Picture it: Fairbanks, Alaska, January 2008. A young woman, tired of her daily uniform of long underwear under jeans and a sweater--under a parka, balaclava, scarf and gloves--set out to go shopping for pretty new clothes. What she found horrified her: Her choices were limited to active wear, albeit the cute Prana line at one of two sporting goods stores, an Old Navy, a Sears and the clothing department at Fred Meyer grocery store. Her life as a dedicated online shopper had begun.
You might have guessed by now that that poor, unfortunate young woman was me. As much luck as I had up to that point shopping second-hand at Value Village, I was also in the middle of my first full winter of -50 °F days that offered a scant three hours of daylight. I needed something pretty to wear, and fast, before I turned to other, less-healthy pursuits to pass the time. You would be surprised how early in the day you will consider a glass of scotch when the sun sets at 2:30 p.m.
During my three years in Alaska, I became an expert online shopper and best friends with my mail, UPS and FedEx carriers. Here are a few tips I learned along the way.
1. Dedicate an email address to sign up for emails, newsletters, and notifications
I have a dedicated Hotmail address that I use for creating accounts on retail sites and give to anxious clerks who "can't" continue with a transaction unless I give them an email. It keeps my work and personal emails free of clutter--and it keeps me from spending a fortune on a whim by opening every single email I get from Sephora or The Gap.
2. Free shipping is your friend
There is this little asterisk that used to really piss me off; it comes after the words "free shipping" and it often denotes "except Alaska and Hawaii." I understand why some companies are unwilling to extend the courtesy to Hawaii and Alaska residents, but I can tell you that I gave a lot of business to companies that offered free shipping without the asterisk. Zappos is a great example--I ordered dozens of pairs of shoes when trying to pick out a pair for my wedding, and I sent every single one of them back (returns are free, too). When it came time to buy a new pair of hiking boots, I gave Zappos my business, finding the same pair online that I had found at a local sporting goods store at a significant discount.
One of our favorite Finger Lakes wineries sent us an email during our time in Fairbanks offering free shipping "within the U.S." on cases of wine. I called them to make sure they meant Alaska, too, and when they assured us they did we ordered two cases--and our grandparents ordered us a third as a gift--and now every time we go home we visit Knapp Winery. The shipping cost Knapp almost as much as the cases of wine cost us, but in the years since we have spent at least twice that at their winery.
Even if it only offsets the sales tax, free shipping is a plus; combined with a coupon or discount code, free shipping can add up to significant savings.
3. Online retailers offer significant discounts now on items you can get in-store, at full price
A couple of weeks ago I was heading off to Nashville on a business trip and I wanted to pick up a pair of dressy wedge sandals. I went to the Galleria and bought a pair from Clarks, but after wearing them for just a few hours, the lining at the heel began peeling back, exposing the padding beneath. Clarks are well-made shoes, so I knew this was just a fluke, and I returned to the store hoping to exchange them for another pair in my size. Unfortunately, I'm a size 5 shoe, and the pair I had bought was the only one left in the mushroom color I had fallen in love with--so I hit the Internets. Not only did I find the same shoe online at Piperlime, I found it for $32 less than I paid in-store. I didn't get to bring my new shoes on my business trip, but they were waiting for me when I got home from Tennessee.
Buying direct from the brand store is not always a money-saver; you can buy Clarks at Zappos, Piperlime, and even QVC. If you can stand to wait, you could save money by ordering something online that you could buy today in-store.
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4. Know your measurements
Shoes and wine are one thing, but clothes are another beast altogether. Have your tailor take your measurements, or learn how to take your own accurately, so that you can utilize the measurement and size charts for clothing. When a website like Shabby Apple says "fits generously" you will know what that means and be able to choose a size with more confidence, which means fewer returns. One of the biggest drawbacks of shopping online is not being able to try clothes on, but if you know your measurements and how to read a size chart, you will order clothes that fit well.