Before You Click “Buy”
The lobby of my building has become a veritable loading dock from the explosion of online purchases most of the tenants receive every day. One glance at the mountains of boxes confirms that online sales continue to outpace in-store purchases.
Overall, 83 percent of consumers report satisfaction with online shopping, and it’s no wonder — virtual shopping saves time and you avoid pushy salespeople. It’s just you and your computer (or mobile device, as is increasingly the case), browsing comfortably on your couch.
But despite its convenience, online shopping isn’t without its pitfalls, and you need strategy to make ripping open boxes a positive experience. Here are five tips for upping your online shopping game.
Don’t Spend to Save
Retail stores use a mountain of tricks to get you to spend more, from lighting and scent to music and product placement, and while you successfully avoid those sneaky strategies online, they’ve cooked up other methods of moving more inventory into your virtual cart.
One of the most ubiquitous tricks is encouraging you to spend more to meet free shipping minimums. Psychologically, the word “free” sticks in our brains and we start scrambling to find something else we “need” — which no doubt costs more than the price of shipping.
To help you resist, have specific items in mind and stick to them without being derailed by pseudo deals like free shipping. And while 65 percent of consumers say they shop in-store to avoid shipping costs, I believe an extra $5-$10 is well worth not having to hail transportation or travel to and from the store. You decide what your time is worth.
If you’re someone who likes to buy things in cash because it “hurts” a little bit more and curtails spending, that’s obviously not an option online — which means it can be easy to forget you’re using real money in exchange for all those boxes of stuff. Before you check out, take a break and leave the items in your cart for a few hours or even a few days.
I do this with most of my purchases and recommend that my clients do the same — unless they’ve found a perfect item that directly fulfills their wish list. Otherwise, it’s amazing how much clarity comes from backing away from the purchase. Desire for the item often fades rapidly once you navigate off the site. And if you forget about it, chances are it’s because you didn’t really need it.
However, forgetting about your virtual shopping cart has become increasingly difficult due to ads that are smart enough to know what you viewed and even what’s in your cart, waiting patiently for you to return. Blocking targeted ads is a good way of ensuring that you return to the item only if you decide you want to.
Get the Right Fit
Buying clothing that projects the right image means paying attention to more than just the way it looks in the picture. Fit reigns supreme, yet it’s one of the hardest things to get right when shopping online. But getting it right is possible with a little planning and sleuthing.
First, pay attention to the model’s height and measurements, which are often listed somewhere on the page (because 99 percent of the population’s measurements are different from the model’s). Go into your closet and take some measurements as a point of comparison; that will help give you a sense of scale, length, and general cut. Also look to see if the shop indicates the measurements of the garment (eBay sellers are great about this, as they want as few returns as possible!).
If the numbers aren’t listed, pose a question in the comments section, see if you can find it listed on another site, or call or email the company to speak with someone and dig further. More sites are also providing 360-degree views of the garments, as well as extreme zoom and even video of the object in motion on a real person, all of which helps you get a better sense of what you’re buying before you enter your credit card.
If you do nothing else, resign yourself right now to the fact that size charts are largely useless. Vanity sizing is a real thing among most American retailers, and there’s huge variation from brand to brand. So when trying on isn’t an option, it’s best to either buy brands you’re familiar with or buy only from resources with a lenient return policy. Fortunately, free returns are popping up more and more to encourage at-home trial.
Analyze the Reviews
What better way to try out a product than to let someone else be the guinea pig? Sure, some reviews are bogus. But many are real and can be helpful. Remember: You don’t need to limit yourself to reading reviews on the site where you plan to make your purchase. Do a search for “[product description] reviews” and you often have multiple sites to choose from.
If it’s from a site like Amazon, look for the “verified purchase” indicator next to their review, as they are far more likely to be legitimate. Anything too positive or too negative (particularly if it’s complaining about the customer service rather than the item) may be fake or simply not useful.
If you’re buying from a small, unknown brand or an auction site, pay close attention to consumer feedback to ensure it’s a reputable site. And if you’re buying name brand or high-end items on sites other than that brand’s website, check for verification of authenticity. Everything from cosmetics to purses can come in convincing knock-offs.
Reviews are also a great place to double-check size and verify quality. Many times reviewers give their measurements or indicate which size they bought (vs. which size they usually wear), and also comment on the construction and feel of the item. Once you’ve read enough of those, you can get a pretty accurate idea of what to expect.
But be discerning: If, after reading the reviews, it doesn’t seem quite right for you, let it go. Once you have it at home, you’re even more likely to make excuses for why you should keep it, just to avoid packing it back up and going to the post office.
Game the System
People don’t clip physical coupons as much as they once did, but that doesn’t mean couponing has gone out of fashion — coupons close the deal for consumers 59 percent of the time (compared to just 28 percent for sales). In fact, shopping online is one of the best ways to be a super saver with minimal effort.
Take advantage of digital promo codes to maximize deals by searching for “[retailer name] promo code” every single time before you check out. You’ll be surprised how often there’s a code available on sites like RetailMeNot and Coupon Sherpa.
Many stores email promotions directly or even send them in the mail to existing customers (some coupon cards can be used in a physical store or online — be sure to read the fine print). Others post seasonal or periodic discounts on their homepage with a special code, so pay attention when you hit the landing page because that discount often isn’t advertised on other pages or when you check out.
Many brands also post discount codes on their social media accounts as incentive for you to follow them. And just because you find an item on one site doesn’t mean you need to purchase it there. Cross-check for deals on other sites, or search for promo codes available for the same item on another site.
If you’re worried about returns, consider paying with PayPal when possible. If you have a dispute with the retailer and it won’t offer a refund, PayPal often will. But always look for trust seals (often a little gold padlock), and check your bank or credit card statement post-purchase to confirm the refund.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the "thinking person's stylist." She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.