The Internet has completely changed the way we shop. A 2016 survey by UPS found that just over half of all purchases in the U.S. are now made online rather than in stores. Internet shopping offers convenience, a wider selection, and a chance to compare products and prices easily across different retailers. And, because online stores have lower overhead than brick-and-mortar stores, you can often find better deals online.
However, online shopping has its downsides too. For one, you can’t physically examine, feel, or try on the product the way you can in a store. Once you click the “buy” button, you have to wait for your product to be shipped to you, instead of being able to take it home right away. You also have to pay extra for shipping, which can cancel out the perks of getting a lower price (though there are tricks you can use to keep shipping costs low).
So, which is better: hitting the mall, or hitting the Web? Basically, it depends on what you’re buying. There are some products it makes more sense to buy in a store – but for others, you’ll almost always get the best deals by shopping online.
What to Buy Online
A true online bargain has to meet two criteria. First, it has to be something you can feel confident about buying without seeing it in person first. And second, it has to be cheaper than the same product would be if you bought it in a store – including the added cost of shipping. Buying big-ticket items online can be a particularly good deal, since you can get a nice chunk of change for the purchase through a shopping rewards app, such as Ebates.
Here’s a short list of the products shopping experts say you should definitely buy online.
Buying a new gadget, such as a TV or a smartphone, is a complicated process. There are lots of different factors to consider, including the product’s specs, the warranty, and how easily you can return it if you’re not happy with it. It’s hard to do all that while standing in a showroom under the eye of an eager sales clerk trying hard to get you to make your purchase right away.
Shopping online for electronics takes the pressure off. It lets you take your time to compare different products, read customer reviews, and make sure you’re getting the right one for you. You can also compare prices, warranties, return policies, and price match guarantees across a wide variety of stores to find the best deal. Plus, shopping online lets you include specialty tech sites, such as TigerDirect or Newegg, in your search, along with more traditional stores like Target or Best Buy.
On top of all that, buying electronics online can be cheaper – a lot cheaper. Experts say the Web is the best place to find good prices for:
- Laptops. When you buy a laptop computer, you have a lot of options to choose from, such as the processor, RAM, hard drive, and ports. Shopping online makes it easier to customize your laptop so you get exactly what you want without being “upsold” – talked into buying a much bigger, pricier package than you really need. Plus, you can often find special incentives online that you can’t get at brick-and-mortar stores, such as a free gift card with purchase. For instance, manufacturers sometimes offer special cash-back deals through sites like Ebates. GoBankingRates reports that Lenovo offers back-to-school deals of up to 12% cash back through Ebates, which comes to $60 if you buy a $500 laptop.
- TVs. Brent Shelton, an online shopping expert at FatWallet, says in GoBankingRates that online prices for TV sets can be 10% to 30% lower than store prices. You can use price-comparison sites to track prices from different retailers on a day-to-day basis and snap up the TV of your dreams when its price hits rock bottom. Be careful about shipping costs, though. Shipping a big item like a 60-inch TV to your home often costs extra. One way around this problem is to choose the “ship to store” option and pick up the set yourself. Even if you have to rent a truck to get it home, that’s often cheaper than paying the site’s shipping fee.
- Small Accessories. When you buy a new gadget, you often need a few accessories to go with it, such as a cable, a case, or a charger to use in your car. Little extras like these are much cheaper to buy online. According to a Forbes interview with consumer expert Andrea Woroch, buying these add-ons over the Web can save you as much as 60% compared to picking them up at the store.
Shopping online is also the easiest way to buy refurbished electronics. You can find refurbished models in like-new condition at manufacturers’ websites, on retail sites, and in online marketplaces like eBay – all at bargain prices. For instance, according to Shelton, you can often buy refurbished laptops for less than half the price of new ones.
A 2015 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about one in four Americans who take prescription drugs say they have trouble paying for them. One way to save on prescription drug costs is to order your medicine from an online or mail-order pharmacy. Many health insurers work with mail-order pharmacies to keep their costs down. In some cases, you can get a 90-day supply of a medication and pay your copay only once, rather than refilling once a month at your local pharmacy and paying the copay three times.
However, experts say you need to be careful with online pharmacies. Some sites that sell prescription drugs online are phony pharmacies that dispense illegal, counterfeit drugs. These imitations could be ineffective or even harmful.
Fake online pharmacies sometimes camouflage themselves by using URLs and websites that look very similar to legitimate ones, so it’s not easy to tell them apart at first glance. To make sure the one you’re using is legit, look for the red-and-blue VIPPS seal, which stands for Verified Internet Pharmacy Practices Site. This shows that the site has been approved by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. You can also use LegitScript to check out an online pharmacy’s credentials.
Buying online can save you money on over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, as well. Many big-name drugstore chains have programs that give you discounts or other special deals for ordering online. For instance, CVS’ Ship & Save program gives you discounts of up to 20%, plus free shipping, for buying over-the-counter drugs and other household items on a regular, recurring basis. Rite Aid periodically offers promo codes for discounts of 20% or more for online orders, as long as you belong to the store’s Wellness+ program.
3. Baby Supplies
Subscription services like Ship & Save aren’t just good for medicines. They can save you money on anything you buy on a regular basis – and for a lot of new parents, that includes disposable diapers. Buying your diapers online also saves you time – something new parents can always use more of – because you don’t have to run out to the store with baby in tow to buy more. Most importantly, you never risk running out of diapers, which would be a real disaster.
If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can get discounts of up to 20% on diapers, baby food, and other baby supplies through the Amazon Family service. You’ll also receive special offers and coupons by e-mail. If you’re not a Prime member, you can still save up to 15% on these supplies by setting up regular deliveries through Amazon’s Subscribe & Save feature. Target also has a subscription service for baby supplies, which gives you a 5% discount on every purchase, plus free shipping.
The Web is also a great place to find deals on baby clothes. You don’t really need to worry about getting the proper fit, since your baby is going to outgrow them soon anyway. One useful site is Baby Mall Online, where you can find items on clearance for as little as $2 each. You can also save big money by shopping secondhand for baby clothes on sites like eBay.
4. Pet Food
Another good thing to buy through a subscription service is pet food. It’s something you buy on a regular basis, and it tends to come in big, heavy bags. Having it shipped straight to your home saves you the trouble of hauling all those bags home from the store. There are many places to buy pet food online, including:
- Amazon. Pet food, like all other products, is eligible for a 15% discount with the Subscribe & Save program. There are thousands of products to choose from for dogs, cats, and just about any other pet you can name.
- Chewy. This online pet supplier offers discounts of 5% to 10% on subscription orders of select brands. You can also get a discount of 20% on your first order when you set up its subscription service, known as Autoship. The site offers free two-day shipping on all orders over $49, and a flat $4.95 rate on smaller orders.
- Petco. Like Chewy, this pet superstore offers a discount of 20% on your first order when you sign up for repeat delivery. The site also features an ever-changing assortment of “daily deals” on specific items.
- PetSmart. You can get 15% off online orders of $100 or more at PetSmart, or 10% off orders up to $99, if you choose the in-store pickup option for shipping. Of course, doing this cancels out the benefit of home delivery. If you prefer to have items delivered to your home, you can get free shipping on any order over $49, but there’s no discount this way.
Books were the first product that was widely sold online, back when Amazon was a bookseller and not a virtual mall, and the Web is still one of the best places to buy books for less. You don’t need to physically handle a book before buying it, and sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble now offer sneak-preview features that let you peek at the contents before deciding to buy. Buying popular titles on these sites can often save you around 40% off the cover price.
The Internet also gives you access to a huge secondhand marketplace for books. You can find secondhand copies of books at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, sometimes for literally pennies (plus about $4 per book for shipping). Other good sites for used books include eBay, ThriftBooks, and Powell’s.
Buying online is a particularly great deal for college textbooks. According to the National Association of College Stores, the average price for a new textbook in 2015-16 was $80. Buying some of those books online, especially if you can get them secondhand, could save you hundreds of dollars each year.
One of the top sites for buying textbooks online is eCampus, where you can buy or rent new, used, and electronic versions of textbooks for as little as 10% of their cover price. Shipping is free on all orders over $35, and you can return any book within 25 days if you’re not happy with it. You can even use the site to resell your textbooks when you’re done with them and get some of your money back.
If you can’t find the book you need at eCampus, there are plenty of other sites to try. Amazon has a section where you can buy, sell, or rent textbooks, saving up to 50% on new books and up to 90% on used ones. Other sites that specialize in textbooks include CheapestTextbooks, TextbookRush, and Chegg.
6. Exercise Gear
You can find deals online on all types of sporting goods and exercise equipment. For example, Woroch, speaking with Prevention, says she always prefers to shop online for ski equipment and mountain biking accessories. Her favorite sites include The Clymb, a site for fans of mountaineering and related sports, which often has one-day flash sales, and MTBR, a site that deals in secondhand mountain bikes and bike parts.
Not all kinds of exercise gear can reasonably be purchased online. Big, heavy equipment, such as an elliptical machine, costs too much to have shipped to your home – and in any case, you’d probably want a chance to test it out before buying.
However, sites like Amazon sell all sorts of smaller home fitness equipment, such as free weights and jump ropes, at very reasonable prices. For instance, Amazon offers a 20-pound dumbbell set that gets very good ratings from owners for around $25 – well toward the lower end of the usual price range of $1 to $4 per pound. A set of weights like this would be a bit hefty to lug home from the store yourself, but you can get them shipped to your door for free through Amazon Prime.
Luggage is a good item to buy online for several reasons. First of all, it’s bulky, and buying online saves you the trouble of hauling it home from the store. Second, you have a much wider selection to choose from, and it’s easier to search for a bag that fits your needs exactly. Websites like Overstock, Macy’s, and eBags allow you to search their selections by type, style, size, color, brand, features, and price.
The final reason to buy luggage over the Web is the price. According to Shelton, department stores like Macy’s and JCPenney often sell luggage online for quite a bit less than they charge in stores. He says the best time to buy is during Black Friday and Presidents’ Day sales, when luggage is often discounted by 50% or more.
One problem with buying luggage online is that you can’t examine it up close. However, you can get a good an idea of its quality by checking online reviews. These can give you detailed information about how well the luggage holds up to real-world use over the long term – something you can’t tell just by looking at it. Pay especially close attention to what reviewers have to say about the wheels and zippers, which are the parts that tend to wear out fastest.
Once you think you know which bag you want, you can find the best deal on it by searching for it at ShopStyle. This site can show you which sites sell the bag, how much it costs at each one, and which sites have free shipping or special discounts. Before you click “buy,” make sure the site has free returns for online orders, just in case it doesn’t look as good in person as it did on your screen.
8. Clothing Basics
Experts warn that no matter how good the price is, you shouldn’t buy all your clothing online. For some garments, such as men’s suits, the fit is crucial, and it’s almost impossible to get it right without being able to try it on. You also can’t feel the fabric or examine the seams to see whether you’re really getting high-quality clothing that will last.
However, for everyday pieces, such as jeans, shirts, and casual pants, an exact fit isn’t as essential. Once you know what size you wear in a particular brand, you can be pretty confident that size will always fit you, barring any large fluctuations in your weight. And, if it’s a brand you know and trust, you can feel pretty confident about its quality as well.
For basics like these, shopping online can save you both money and time. When a store has a really great sale on a popular line of clothing, the most popular sizes and styles quickly sell out. Shopping online gives you a better chance of finding what you want at the right price. It’s also much easier to sort through the offerings on a website than to hunt through picked-over racks in a crowded store.
Some shopping mavens say it’s also best to shop online for designer clothes and accessories. For instance, Michelle Madhok, an online shopping expert, says in Prevention that designer consignment sites are a great place to score such finds as Prada handbags and Gucci shoes at up to 70% off the retail price. You can sometimes find similar bargains at thrift stores and consignment stores, but it’s easier to get the exact piece you want with an online search. However, other experts warn that you need to watch out for knock-offs and counterfeits.
Additionally, a lot of Web stores that deal in designer knock-offs aren’t secure sites. At best, you’ll probably have trouble contacting the site if there’s a problem, and at worst, you risk having your credit card information stolen. So, if you want to buy designer goods online, make sure to shop at sites where the wares are authenticated, such as TheRealReal.
Whenever you shop online, it’s important to make sure you’re buying from a site you can trust. Every so often, you come across what looks like an unbeatable deal – but the site that’s selling it raises a bunch of red flags. If the site’s design is outdated, there’s a chaotic array of different fonts, or the item descriptions are in such bad English that you can barely make them out, you’re likely to be dealing with a bogus site that will take your money and give you nothing in return – or worse, steal your credit card information.
Another big warning sign is poor security on the site. It’s only safe to enter your credit card or contact info on a secure site – one with a URL that starts with “https.” If the site where you’re shopping has an address that starts with a plain “http,” it won’t protect your personal information from thieves.
Even if everything else about a site looks legit, it’s a good idea to check one last thing before you click the “buy” button: the site’s contact information. You’ll need that to ask for a refund if you’re not satisfied with the product – or if it never arrives at all. If the site doesn’t provide any contact info, take that as a warning sign, and try a different site.
Finally, remember that shopping online – even on legitimate sites – isn’t always the best way to find deals. Check out this companion article to learn about eight things you should never buy online.
Which items do you prefer to buy online? Is there anything you would never buy online?