When Shoppers Should Go Offline

Online retail could grow 15%, to $235.4 billion, in 2009. But for many shoppers the best experiences, and deals, are still found offline

For Scott Evans, the perils of online shopping became painfully apparent the day his 2001 "near-mint condition" Cadillac, purchased on eBay (EBAY) arrived at his house in Clark Summit, Pa. "It was nothing like the way it appeared online," recalls Evans, a real estate appraiser and investor. "The engine was misfiring, and the interior was a mess. I took it to be inspected, and they found a pink panel underneath. It was a Mary Kay car that had been repainted."

Later he discovered that the seller of the vehicle, a used car dealership in Texas, had been changing its identification frequently to escape reviews written by disappointed customers. "Now it's much easier to do research about car sellers on the Web," says Evans. "I've bought a used Maserati online since then and was very happy with it."

Online retail has grown impressively, from a $204 billion industry in 2008 to a projected $235.4 billion for 2009 and $334.7 billion for 2012, according to U.S. Census figures. Nonetheless, everyone from consumers like Evans to professional shoppers and even the digital wizards whose job it is to increase sales for client Web sites seem to agree on one thing: Most times buying offline is the better way to go. Often, they report, physical stores provide lower prices and more crucial advice, spare customers from invasive information-gathering, and offer the "haptic" gratification that makes people feel confident about reaching for their wallets.

"We Need to Touch and Feel"

Sheldon Gilbert defines haptic behavior as the need to touch something before buying. "With appliances and TVs, a lot of people do all research online and then buy in store," says Gilbert, whose New York City-based firm Proclivity Systems helps retailers market and merchandise their products to customers across various online and offline channels. "We're emotive, sensory creatures, so we need to touch and feel to be comfortable with our consumer decision."

Part of our human nature, the natural proclivity for apprehension in money matters, can make us uncomfortable about typing our credit card numbers online and providing other personal information such as e-mail addresses and dates of birth—despite the fact that online information-stealing accounts for only 11% of identity theft, according to Javelin Research & Strategy, a Pleasanton (Calif.) firm that does quantitative research on financial-services topics. "Every time I buy online, I can't help but feel I'm signing up for fraud," says Robert Heusinger, a Manhattan IT professional.

Another source of worry: Some basically reputable Web sites still mislead consumers a bit about their wares, whether intentionally or not. No matter how many images of the product at various camera angles the Web site shows, some things defy accurate assessment online, particularly jewelry. "When there's a gemstone, I go offline," says Kelly Machbitz, a Clearwater (Fla.) image consultant who owns totalfashionmakeover.com and betterbeautybargains.com, and who frequently does shopping for her clients. Machbitz was disappointed with a ruby ring her husband bought her after admiring it on a Web site. "The cut and clarity are important, and you can't see them online. Sometimes they have great lighting so it sparkles in the photo shoot, but not when you take it home," she says.

Elysa Lazar agrees. "We've received information from clients that a photo online is not really representative of what the jewelry is, because the Web site doesn't give scale or weight," says Lazar, a Charleston (S.C.)-based shopping consultant who owns LazarShopping.com and manages online and in-store sample sales for manufacturers and designers.

"It's very hard to see rings or earrings online and know what they feel like."

Offline Bargains

Aside from accessories such as scarves and handbags, clothing is always a gamble as a Web purchase unless the consumer is already familiar with a certain brand and the way it fits. "The highest rate of return [in the apparel market], around 60%, is with shoes and clothing bought online," Lazar reports.

Consumers should also know that online shopping's widespread reputation as the source of the best bargains is often put to shame. "Physical stores have to get rid of their inventory to make room for new merchandise," says Machbitz. "With clothes, that's where often you'll find the lowest prices." Come February, an e-tailer can store a winter parka in relatively inexpensive warehouse space until a consumer buys it, but a physical retailer needs high-rent in-store space to display its new spring jackets—and hence has more urgent need to slash the parka price.

And shoppers in need of guidance before purchasing any type of product have a better chance of finding insider knowledge at physical stores. "Retailers know even more about products than their manufacturers do," says e-tail consultant Rob Snell, whose family runs the site thegundogsupply.com out of Starkville, Miss., "because they hear things from people who buy them, the feedback both good and bad." But Snell, who works helping "Yahoo stores," or Web sites for Mom & Pop retailers of specialty products, increase their sales, says these e-tailers are catching up with physical stores by collecting more feedback from customers.

According to Lazar, however, physical stores are still way ahead of online-only businesses in regard to return policies. "Most Web sites only allow credits for returned merchandise," she says. "Most retail stores have full refund policies."

The Hassle of Returns

Even when Web sites have solid return policies, it doesn't mean the customers will feel motivated to reassemble the packing peanuts, dig up the heavy duty tape and magic marker, and then haul the box to the post office. "Most of my clients can't be bothered with returns," says Kelly Machbitz. "If you buy something that doesn't fit, chances are it will sit in the back of your closet for months, and then you'll give it away." All the more reason to drive to a physical store and try on clothes before acquiring them.

Consumers can also do themselves a favor by avoiding Web sites that offer no phone number for customer service, according to Hillary Mendelsohn, author of The Purple Book (Grand Central Publishing, 2007), which lists high-quality specialty online retailers. "I don't recommend any Web site unless it gives me a way to call and ask a live person questions about the product."

And the opposite—that Web sites should require your personal information—isn't true. "I'm reluctant to [shop on] any Web site that requires you to become a member and give your e-mail address first," Lazar says. "It's a way for companies to expand their database. It's like someone asking for your home phone number. Why do they need this?"

Regardless of how any product is sold online, Heusinger has a simple policy for shopping on the Web. "When it's something for myself, I go to the store," he says. "When it's a gift for someone else, I buy online. Let them deal with it if there's a problem."

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