COVID-19 has accelerated the transition to online shopping, and I think the change is going to stick. The trend was already well underway before the pandemic. There were an increasing number of retailers with no physical storefront. More and more retailers were putting extended sizes and additional colour options online, as opposed to displaying them in stores.  

There are pros and cons to online shopping. For some people, shopping in brick-and-mortar stores will always be preferable because you see the item in person, feel the fabric, and fit it on before making the purchase. But the retail world is changing, We’re all going to do at least some of our shopping online.

I thoroughly enjoy shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, but like everyone else I’ve had to move online recently. Through trial and error I’ve learned to be more effective, efficient and safe. Here are my suggestions, and I’d love to hear yours in the comments below.

1. Ensure Online Security

Purchase from reputable and safe sites because there are a lot of scams and dodgy retailers on the internet. They are after your money, or your personal info, or both. When a search yields a hard to find item from an unknown retailer, be very careful. Find out more about the retailer before you make a purchase. Make sure it is the website of the retailer you think it is. Make sure there’s a little safety lock in the URL when you’re purchasing. Avoid websites that look sketchy. If you’re unsure, ask a tech savvy person whose judgement you trust.

2. Check Shipping Costs

Retailers can charge a lot for shipping, especially for expedited items. Some retailers charge a restocking fee when items are returned. Make sure you know what the charges are. Here in the US, unless an item is next day delivery or a very small dollar amount, the shipping of items is often free, and there is seldom a restocking fee. You can also return items for free in some brick-and-mortar stores.

I live in the US and because I am thoroughly spoiled with free shipping, I very seldom purchase wardrobe items from retailers that charge for shipping. If they charge for return shipping, I try to return the items in stores. This is very different in Canada and in other countries so make sure you do your sums and read the fine print.

3. Begin With Brand Familiarity

It’s risky ordering online because we seldom know how an item will fit and feel. Photographs of the items can show the silhouette and colour inaccurately, and they might even be pinned on the model. One way to minimize the inconvenience of a return is to start with brands whose fits you know. For example, I’ve had a really good run with Veronica Beard, Boden, Scotch & Soda, Club Monaco and Theory trousers, and Frame, Banana Republic and Everlane jeans. They usually tick off the aesthetic, fit, comfort and quality boxes, so I start my online search there when I’m looking for new jeans and trousers.

It’s even better when you’re placing an online order for an item that you’ve seen and fitted on in person already. That way you have a much better sense of what you’re paying for and can minimize the risk of returns.

I don’t recommend purchasing anything online that is FINAL sale unless you know exactly how the item fits, looks and feels. For example, I bought a polka dot shirt from Boden for a song that was old stock and final sale. It was without risk because I have three shirts in exactly the same fit and fabric, and knew the navy polka dots would be a slam dunk. I LOVE that shirt!

4. Broaden Your Search

If you can’t find the correct size or colour of an item on one site, try to find it on another. For example, when I couldn’t find a pair of leather hi-top Converse sneakers at Nordstrom online, I tried the following online sites too: Zappos, Amazon, Macy’s, and Converse. I also did a search on Google for the specific style, but was careful not to purchase from a dodgy site. I eventually tracked down the right size and colour from Amazon.

5. Pay Attention to Ethics and Sustainability

It’s tough to make sustainable and ethical wardrobe choices. There are no perfect solutions, and many compromises. But we have to start somewhere, or things will never change. Research brands and retailers to ensure they meet your standards. Make the most sustainable and ethical choices that you can manage.

6. Read Product Information Carefully

Read all the information that is supplied about the item online, especially when it comes to measurements, size charts, fabric composition, and laundry instructions. Make sure you know your own measurements so that you can make an informed decision about sizes. You might need to order two sizes to compare fits. Make sure you’re okay with how the item is to be laundered before you purchase it. Look at all the photos of the item to get the best impression of the product. Check the back and side views too.

7. Build Up Fabric, Product, and Size Knowledge

Build up a library of knowledge about the types of fabrics, fits, silhouettes, brands, garment dimensions, and colours that tend to work for you, and those that don’t. The more knowledge you can apply to an item, the better your chances are of it being a successful purchase. For example, I don’t entertain dress lengths shorter than 43 inches, or front rise measurements shorter than 9 inches, so that rules out a lot of styles straight off the bat.

Granted, garment measurements can be scarce, styles can be very misrepresented on the model, body types differ, colours can be off, and fabrics can be very different to what you imagined. It’s a gamble. You simply have to make the best educated guess with the information that is available to you. Sometimes you can phone customer service and ask about the measurements of the garment, which they will happily give to you.

8. Be Discerning About Reviews

Read the reviews about the product, and especially the negative ones. You’ll absolutely get a better sense about the quality, fit and appearance of the item from people who have already seen it. Feel free to ask questions about the items on the YLF forum because chances are high someone will know something about the item in question. And I can help you too.

That said, be discerning about the reviews. What is negative about an item for one person, could be positive for you. For example, I read a lot of negative reviews about necklines that are too high, shoes that are too narrow, and shoulder fits that are too snug. But these are positive item attributes for my long neck, narrow shoulders, and low-volume feet, and am grateful for that information.

9. Check for Discount Codes

Online discounts aren’t always automatically deducted when you check out, so make sure you add the discount code before you finalize the order. You can usually find the discount code at the top of the homepage in small print. Sometimes you have to click away to another window to get the code, or to see how long the retailer is running the discount.

10. Check the Return Policy

Return windows vary greatly between retailers. Some are as short as a couple of weeks, and others can run as long as a year. Most retailers will give you 30 days to return an item that is unworn with the tags attached, either by mail or in stores. More importantly, check whether you will get a full refund or a store credit, and make sure you are okay with that.

11. Expect to Return the Item

Expecting the worst and hoping for the best is how I approach my own online purchases. The online cycle of buying and returning is annoying, tedious, time-consuming, and expensive when you pay for shipping. But that’s how it goes. It’s no different when you head into the dressing room with fifteen items, and come out with no winners. Just try to make the best decision about the potential purchase with the information at hand.

Practice makes perfect, and I am a lot better at online shopping than I used to be. I order fewer items and have a higher success rate, but I make numerous returns with footwear.

My list of tips is by no means exhaustive. Please share your own tips in the comments, or if you’re new to online shopping, share your concerns.