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In-store shopping vs. online shopping: What saves more money?

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Shop online or in stores?
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Shop online or in stores? © iStock

Shop online or in stores?

Editor's note: Each week, 1 of Bankrate's personal finance reporters is reporting on a new way to save and chronicling the savings journey. This week, I investigated whether buying online would save me money. See what happened.

Lissa McGrath, an avid eBay and Amazon user, co-wrote "The Complete Idiot's Guide to eBay" and paid for almost her entire 2001 wedding reception using eBay.

"With eBay, I could just search exactly what I wanted and have it delivered to my in-laws, ready for the wedding," she says. "I purchased all the decorations, silk flowers, center pieces, the reception book, disposable cameras for all the tables -- 2001, remember, no camera phones -- and gifts for the wedding party."

Tiffany Aliche, founder of TheBudgetnista.com, says to use vendors with a great track record.

"Online shopping is great because you can get things that fit your style, body type and save you money," Aliche says. "And you don't have to go all the way to the store."

I believe in trying on an outfit before buying it, which is why I've never bought clothes online. I like being 100% sure I like what I'm buying.

"If you like a certain designer," Aliche says, "you go to designer stores and get familiar with the styles and brands there."

See if I fell for the siren call of online shopping.

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To buy or not to buy

I needed a new pair of jeans and wanted to get a new denim jacket. I decided to compare the prices of my personal "Canadian suit." I shopped at 4 online retailers: eBay, Amazon, Walmart.com and Target.com. (Note: All the prices listed are before tax.)

eBay
Jeans
Mossimo; Pre-owned (you can't even tell)
Price$7.95
S&H$5.95
Total cost$13.70
Denim jacket
Old Navy
Price$15.00
Shipping & handling$7.05
Total cost$22.05
Amazon (free shipping with Amazon Prime)
Jeans
Levi's
Price$36.74
S&H$5.48
Total cost$42.22
Denim jacket
Lee
Price$34.90
Shipping & handling$5.48
Total cost$40.38
Walmart.com
Jeans
Levi's
Price$19.94
S&H$4.97
Total cost$24.91
Denim jacket
Old Navy
Price$26.94
Shipping & handling$4.97
Total cost$31.91
Wal-mart
Jeans
Lee
Price$19.94
Denim jacket
Not in stock
Target.com (offers free shipping)
Jeans
Levi's (Clearance)
Price$20.98
Denim jacket
Mossimo
Price$29.99
Target
Jeans
Levi's
Price$27.99
Denim jacket
Not in stock

The jeans

I'm partial to the brand Mossimo, so I was overjoyed when I found a nearly new pair for $7.95 on eBay. With shipping, that came out to $13.70. Plus, I never had to use precious gasoline.

On a recent trip to a Target store, I found a pair of Denizen Levi jeans for $27.99. That means I saved $14.29, before tax.

The jacket

My top choice was a Lee jacket on Amazon for $34.90 ($40.38 after shipping and handling), and my next choice was an Old Navy vintage jacket on eBay for $15 ($22.05 after shipping and handling).

First I considered the fiscal factor, and then I looked at the personal satisfaction side of things. To me the extra money was worth the cost to get something I love.

Plot twist: I decided to hold off a little longer and remain Canadian suit-less.


To buy or not to buy: Books and CDs

For this experiment, I compared online vendors with varied results: eBay, Half.com, Amazon, BarnesAndNoble.com, Walmart.com and Target.com.

eBay
"Front Roe" (Hardcover book)
Price$12.00
S&H$4.00
Total cost$16.00
ConditionLike new
Chris Young "A.M." (CD)
Price$6.37
S&HFree
Total cost$6.37
ConditionBrand new
Half.com
"Front Roe" (Hardcover book)
Price$16.71
S&H$3.99
Total cost$20.70
ConditionBrand new
Chris Young "A.M." (CD)
Price$3.99
S&H$2.99
Total cost$6.98
ConditionBrand new
Amazon.com (offers free shipping with Amazon Prime)
"Front Roe" (Hardcover book)
Price$12.38
S&H$4.98
Total cost$17.36
ConditionBrand new
Chris Young "A.M." (CD)
Price$4.49
S&H$3.99
Total cost$8.48
ConditionNew
BarnesAndNoble.com
"Front Roe" (Hardcover book)
Price$14.70
S&H$3.99
Total cost$18.69
ConditionVery good
Chris Young "A.M." (CD)
Price$3.61
S&H$2.98
Total cost$6.59
ConditionBrand new
Barnes & Noble store
"Front Roe" (Hardcover book)
Total$25
Chris Young "A.M." (CD)
Not in stock
Walmart.com
"Front Roe" (Hardcover book)
Price$11.96
S&H$4.97
Total cost$16.93
ConditionBrand new
Chris Young "A.M." (CD)
Price$8.57
S&H$4.97
Total cost$13.54
ConditionBrand new
Walmart.com
"Front Roe" (Hardcover book)
Price$11.96
S&H$4.97
Total cost$16.93
ConditionBrand new
Chris Young "A.M." (CD)
Price$8.57
S&H$4.97
Total cost$13.54
ConditionBrand new
Wal-Mart store
"Front Roe" (Hardcover book)
Not in stock
Chris Young "A.M." (CD)
Total:$10
Target.com (offers free shipping)
"Front Roe" (Hardcover book)
Price$17.14
S&HFree
Total cost$17.14
ConditionBrand new
Chris Young "A.M." (CD)
Price$11.99
S&HFree
Total cost$13.54
ConditionBrand new

Books

I love going to Barnes & Noble to read, write, listen to music and sip a grande soy, iced mocha. On my last trip there, the book "Front Roe: How to Be the Leading Lady in Your Own Life" caught my eye. But I didn't want to pay $25.

On eBay, I found a hardcover, "like new" copy of this 2015 book for $12 ($16 total). If I had purchased "Front Roe" from eBay at $16, I would have saved $9 before tax.

Savings: $9

CDs

When I brainstormed about albums, I thought of country star Chris Young. Though I own quite a few of his songs, I didn't yet own a physical CD. His latest album, "A.M.," was the logical choice. I found a new CD for $6.37 on eBay. Best part? I didn't have to pay tax or shipping and handling. If I had gone to Wal-Mart, I would have shelled out at least $10. That's a savings of $3.63.

Savings: $3.63


Other ways to save: Travel and phones

Other ways to save: Travel and phones © iStock

Last year, Aliche spent $600 for her boyfriend's birthday for an all-inclusive trip to Jamaica. That was the total price for 2 people.

Using Orbitz, she got an incredible deal on a 4-day, 3-night trip during the offseason, which included round-trip airfare, the all-inclusive resort costs and transportation to the hotel from the airport.

As an author, Aliche travels a lot. To find the best deals, she:

  • Lists 5 places she wants to go for the year, and then looks for deals.
  • Starts her search with Groupon, and then compares it with Orbitz.
  • Uses the app Honey, which she says hunts down coupons everywhere in cyberspace without your help.
  • Consults EuropeanDestinations.com for international trips, which she says lets you build a trip based on your budget.

One non-travel savings outlet that Aliche suggests is Swappa.com, which lets you buy and sell gently used mobile phones and tablets. She recently broke her cellphone, and when she talked to her service provider about replacing it, they told her she'd have to pay full price (over $800) and sign up for another contract. Instead, she paid $390.


Insider tips on using eBay

Insider tips on using eBay © iStock

When it comes to finding what you want, think about what you're trying to find and how a seller might post.

"I bought a designer dress a few years back and it started at 99 cents. I wasn't able to watch the end of the auction, so I had a proxy bid on for just over $50," McGrath says. She describes the dress as well over a $100 retail price. Including shipping, she got the dress for under $10.

Another time, she won a vintage set of dinosaur collectibles for her then-toddler. McGrath says other sellers were selling open-box partial sets for $120-$150. She put in a $75 proxy bid and won it for $35.

"The seller had spelled dinosaur wrong," she says. She caught the listing because he spelled it "dinosuar." McGrath stresses the importance of thinking outside the box on search terms.

Aliche suggests trying your local Facebook "swap/meet." She's part of a closed group on Facebook called "Swap/Meet SOMa" where you can "swap, buy, sell, give away, post curb alerts and moving sales." Though it's a local group for patrons of South Orange Maplewood, New Jersey, she says you may be able to find one in your area.


The consensus © iStock

The consensus

I've done nothing to hide what direction I'm leaning toward. I saved $26.92 buying these 3 items online (mostly through eBay) instead of going to the storefront location.

Jeans"Front Roe" (Book)Chris Young "A.M." (CD)
Online
eBay: $13.70 (free shipping)
Online
eBay: $16
Online
eBay: $6.37 (free shipping)
In store
Target: $27.99
In store
Barnes & Noble: $25
In store
Wal-Mart: $10
Savings
$14.29
Savings
$9
Savings
$3.63
Total savings: $26.92

Sources: eBay, Half.com, Target, Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble

Here are some of the benefits I experienced shopping online:

  • Inexpensive alternative to in-person shopping.
  • More convenient in the long and short run.
  • Gives me more options than in-store alternatives.

    For instance, on the Wal-Mart website, it was easy to choose specific brands, sizes, the location nearest to me and if the item was available in the store.

  • A hassle-free return process.

    With eBay, my website of choice, it's easy to return an item if you aren't satisfied, at no cost to yourself (with some exceptions, of course).

The online shopping experts provided too many reasons why I should switch to doing most of my shopping online. That's not to say I'll never go to the physical store again, but at least I can cut down on time and gas money.

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