NEW YORK (MainStreet) — There are two very good reasons why online retail sales consistently outgrow traditional every year: Shopping online is more convenient and typically much less expensive. For instance, consumer electronics from cameras to smartphones can usually be had for cheaper online, books used or new (or electronic) are usually priced more cheaply at Amazon than in a big bookstore and even shoes tend to be cheaper online now that most of the online shoe retailers offer free shipping.
“Whether it’s a big online retailer or a smaller one, the reality is that most things are going to be a much better price online,” says Ken Wisnefski, founder of WebiMax, an online marketing firm.
Most, but not all.
The convenience of ordering a product online and shipping it to your home comes at a cost, though, because you’ll often have to pay shipping and handling fees that can wipe out any price advantage an online merchant might have. And while that’s somewhat offset by a lack of sales tax for online-only merchants, states are increasingly passing laws aimed at collecting sales tax from such retailers. And even aside from these ancillary costs, there are a few classes of products that can be found at a lower price in a physical store for several reasons. We spoke to shopping experts to find out which products you should drive to the store to buy.
Really Heavy Things
Even when an online retailer wins out on price, the cost to ship it to your home might erase the price advantage, which is especially true of heavy items such as televisions.
“You’ll see sites that have a good price, but they’re trying to get it to the East Coast from Arizona, and a lot of the time ... it might be better to go to Best Buy,” Wisnefski says.
That’s not always the case, of course. Some sites offer free shipping if you meet a minimum purchase threshhold, and some big retailers will sell an item on their Web site and ship it for free to your local store for pickup.
Where you want to be careful, Wisnefski says, is when dealing with smaller online retailers you haven’t heard of.
“Some of these smaller retailers entice you with price and then make their margins on shipping costs,” he says, pointing to more obscure retailers who rise to the top of the Google Shopping tool with a low base price and an exorbitant shipping fee. If you do a search on Google for a model of TV and a retailer you’ve never heard of has the lowest base price, take a really close look at what it’s charging for shipping. Chances are the final price is going to be higher than more established retailers, online or otherwise.
Speaking of really heavy things, you may also want to stick to traditional retailers if you’re looking for big appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators. While shipping costs come into play here, there’s an even bigger factor at work.
“Big-ticket items can be cheaper in stores, because you can haggle or use cash,” says Teri Gault of TheGroceryGame.com. “And with furniture and appliances, you can buy the floor model reduced so much that it can beat online prices.”
Crystal Paine of MoneySavingMom.com likewise recommends getting a floor model “that has some scratches on it” when looking to save on appliances at a bricks-and-mortar store.
Sales associates on the floor at big appliance retailers will often be empowered to negotiate for the price of a large appliance – and with a sales commission on the line, many of them will be all too happy to take some dollars off the price to close a sale. That’s an experience you just won’t get on Amazon.
Gault previously shared her haggling tips in our ultimate guide to haggling.
Online grocery delivery services such as Peapod have made some headway in bringing grocery shopping to the e-commerce world, and Amazon is likewise making a play with its “Subscribe and Save” program, which gives you up to 15% off on groceries you order on a regular basis. But they still can’t compete with the kinds of discounts you tend to see from local grocery stores and supermarkets.
“For sure, groceries are cheaper [in stores],” Paine says. “Amazon has become a lot more competitive in the last two years with things like diapers, but most of the time they are not going to meet what you can get with coupons.”
Gault likewise says that groceries and small packaged goods can be had cheaper in stores because of the prevalence of coupons, sales and weekly markdowns.
“Anything that’s consumer-packaged goods – groceries, health and beauty products, toilet paper – are cheaper in stores if you’re using coupons,” Gault says.
Coupon codes have certainly migrated to the online world in the form of coupon codes. But those codes are usually for apparel and more expensive merchandise, as opposed to a manufacturer’s coupon that gives you a dollar off a jar of mayonnaise. If you want to save on food, clipping coupons and heading to a physical grocery store is still the way to go.
Clothes (Some of Them, Anyway)
Wisnefski says clothes are frequently cheaper in stores because of a simple reality of bricks-and-mortar retail: Inventory is hard to manage. And when management screws up and winds up with a back room full of clothes it can’t sell, that’s when you see big discounts rarely offered online.
“Clothing seems to be one area where it’s cheaper in stores,” he says. “A lot of that inventory has already been shipped to the location, and if they have excess merchandise, you’ll find that stores are more apt to cut prices.”
That isn’t to say you should never buy clothes online, but when you factor in these inventory-driven sales, shipping costs and the fact that you can’t try the clothes on before you buy them, buying clothes in stores starts to look a lot more attractive.
The benefits of shopping for clothes in stores are amplified at outlet stores, where prices are slashed much lower than anything you’re likely to find online.
“There are high-end designer clothes that you can’t get online at as much of a reduction as in an outlet store,” Gault says. “But you have to go out of your way to get it – so they don’t compete with regular retailers, they can only put outlet stores way out in certain places.”
Groceries are among a larger class of items that are typically better to buy in stores: lower-priced goods. While pricey consumer electronics are usually better bought on the Web, less-expensive everyday items from shampoo to pens are often better to buy in an old-fashioned store.
Shipping is a significant factor here. While $5 to ship a blouse might not make a big difference if you’re saving $20 off the price online, it makes a very big difference if all you’re buying is, say, a bottle of shampoo. And since those less-expensive items often don’t add up to a Web site’s free shipping threshold, you’re often left paying $5 to ship a $10 purchase. Even if you’re saving 40% by going online, you lose it right back by paying for shipping.
But even the base price tends to be better in stores for such items. Gault, for instance, points to wrapping paper she got on the cheap at discount retailer Big Lots, as well as flower vases she found at a deep discount at a dollar store. Neither discount would have been available online, she says.
Pricing surveys back up this assertion. Anthem, a marketing analytics firm, conducts an annual study that compares the price of select items online and in stores. In the most recent iteration of the study, it found that items $7 and below tended to be cheaper in stores. While online retail got a slight advantage for items priced between $7 and $20, it’s worth noting that the study only looked at the base price, ignoring shipping costs. As such, buying something in that price range might still be wiser to do in stores, depending on what the online retailer charges for shipping and whether it collects sales tax.
Matt Brownell is a staff reporter for MainStreet. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Brownellorama.