The Pros and Cons of Online Shopping

Illustration of the advantages and disadvantages of online shopping, as explained in article.

Jiaqi Zhou / The Balance

Online shopping can be an excellent resource for those looking to expand their purchasing options and save money. Online stores are highly competitive with other stores, which drives prices down. Price-comparison websites make deal hunting easier and you can find the online stores with the best reputations by reading reviews submitted by other shoppers.

Learn more about the pros and cons of online shopping.

Advantages of Online Shopping

Besides being able to shop from the comfort of your home, many online stores offer low or no shipping charges and free ship-to-store options.

Other advantages of shopping online include:

  • Always being open
  • Saving on gas
  • No parking hassles
  • No aggressive salespeople or annoying crowds
  • No waiting in long lines to check out
  • Being able to read reviews about the products being purchased
  • More choices for buying refurbished products
  • Working with point-of-sale installment loan lenders that may help when you're on a tight budget

Many online stores sell products at low prices because of the lack of money spent on overhead. Local stores have operating costs like rent, water, heat, and air that are figured, at least partially, into the markup of the products.

Online shopping can curb impulse shopping, and browser plug-ins like Rakuten help you get cash back when you shop. Comparison sites like Google Shopping show a wide range of products and prices before you make a final decision so you can make the most of your budget.

Disadvantages of Shopping Online

Sometimes a deal that looks great falls short of what's been advertised. Getting in touch with customer service can be challenging, and you may be limited to emails and chat. Problem-solving face-to-face with local store employees is often faster and more satisfying. Contacting the next level of management is also easier at local stores than online.

Other disadvantages of shopping online include:

  • Not having the ability to physically inspect or try on the items being considered for purchase
  • Losing the power to negotiate price and payment terms that may exist in local stores
  • Items being on backorder and not finding out until weeks later, which is particularly problematic when buying gifts
  • Not always knowing if a site is a legitimate store and if it's safe to shop
  • Paying restocking and shipping costs on returns
  • Not having a consistent point of contact to talk to when dealing with a problem
  • Challenges in getting money refunded when a purchased item drops in price within the guaranteed price period
  • Not being able to take advantage of seasonal statewide tax-free shopping events

Online stores advertising free products will sometimes increase the cost of shipping so that they profit from the purchase. For example, shoppers may get three free software programs, but have to pay $14.95 in shipping and handling charges, which likely covers the cost of the items plus shipping.

Making the Most of Online Shopping

Take the time to learn the policies of both online and local stores before making purchases. Sometimes there are hidden charges like restocking fees, and the restocking fee may increase the longer it takes you to return an item.

Returning a product to an online store can also be more complicated than returning it to a local store, requiring you to print labels and make an extra trip to the post office. Some online retailers like Amazon are simplifying things by allowing you to return items to a local store that will handle packaging and printing labels.

The small print on return policies will sometimes state that you must pay to ship products back, even when items are defective. Another point to consider is how repairs are handled on the products being purchased. It might be easier to return a faulty product to the local store for repair rather than going through the trouble and expense of shipping it back to an online store.

Reading the customer service policies online and at local stores will provide you with clear answers on all fees and guarantees. If a store's policies are vague and employees seem uninformed, consider shopping elsewhere.