher-end equipment -- especially fragile instruments such as guitars, violins and cellos -- should purchase these items in person rather than on the Web, says FatWallet.com shopping expert (and musician) Brent Shelton. Instruments are a big investment, so it’s important to play them to make sure you’re getting a good value, he says.
You don’t get this opportunity when buying online, and you could end up with something that’s not the quality you were expecting. Plus, you run the risk of the instrument being damaged if it’s purchased online and shipped, says Shelton, who has experienced this personally.
It’s next to impossible to judge decorative items such as accent pillows, bedding and curtains online, says Woroch. Colors won’t be accurately portrayed in digital images on a computer screen, and material quality and craftsmanship are hard to gauge by picture alone. The same holds true for scented home goods such as candles and soaps; only the nose really knows.
It’s better to evaluate home décor items in person to ensure you’re getting something that you won’t have to return -- especially rugs, which can be expensive to buy and a hassle to ship back, says Schaffer of Offers.com. Both Macy’s and Ballard Designs, for example, require that rugs be returned in the original shipping bags. Macy’s charges a rug return fee of $6.95; Ballard, $8.95. Web sites such as RugsUSA.com and HomeDecorators.com do not cover return shipping if you decide you don’t like a rug you ordered.
You spend a third of your life on your mattress -- good reason to give this major purchase more than passing thought. Online research is a start, says FatWallet’s Shelton, but we’re all different. You may be a side sleeper, for example, but the reviewer may sleep on his back. You need to lie on several mattresses before you commit to one. And, to be sure, buying a mattress is a commitment. According to the Better Sleep Council, a trade group, a mattress should last up to seven years. Consumer Reports, citing higher return rates among online mattress shoppers, advises buying in a store rather than online unless you’ve already tested an identical mattress.
But even then, there are advantages to making the purchase in person. Shelton says that you should be able to bargain for a better deal on a mattress face-to-face, especially during sales over long holiday weekends, such as Memorial Day. In addition to a lower price, you can negotiate for free bedding accessories, free delivery and free disposal of your old mattress. See Best Times to Buy Big-Ticket Items for more bargaining strategies.
For some people, shopping for a new swimsuit is about as much fun as cleaning the gutters or getting a root canal. As such, you might be inclined to hide behind your computer and order online, taking your chances with fit, says Trae Bodge, senior editor for coupon and deal site RetailMeNot.com. That would be a mistake.
Fit can fluctuate even among suits from the same brand, Bodge warns, and many online retailers don’t allow swimsuit returns if the packaging has been opened or there’s evidence the suit has been worn. The same restrictions can apply to other intimate apparel, such as bras, ordered online. Make it a rule to try on swimsuits in person, Bodge says.