I got spoiled during the pandemic. Yes, I know, we all had much to complain about ─ the cabin fever, the groundhog’s day existence, the anxiety surrounding every cough and hot flash ─ but inconveniences aside, the online shopping was epic.
For someone who grew up in a day when the only thing delivered to your door was the occasional pizza and the Yellow Pages, the ability to order everything, from groceries to glamping gear online, and have it show up at your door, sometimes in a matter of hours, was positively lifechanging. All that saved time and gas! Though I haven’t lost my love of in person in store shopping, still!
Want a new book? Out of your favorite lipstick? Both are just a mouse click away. Sometimes, pathetic as this sounds, the highlight of my locked-down days was tracking the UPS truck on my mobile device as it wended its way to my house to deliver dog food.
Apart from vaccine makers and delivery services, the biggest pandemic winners were the companies that quickly cottoned to the new normal, retailers that used to rely on walk-in traffic, but who deftly pivoted to online sales. The best of them also ushered in hassle-free returns, which, thank goodness, appears to be another pandemic plus here to stay.
While the pandemic transformed shopping forever, consumers also learned that just because you can order about anything online doesn’t mean you should.
When buying something for your home, where feel, color, scent, or comfort matter, you will be better off getting your duff off the sofa and into a store ─ unless you’re familiar with the product already. For example, if you like a friend’s toaster, and want to order the same one online, go for it. But if the item falls into any of the following categories, or is an item you can’t return, think twice before buying it online.
1. Mattresses. You really need to experience something as personal, big, and expensive as a mattress before you buy it. This is one item to buy lying down. I purchased my mattress after having a particularly wonderful night’s sleep in a nice hotel. I pulled up the sheets, took a picture of the label, and went in search. Many mattress sellers, including this one, don’t allow returns.
2. Pillows. Bed-pillow preferences are also highly personal. You can’t know what you like ─ soft, fluffy, firm, dense ─ until you try out several. And you can’t rely on descriptions; one seller’s soft and fluffy may be another’s firm and dense. Here again feeling is believing.
3. Flatware. Few products get closer to us than the utensils we hold and put in our mouths. Considering that most people only buy flatware once or twice in their lives, this is not a choice to make on the fly. To choose flatware properly, you should handle it, feel its weight and balance. (Spoiler alert: Join me next week when I talk to a U.S. flatware manufacturer that sells flatware online, but only after you try samples at home.)
4. Large appliances. Before you plunk big money down on a big appliance, say, a refrigerator, washer, dryer, or dishwasher, experience it in person. Open and close the door. Get a sense of how the moving parts work, and whether the surface finish shows fingerprints.
5. Upholstered furniture. When comfort is king, as it is with a sofa, don’t make a decision solely on a picture. When ordering my sectional, the manufacturer I wanted to work with arranged for me to go to a nearby store where I could sit on a sample of the sofa. While there, I felt and sat on different kinds of fill. I ordered fabric swatches from the manufacturer to test, and, using masking tape, mapped out how the sectional would sit on the floor. Then I ordered it online.
6. Area rugs. Because you have to consider size, motif, material, color, quality and how it gets along with everything else in the room, area rugs are the most difficult home accessory you can buy. Get any one of those factors wrong, and the rug flops. Bring home several from a local store to try out. If you see an area rug online you like, order the doormat size to see how the colors look in your room, and to judge quality. A small rug is easier to send back.
7. Flowers. Last year I wrote a series exposing the dirty floral business, and learned this: When buying flowers for others, call a florist who has an actual store (not just a website) in the town where you are sending the flowers. Order directly from the shop, so the middle players don’t help themselves to a chunk of your change.
8. Paint. You cannot pick a paint color online any more than you can pick a perfect mate from a picture. You simply don’t know how either will turn out until you get them home. Paint colors look different on monitors than they do in real life. Plus, the color will change in your home’s light. To properly pick paint, bring swatches home, then get a few paint samples and paint them on boards. View them at various times of day on different walls, then buy the paint from a paint store.
9. Flooring. Similarly, seeing a picture online of a tile, wood or laminate floor in a staged setting is not the same as being able to stand on it, see its sheen, and feel its texture.
10. Scented candles or soaps. These items must pass the sniff test, which last time I checked, wasn’t an online option. If you love a floral scented soap or candle from a specific company, buy it online in bulk. But if you are unfamiliar with the brand, you might be disappointed to find that what the company says smells like garden bouquet, smells to you like rotten grass clippings.
CAPTION: Pillows are personal ─ Pictures of models sleeping soundly on pillows are irrelevant when you’re deciding on the best pillow for you. To choose, try out several pillows side by side in a store and compare feather to foam, fluffy to firm. Photo courtesy of Dreamstime.