By Cameron Huddleston
Most consumers browse online before they go into retail stores, regardless of where they eventually buy. Retail e-commerce sales increased more than 14 percent over the past year compared with just a 1.6 percent increase in total retail sales, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But that doesn't mean shoppers are abandoning brick-and-mortar stores.
Considering that e-commerce accounts for just 7 percent of total retail sales, most consumers are still visiting stores rather than websites to make their purchases. In several ways, it pays to know what not to buy online. Going to a store can be a smart way to ensure you're getting what you're paying for, negotiate a better deal with the salesperson, or avoid hefty shipping charges.
But some purchases are better made online because you can get a much lower price than at a brick-and-mortar retailer -- and you can save yourself the time and hassle of going to the store. Here are the best and worst things to buy online.
5 Best Things to Buy Online
1. Laptop Computers
One of the best things to buy online just happens be an item that allows you to shop online: a laptop computer. "As if the better discounts and selection online aren't enough reason, the number of retailers and wholesalers for you to compare pricing and the ability to totally customize your purchase without the 'upsell' should make buying a laptop online a no-brainer," said Brent Shelton, online shopping expert with cash-back site FatWallet.com.
Plus, several online electronics retailers allow consumers the option to buy refurbished and used laptops at discounts of 50 percent or more off the retail price, Shelton said. And you'll find incentives online that aren't typically available in stores, such as free gift cards with purchases and cash back on purchases through sites such as FatWallet.com and Ebates.com.
Buying diapers online can save you money and time. You can get lower prices for diapers through websites such as Amazon and Diapers.com than in stores, said Max Levitte, CEO of consumer product review site Cheapism.com. Both sites, as well as Target.com, offer discounts for setting up recurring deliveries of diapers, which should ensure you always have an ample supply and help you avoid making late-night runs to the store to pick up more.
If you're an Amazon Prime member -- which costs $99 a year -- you can join the Amazon Mom program and get a 20 percent discount on recurring deliveries of diapers. For example, you'd pay just 17 cents per diaper for a 216-count package of Pampers Swaddlers through the Amazon Mom program versus nearly 23 cents per diaper for a 168-count package of Pampers Swaddlers at Walmart.
Diapers.com offers a 10 percent discount on recurring diaper deliveries -- without a membership fee. And Target.com discounts subscribe-and-save purchases by 5 percent without requiring a membership. By choosing Target's own up & up brand, you can save even more. With the 5 percent discount, you'd pay 16 cents per diaper for a 222-pack of up & up diapers compared with 18 cents per diaper for a 204-pack of Pampers Baby Dry through Amazon Mom.
Yes, shoes. You shouldn't be afraid to buy shoes online without trying them on because many footwear retailers offer free return shipping if the shoes don't fit, said Sean Graw, a deal expert with deal and coupon site Brad's Deals. Even if free return shipping isn't available, the discounted price is often reason enough to justify buying shoes online, he said.
Online retailers such as Zappos and 6pm.com are able to offer substantial discounts because they don't have the overhead costs of brick-and-mortar stores. But retail stores also offer great deals on their websites. When retailers bring new styles to their in-store displays, they have to make room for them by removing out-of-season shoes. While these shoes might no longer be available in stores, they tend to go on sale online at steeply discounted prices, Graw said.
You probably should avoid buying children's shoes online, however. Considering how fast kids' feet grow, you'll likely need to have their feet measured when you buy new pairs of shoes each season.
Like shoes, buying glasses online might seem like a risky proposition. But the savings can be remarkable. Shelton said it's possible to order glasses for less than $10 and bifocals for less than $30 online.
Plus, online glasses retailers offer features and safeguards to ensure that you get the right fit. They offer comprehensive frame-buying guides, and some, such as Zenni Optical, allow you to upload a photo of yourself and virtually try on frames, Shelton said. Some retailers offer free returns and free adjustments as well. For example, Glasses.com partners with LensCrafters to offer free adjustments at any of its U.S. stores.
5. Single-Cup Coffee Pods
Coffee pods -- or K-cups as they're commonly called -- are the fastest-growing segment of the coffee industry. More than one out of every three dollars spent on coffee is now spent on a coffee pod, according to The Washington Post. If you use single-serve pods for your morning cup of Joe, you know they can be pricey.
"One way to mitigate the cost is to buy them in bulk online," Graw said. Retailers such as Choxi (formerly NoMoreRack), Target.com and even BestBuy.com offer bulk discounts that drop the price of K-cups to as low as 30 cents per cup -- half the price of what they are on store shelves, he said.
5 Worst Things to Buy Online
Ordering flowers online can be convenient, but Levitte said that Cheapism.com research found that you won't get a good price or good customer service with the major online florists such as FTD and 1-800-Flowers.com. By ordering a bouquet through a local florist, you avoid fees that would go to a middleman and you can discuss the specifics of the arrangement you want and make special requests, according to the Cheapism.com study on cheap flower delivery.
You can find a local florist through the Society of American Florists' directory and read reviews on sites such as Yelp.
Buying bulky furniture online can be a mistake, Levitte said. Although some brick-and-mortar retailers do charge to deliver furniture, you'll likely pay more for shipping from an online retailer. Online furniture retailers often add delivery and processing surcharges on bulky, heavy items in addition to shipping fees that can be a flat rate or a percentage of purchase price. For example, the surcharge for a sofa purchased on the West Elm site is $100 -- on top of the standard delivery charge of 10 percent of order total.
Additionally, it can be hard to judge the quality and color of furniture online. If you're unhappy with your online order, returning it can be costly. Some retailers, such as Macy's and CB2, won't refund delivery fees if you return an item, and they might charge a restocking fee.
3. Large Appliances
Although there are great discounts for appliances online and delivery often is free, the same discounts and delivery offers usually apply in stores as well, Shelton said. Aside from saving some time driving to a store, there's no advantage to buying an appliance online.
There is, however, a benefit to making this sort of big-ticket purchase in a store. "It's a purchase that is definitely worth seeing what you're paying for and inspecting the quality of materials and build," Shelton said. Plus, salespeople usually can explain differences in models and features to help make the buying process a little easier.
It's a good idea to research cars and car prices online before buying one. But actually purchasing a vehicle online "is a dicey process," Graw said.
It's important to see and test drive a car before you buy it as well as have it inspected by a professional mechanic if it's used. Although sites such as eBay Motors do have protections for buyers who get ripped off, "you're better off avoiding potential lemons altogether by not buying a car sight unseen," Graw said.
5. Luxury Designer Bags
If you shop online to get deals, you might assume it's a great way to get a pricey designer handbag for a bargain. But what you're more likely to end up with is a knockoff, Levitte said.
Of course, you can buy high-end designer bags on sites of trusted retailers such as Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus, but then you'll be paying department-store prices, Levitte said. If you buy from sites that aren't authorized resellers in order to get prices that are lower, you could end up with a counterfeit bag, which means you've paid for something that's of inferior quality.
Read More From GOBankingRates: