Your Official Guide To Successful Online Shopping

by Katie Hoffman

Online shopping is easily one of my favorite little luxuries. I define “little luxury” as anything that combines shopping with staying on the couch and not deflecting the chipper, “Can I help you find something's," from well-meaning store associates. No fitting rooms, no lines, no problems. For a shopaholic, online shopping is practically nirvana. As convenient and therapeutic as it is to purchase a new eyeshadow palette or a pair of pumps that you’ve been eyeing with just a few clicks and the entering of your credit card number, online shopping can be tricky.

There are a lot of variables with online shopping — which is a polite way of saying that a lot of things can go wrong. The maroon dress that was the perfect color online might actually be fire engine red in person. The size M jacket that the seemingly-trustworthy size chart assured you would fit looks like it was made for your Pomeranian. And the potential financial considerations of online shopping are important, too. In my experience, when you're not careful with your online shopping habits, you end up with a lot of purchases that you regret and a major dent in your bank account that feels a lot more real when you're living on Captain Crunch until your next payday. To shop smart and successfully online, these are a few things every gal should do:

Read The Reviews

I know many of us approach online reviews with some serious doubts, and it’s not exactly groundless skepticism. Reviews can get pretty sensational. I think we’ve all read a review that was the written equivalent of a medieval stoning or one that was so complimentary it read more like a description of the virtues of a Golden Retriever puppy than feedback on the fit of a skirt. I can’t speak for everyone, but when I see online reviews, my first thought is, “What kind of person is actually taking the time to write these?” and second, “These peasants are not me, therefore their universal advice that this coat I want to buy feels 'like being draped in chicken pox' does not apply!”

You should always, always, always read the reviews on anything that you buy online, though. Reading them doesn’t mean trusting someone who’s clearly taking their bad day out on a lipstick they ordered last week, but it does mean you’ll be in for fewer surprises when your order finally ships. Online reviews are a great resource for figuring out whether an item runs small or big, if the color looks the same in person as it does online, or if the item has given anyone an allergic reaction. You never know what you might stumble across in the reviews. You may even get info about where you can find the same (or a similar) item cheaper! Despite a few passive aggressive and overly exultant seeds, online reviewers are filled with "good people" because they care enough to help out the next buyer, and we should give them the respect they deserve. Lesson recap: Always consult the reviews.

Familiarize Yourself With The Return Policy

No one wants to think about breaking up with items bought online before they’ve even arrived, but it must be done. If you buy an item and it doesn’t work out, you need to know if you’re able to get your money back and how it works. Some important questions to consider: Can you return it to any store location? If you have to ship it back, what costs are involved? When will the money be back in your account? Returning things you bought online can be a hassle, and it’s best to know upfront whether you need to finally bite the bullet and buy a black ink cartridge so you can print a shipping label.

Keep Your Body In Mind

Unless you’re around 5’10" with a very specific build and complexion, chances are that when you’re shopping online, the model doesn’t look like you. I’d estimate that probably less than 20 percent of the population that's window shopping online right now is looking at a model and thinking, “She looks just like me — proportions and all! After looking at her, I now know exactly how this item will look on me!” It’s just not happening. Even worse, some online shops have it in their head that the best way to look at a dress is to show it on a mannequin or display how it looks lying flat on the ground with nobody in it whatsoever. You know, because how it looks on your bedroom floor on the days leading up to laundry day is important, too.

In a perfect world, computers would have body scanners that we could use when shopping online, but that’s probably not ever going to happen (because it’s kind of creepy). Our bodies are all so different, and we’re all beautiful in different ways, but it’s easy to forget that when you’re trying to buy a dress and basing that decision on a model who’s height or proportions aren’t even close to your own. It’s not her fault or yours, but it does complicate what ends up in your shopping cart. When you’re shopping online, try to keep your body in mind. Remember that anything you buy is going to look different on your body than what’s pictured — that’s not always bad, but it’s something you should expect. Some websites list the height and size or measurements of the model pictured, so try to find that information to contextualize how an item will look on you.

Check The Size Chart (Even Though It’s Probably Wrong)

When we’re buying clothes online, I think most of us try our best to do our size chart due diligence. We come in already having an idea of the size we wear when we buy things at stores the traditional way, and we go from there. Then you enter a world where a woman who usually wears an XL is suddenly slotted into the 4X range and where a size 8 becomes a size 12 — at least, that’s until these items arrive and they’re either three sizes two small or five sizes too big. It’s a universe of confusion and meaningless measurements. You’ve now entered The Size Chart Zone.

I’ve never had an experience with a size chart where I thought, “Wow, that was really accurate and helpful. Thanks size chart!” No. My advice is that you should always check the size chart, but if you normally wear a size large and the size chart is advising you order an XS, use your judgment. Maybe nothing’s wrong, but maybe the people in charge of putting together that size chart just wanted to watch the world burn. Let your common sense guide you, not the size chart.

Remember You’re Using Your Real Money

I can’t be the only one who creates her dream shopping cart on every website I visit. Every pretty little thing I need to have gets dumped into the cart, and when it’s time to check out, I do my editing. The thing about online shopping is that it has a virtual reality feel to it. Unlike in the store, you don’t have that moment when you check the price tag on something and quickly hang it back on the rack like you’re holding a hot potato with a grenade tied to it.

When you’re on the couch binge watching something on Netflix and eating a banana (okay, maybe it's Teddy Grahams), seeing that something costs $100 doesn’t seem like as big of a deal on the computer screen as it would in person. There’s less of the shock factor online, and if you’re not careful, you can end up buying things that you simply can’t afford. Remember that when you’re shopping online the dollar amounts are still real even if they just seem like numbers on a screen. When you don’t have to physically swipe your card, it can be dangerously easy to justify your spending. Shop wisely.

Check For Deals First

Before you submit any online order, you should search to see if you can find any coupon codes. I know it takes a little extra effort and coupons evoke the very specific image of an elderly woman holding up the line at the grocery store because she's digging through a hoard of coupons in a wallet that's been growing since 1973, but the potential money savings are worth it. You should never be prideful when it comes to saving money, especially online where there's no cashier to judge you. Looking for a good place to start? Check your email. If you've already shopped with the same store in the past or you've subscribed to their promotions, chances are you've got a deal somewhere buried in your inbox.

Be Smart About Shipping

I know it's usually only five bucks, but when I have to pay a shipping fee I feel like I've personally failed. Paying shipping stings, because you know it's an added cost you wouldn't have had if you had actually gone to the store in person. Shipping may be justified from a business perspective, but it feels like a tax for laziness.

With that said, don't fall into the trap of spending a certain amount of money just to get free shipping. Many websites have a certain threshold where once you spend more than that amount, your shipping is free. It's tempting to think, "Well, I should spend at least $50 to be spared that $6.95 fee," but if you had only intended on buying one item, suddenly you're going to feel obligated to purchase a lot more than you'd anticipated. Usually when you're shopping to hit a limit, you're going to regret your choices eventually — whether it's the money out of your account or the snakeskin tights that brought you to over $50. Online shops do this on purpose. It's one of those weird tricks where you feel like you're saving money, but you're spending even more in the end. Shipping sucks, but be practical about it.

Don't Size Or Color Justify

Scrolling through a never ending collection of ugly dresses, but then you see it: The Best Dress You've Ever Seen. It's exactly what you wanted! The color! The length! How did you ever get so lucky?! Then you realize the color you love is only available in a size that you are not. But you have to have it because surely you can make something that's two sizes too big work on your body. It'll just be a little loose! On second thought, maybe the Baby Diaper Brown shade they have in your size could work!

Stop. No. I know it hurts to let The Best Dress You've Ever Seen go, but this isn't the way. If a store doesn't have something in the right size or color, it's best to just move on. If you think the heartbreak of letting it go is bad, imagine how you'll feel when you try it on and realize the too big size was in fact too big and the Baby Diaper Brown color was as baby diaper-ish as it looked online. Don't do this to yourself; it rarely ends well.

Images: Fotolia; Giphy