Online shopping has changed how we purchase everything from books to birthday gifts. It’s so easy to page through a list of items while stretched out on your couch — and sometimes too convenient to hit that “buy it now” button.
But online shopping isn’t for everything. Just because you can order a swimming pool online — or a 72-pound bag of dog food — doesn’t mean you should.
Here’s a look at some items that you should buy the old-fashioned way — in person.
1. Items you can’t return
Buying an item that can’t be returned is a gamble even in a brick-and-mortar store where you can try on clothing or get a good look at a piece of furniture. Your risks increase enormously when you buy such an item online, especially from an unfamiliar store.
Once the money has left your account, you’re at the mercy of the seller. And even on Amazon, you will find plenty of things that you can’t send back, as we detail in “9 Things That Amazon Won’t Let You Return.”
How much do you know about the pillow you sleep on? Is it considered soft, medium or firm? Do you prefer down alternative, feathers or memory foam?
Because sleeping is so important, you want to feel and even test out a bed pillow before you buy it — and that’s tough to do through a computer screen.
Try out the bike you’re interested in at a local store before putting the pedal down on a purchase. Local salespeople can help you choose a bike that fits your size, experience and the kind of riding you hope to do.
And if the bike you buy needs adjustments or repairs, it’s easy to just head back to that same local shop for help.
After you get a bike, you can also make a little money with your new ride. For more, check out “5 Ways a Bicycle Can Make You Richer.”
Buying groceries online can be a true time-saver. But while buying pantry staples (flour, sugar, canned goods) is usually fine, purchasing fresh produce that way can be a “berry” big problem.
Choosing fruit and veggies is a hands-on, visual experience. It’s hard to tell an online shopper just what level of yellow you want in your bananas or that you need one very ripe avocado and another that will sit comfortably for a couple of days.
5. Large appliances
Photos of appliances online can look dazzling, but many details can only be seen in person. For example, is that refrigerator water dispenser really deep enough to hold your favorite drinking glasses?
Shopping for big-ticket appliances in person allows you plenty of time to ask questions about everything from simple instructions to warranties. And returns are easier.
Just make sure you choose wisely. Start with a little research by reading about America’s most reliable appliance brand.
6. Wedding gowns
A wedding gown may be the single most expensive piece of clothing a woman ever buys. And internet sites, especially international ones, dangle tempting photos of dreamy designs that a bride won’t see in her local wedding salon.
But learn a lesson from the disastrous purchases of other wannabe fashionistas: If a wedding gown’s price looks too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t let “Here comes the bride” turn into “Here comes the sucker.”
Few drivers love shopping for a car. It is expensive and stressful, and many buyers feel pressured by salespeople. It seems so easy just to offload the entire process online.
But tap the brakes on that dream. At a minimum, you’ll want to touch, feel and drive the same make and model of the vehicle you want to buy — it’s just too large a purchase to make sight unseen. Used cars can pose other problems: You’ll want a trusted mechanic to check out the car for any problems before you buy.
Here’s more on this topic: “8 Tips for Buying Your Next Car for Less.”
The Humane Society of the United States urges pet buyers to avoid internet pet shopping, noting that many of the puppies sold online come from puppy mills, which are high-volume dog breeding operations that contribute to overpopulation and animal suffering.
The Humane Society encourages pet buyers to get their next puppy or kitten from a local rescue group or shelter, noting that shelters often have a variety of breeds, both mixes and purebreds.
If you’re looking to color your world, you’re best off at a local paint store. Eggshell and ecru look awfully similar while you’re poring over a webpage full of samples, but those differences can be glaring once you’ve slapped them on your walls.
Planning a DIY project? Check out “Paint Your Home Like a Pro With These 12 Tips.”
10. Pricey jewelry
As with any big-ticket item, you want to see and touch and try on expensive jewelry, whether that’s an engagement ring or anniversary necklace. The International Gem Society notes that diamond dealers don’t buy their diamonds sight unseen and neither should you.
11. Musical instruments
Try not to hit a sour note by buying an instrument online. It can be tough to know how your new instrument will sound without playing it first. Most musicians want to get a feel for a certain instrument before plunking down cold hard cash.
Also, instruments are fragile, and many sellers aren’t professional packers. You want your violin to arrive in one piece, not splinters.
Instead, look in person for used instruments, especially for kids who are first starting out. Visit a local music store that has used instruments, or check out Craigslist to see used products from sellers in your area.
I’ve bought flowers online many times, and the results are a mixed bouquet. Sometimes the item ordered was beautiful, just as pictured, perfect for a friend’s birthday or hospital stay. Other times, I felt misled by carefully staged photos.
If you are ordering online, choose a reputable, local florist. And note the size of the bouquet you’re looking at online. Many florists show the largest, most expensive arrangement available. If you order a smaller size, your recipient may receive a shrimpy handful of stems.
The old “Cathy” comic strips didn’t lie: Shopping for a bathing suit can be a nightmare. Few clothing items make a person feel more exposed, so we understand the attraction of making this choice without entering a dressing room. But in reality, few items are tougher to buy successfully online.
In a store, you can try on numerous sizes and styles and quickly discard those that would only work on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. And online photos usually feature trim size-zero types who could make a gunny sack look gorgeous.
14. Prom dresses
Like a wedding gown, a prom dress is a special investment for a special day. But youthful buyers may be even more inclined than brides to shop online and to assume (incorrectly) that a photograph on a webpage is a true representation of how the dress will look.
Besides, half the fun of shopping for a prom dress is trying on different looks with friends and parents.
15. Perfume or makeup that’s new to you
If you’ve been wearing a certain scent or mascara for years, it’s OK to buy it from a reputable source.
But perfume descriptions can be as loopy as wine menus. Before trying a new scent or makeup product you’ve found online, either test it in a store or order a tiny sample bottle from a reliable vendor. Wear it for a week before you decide if that giant gift set is really for you.
16. Art you’re trying to color-match
One person’s teal is another’s turquoise. As with paint, colors you see on your computer monitors may be very different from the ones that appear on a painting or other artwork you’ve fallen for online.
If you like a certain piece or want to support a certain artist, that’s wonderful. But if it isn’t exactly what you expect, just don’t go there. It’s possible you’ve been framed.
17. No-name tech
Your smartphone might be a name brand, but surely it’s OK to cheap out when it comes to tech accessories, right? Maybe not. No-name smartphone and laptop chargers and other items can offer a great deal, but those cords and connections often fray and break.
The last thing you want is the risk of an electrical shock or fire — not to mention the tragedy of losing your thesis or work project when that questionable charger dies at the exact wrong time. Control-alt-delete, indeed.
18. Kids shoes
Even adults can have trouble getting properly fitting shoes. So, getting a good fit is even tougher with children, whose feet grow like weeds. Kids also can be super picky about fit and style.
Best to lug the kiddos to the mall and have a trained employee measure their feet, especially for special footwear.
19. Last-minute purchases
Sure, one-day delivery is becoming more common online, but that doesn’t mean you should leave online gift-buying to the last minute. You may have an Amazon Prime membership, but not all items sold on the online marketplace are available with Prime shipping — and that isn’t always obvious until you’re loading up your shopping cart.
If there’s a Christmas gift, birthday party decoration or Halloween costume you simply have to have on time, either order well in advance or hit a good old-fashioned brick-and-mortar store.