Skip to main content

Over the last decade, ecommerce has increased from comprising just about 6 percent of retail transactions to a whopping 16 percent in March of 2019. In the first half of 2020, that number has skyrocketed as cities shut down to meet the pandemic crisis. Forbes reported that U.S. online retailers’ revenue growth jumped to 68 percent in April and that in the United States and Canada e-commerce orders have increased by 129 percent since March.

The stats don’t lie: more people are shopping from home than ever before. I’m here to admit that I’m one of them—and to offer some encouragement and tips!

I didn’t always like online shopping—for clothes, that is. Amazon long ago won me over to the ease of shopping for books and home necessities online (a defense of local bookstores is in order here, but that’s a subject for another article!). Nonetheless, I’ve always loved the process of “going shopping” for clothes. I love trying things on, feeling fabrics, wrestling with sizes, feeling the surprise that comes with hating a piece I thought I’d love and loving a piece I thought I’d hate. 

But over the last few years I’ve moved more and more to online shopping, even before the COVID-19 quarantine. And while the world is slowly reopening, in most places retail is among the last things to come up to speed, so we’re likely to be shopping online for a while to come. Here are some thoughts about the pros to online shopping as well as some cons, plus tips to avoid various pitfalls and discouragements.

The pros:

The process of online shopping may lack the surety that comes with trying on items or the pleasure that comes with discovering a gem on the sales rack—but it has many redeeming qualities, among them the following:

  • Convenience. The clothes come to you, so you can try them on in your real-world life away from the influence of the stores. You also get to avoid unflattering dressing room lights, which is a huge plus!
  • Outfitting. A lot of wardrobe troubles come from thinking about shopping in terms of items rather than outfits: I might love this blouse as an item, but if I don’t like the way it looks tucked in or untucked with any of my bottoms and if I can’t wear it comfortably under any jacket or sweater . . . I probably shouldn’t actually buy it. Online shopping puts the new items in the context of the old: instead of trying that blouse in the unreal world of a dressing room in a cool store where you’re liable to get retail rose-colored glasses or simply get overwhelmed with the choices available, you’re trying it on in your bedroom, in your real life, with the things you already own. There’s no better way to test items for their versatility and coherence with the rest of your closet.
  • Feedback. An outsider can be a great help when shopping, but sales people aren’t primarily there to help you; they’re there to sell the items. They don’t really know you or your personal style, so it’s harder to trust their encouragement or discouragement. When your dressing room is at home, you can ask trusted friends or family for feedback. In my experience, my friends sometimes have a better sense of my style than I do, and they can help me steer away from things I like the idea of but won’t wear: “You bought a dress just like that last year, and you didn’t wear it once!” At the same time, sometimes a negative reaction can paradoxically confirm what you like about an item: “You’re right that the print is super nineties—that’s actually what I like about it!” If you live alone, have a friend over for a glass of wine and give her a little fashion show.

The cons and the tips:

All of those pros don’t totally do away with some of the major frustrations with online shopping, nor do they solve the problems that can arise. So for honesty’s sake, here are the major “cons”—paired with some helpful tips to avoid the issue entirely or at least to mitigate it!

Con: Money issues. The biggest con of online shopping is that you may have to spend a lot of money right off the bat if you’d like to try on different colors, sizes, or styles. If you buy things on debit cards, you’re “out” the funds and have to wait for reimbursements when you mail items back. If you use credit cards, then you’re building up expenses for which you may have to pay interest even if you return most of what you ordered—plus, it’s much easier to lose track of just how much you’re spending when you don’t feel the pinch in your pocket immediately.

Tip 1: Wait before ordering. Often, time is what you need to assess how sincere your interest in the item is. It might feel like love at first sight, but after a few nights of sleep, you might discover that you don’t actually need the item, or that it really isn’t you—or you might simply find something else you like better!

Tip 2: Wait for sales, and don’t hesitate to call for price adjustments. These days, it seems like there’s some kind of sale going on almost every day of the week. If you hit a site on an off day, just wait a day or two—you’re almost guaranteed to avoid paying full price at many retailers! And once you do order, keep trolling the site to see if it gets marked down or is part of a special sale. Most companies have a 7 to 14 day “price adjustment” window, which means that if the item gets marked down in that period, they’ll refund you the difference—but you have to ask for this adjustment!

Tip 3: A lot of companies offer student, teacher, and military discounts in-store, and some have a way to honor this online. Look over their site to see if the info is posted; if not, give them a call—worst case scenario, they say, “No” (and the best, of course, means money in your pocket!)

Tip 4: When possible, take your returns to the brick-and-mortar storefront. It takes a bit more time but this way you get the security of knowing your items reached your destination, and you get your refund more quickly! (Some online retailers also have partnerships with brick-and-mortar stores for returns—check the website.)

Tip 5: Alternatively, you can flag down a UPS, FedEx, or USPS delivery person and send your returns out with them! Of course you can also take the returns directly to the corresponding store, but since they come to your street anyway, save yourself the trip and stay on the lookout for the next big brown truck that comes trundling down the street. Another option is scheduling a time to have a package picked up by UPS or FedEx.

Con: Size issues are frustrating. Why are you a small in one brand and a large in another?! Perhaps at the end of time we’ll know the answer. But until then, size frustration is here to stay. And when you order clothes online, this frustration can be increased: you might like the item but it’s the wrong size, or it might fit okay but perhaps you want to compare sizes just to be sure. Since you’re not in the dressing room, you can’t just peek your head out and call for another size.

Tip 1: Order multiple sizes, especially if you’re shopping from a brand for the first time, especially if you’re shopping for pants. It’s also a good idea to ask a friend who’s shopped the brand before so you can get a sense of your size in the brand.

Tip 2: Make sure you check the return policy before ordering multiples! I can’t emphasize this enough. Most mainstream brands offer free or virtually free returns, but more and more smaller brands have very limited return windows and/or only do returns for store credit rather than a true refund to your credit card. So watch out!

Con: Though it might seem like a way to save time at first (multitasking! no driving!), online shopping can be time-consuming. The process of shopping, thinking over, and eventually returning items you don’t want to keep can actually take a lot of time. Once you start online shopping, it can be hard to stop—especially because retail sites use cookies which generate instantaneous ads that clog your social media feeds. Plus, the sense of infinite options can bog you down and make it difficult to commit to an item—“I love this skirt, but I saw one on this other website that I might like better because of the fabric/print/length/rise, so I’ll order it to compare.” Comparison is wonderful, and it’s part of the pleasure of online shopping, but it can also be the proverbial thief of joy—and, again, of time.

Tip 1: Think of online shopping like a trip to the mall: pick a day (or a weekend) for the “trip,” and go into it with a list of things you need. Stick to the list as much as you can, and make yourself stop searching when your day/weekend is up. Once you’ve placed a few orders, make yourself stay away from clothes site searching until those orders have arrived and you’ve made your choices.

Tip 2: This might seem obvious, but take a day to process and send back or physically return unwanted items. Instead of letting this process permeate multiple days, picking a day to handle these things will be more time efficient and give you brain space to manage more important things.

Con: Nothing works. This happens, more often than I’d like. Financially this may be the best-case scenario—but if you’re really on the hunt for an item for an event, or even if you’re just really feeling the need for some fresh duds, this can be extremely discouraging at best and a real problem at worst—if, for example, you were counting on wearing a dress for an upcoming event, and it ends up not working.

Tip 1: Shop early, shop often. If you’re on the hunt for a dress for an event, don’t wait until a week out, and don’t order only one dress. Give yourself a month at least, and order a variety of styles from a variety of sites (again, check return policies!).

Tip 2: Take a chance. Order something you wouldn’t normally wear. I learned this lesson the first time my mom took me out to buy a dress for an event: the one I refused to try on for an hour because “I didn’t like it” was the one I eventually fell in love with. My point is to doubt your own self-style-knowledge just a little bit; make yourself order at least one piece that you like but is outside your comfort zone—you may be surprised by what actually looks good when you try it on!

Whether you love online shopping or hate it, we’re stuck with it for the time being. Hopefully these thoughts make the process a bit more fun and successful!