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Online shopping has changed how we purchase everything from books to birthday gifts. It’s so easy to just page through a list of items while stretched out on your couch, and sometimes too easy to hit that “buy it now” button.
Shopping online makes it possible to find that rare signed first-edition book for your dad’s birthday, or wedding invitations that exactly complement your Great Gatsby theme. It can deliver a bulky rug to your door, or send you four pairs of broom ball shoes so you can choose the right size and send the others back.
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. Obvious factors to consider include shipping costs, ease of returns, reliability of the seller and, of course, cost.
Here’s a look at some items that we think you should probably buy the old-fashioned way — in person.
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A wedding gown is such an important purchase: It 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 might never have seen in her local wedding salon. But learn a lesson from the disastrous purchases of other wannabe fashionistas: If a wedding gown looks too cheap to be true, it probably is. Don’t let “here comes the bride” turn into “here comes the sucker.”
For other hazards to avoid on your big day, check out: “How to Avoid 5 Common Wedding Ripoffs.”
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Try not to hit a sour note by buying an instrument online. It can be tough to know exactly how your new instrument will sound without playing it first — most musicians will want to get a feel for a certain instrument before plunking down cold cash. Also, instruments are fragile, and many sellers aren’t professional packers, so make sure you know your remedies if your new purchase arrives damaged.
It is, however, worthwhile to look for used instruments, especially for kids who are first starting out. The secret here is to look for a local music store that has used instruments, or on Craigslist to see used products from sellers in your area. That way you can see and hear them before putting your money down.
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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 — and sometimes we just have to — order from a reputable, ideally local florist, not the cheapest available. And note the size of the bouquet you’re looking at online. Many florists will show the largest, most expensive arrangement available, and if you order a smaller size, your recipient may receive a shrimpy looking handful of stems.
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Buying groceries online can be a true time-saver. Order while at work, and you could arrive home to all the ingredients you need to prepare that gourmet dinner. 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.
For more tips on lowering your food bill, check out: “The 27 Absolute Best Ways to Save on Food.”
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Very few drivers love shopping for a car. It is expensive, can be stressful, and many buyers feel pressured by salespeople. It seems so easy just to offload the entire process online. But step on the brakes on that dream. At a minimum, you’ll want to touch, feel and drive the same model and make of the vehicle you want to purchase — it’s just too large a buy to make sight unseen. Used cars can pose other problems: You’ll want a trusted mechanic to check one out for any problems.
Here’s more on this topic: “8 Tips for Buying Your Next Car for Less.”
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No matter what kind of insurance you have, prescription drug prices can make you sick. But be wary of buying from online pharmacies. Some are reputable, and, in some cases, your insurance company might guide you to a specific service. But if you go hunting simply for the lowest price, you may end up buying from a fly-by-night seller that’s hawking counterfeit or illegal drugs. And make sure that the pharmacy requires you to submit a legitimate prescription: If they’ll bend that rule, you can’t trust the quality of their medication either.
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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. But if you do order online, be careful trying on the garments that come to your door: You may not be able to return a suit if you’ve removed any tags or sanitary liners (be sure to leave your underwear on when trying anything on).
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The Humane Society of the United States urges pet buyers to avoid internet shopping, noting that many of the puppies sold online come from puppy mills, which 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 blend of mixes and purebreds. And a reputable shelter will let you spend some time with your prospective new pet before signing on the dotted line, to ensure you make a paw-some team.
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Bicycles can change your life. You can upgrade your commute, improve your health and decrease your stress. But you’ll want to 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 wheelie easy to just head back to that same local shop for help.
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Online appliances can look dazzling, but many details can only be seen in person. Is that refrigerator water dispenser really deep enough to hold your favorite drinking glasses? Are those stove controls really intuitive, or more like a Rubik’s Cube? Shopping for such big-ticket appliances in person allows you plenty of time to ask questions about everything from simple instructions to warranties. And if your new appliance arrives dented, or doesn’t fit in the space you intended, figuring out how to do a return can burn you.
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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.
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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 that a photograph on a webpage is a true representation of how the dress will look. As always, there are exceptions, but half the fun of shopping for a prom dress is trying on different looks with friends and parents. And if you need more convincing, Cosmopolitan magazine has an entire photo gallery full of online prom-dress purchase nightmares.
Perfume or makeup that’s new to you
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If you’ve been wearing a certain scent or mascara for years, it’s okay to buy it from a reputable source, of course — just ask my Sephora.com bills. 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.
Art you’re trying to color-match
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One woman’s teal is another woman’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.
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Sure, your smartphone might be a name brand, but surely it’s okay 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 joy of losing your thesis or work project when that questionable charger dies at the exact wrong time. Control-alt-delete, indeed.
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As with any high-ticket item, you want to see and touch and try on expensive jewelry, whether it’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.
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How much do you know about the pillow you sleep on? Is it considered soft, medium or firm? Do you prefer down, feathers or memory foam? Maybe your pillows are years old, and you couldn’t rebuy them if you wanted. Because sleeping is so important, you really want to feel and even test out a bed pillow before you buy it, and that’s tough to do through a computer screen.
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Even adults can have trouble getting properly fitting shoes. The Wall Street Journal reports that adults often buy the wrong size and that not all brands follow the exact same sizing guidelines. So getting a good fit is even tougher with children, whose feet grow like weeds, and who can be super picky about fit and style. Best to lug them to the mall and have a trained employee measure their feet, especially for special footwear.
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As with pillows, mattresses are a vital part of ensuring that you get the right amount of comfortable sleep. Test them out in a mattress store: Kick off your shoes, lie down, shift around and try out different sleep positions. You don’t want to have a mattress delivered, then learn too late that it’s like sleeping on a bed of nails. And when you mattress-shop in a store, you might be able to get free delivery and disposal of your old mattress.
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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 that giant online marketplace sells are available with Prime shipping — and that isn’t always obvious until you’re loading up your shopping cart. If there’s a birthday gift, 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.
Items you can’t return
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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 who knows what will show up at your home?
What purchases would you avoid making online? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.