Watch for marketing-speak, a red flag that the write-up may have been paid for by the manufacturer. “If someone is gushing or saying, ‘This dress is right on trend,’ ask yourself if it’s something a normal person would say,” says Michelle Madhok, the founder of the shopping blog SheFinds.com. And look beyond the score. The reviewer might trash an item just because she hates chartreuse. All in all, “be wary of making your decision based on one or two reviews,” says Hillary Mendelsohn, the author of thepurplebook.com: The Definitive Guide to Exceptional Online Shopping. “Five and up is a more reliable gauge.”
Get a Just-for-You Fit
Tired of blindly guessing what will look good on you? Check out True Fit at Macys.com, Nordstrom.com, or OscardelaRenta.com. Answer a few questions (creating a profile takes less than a minute, and no measuring tape is required) and the free service provides recommendations based on your height, body type, and favorite brands.
When that window pops up to ask if you need help, don’t sigh and hit “No, thanks.” Lots of retailers, including J.Crew, Lands’ End, ModCloth, Net-a-Porter, and Nike, offer realtime assistance. (You can chat via a method similar to instant messaging or, at some sites, call a rep.) It’s like in-store help, but with no shouting behind a dressing-room door.
A Customer-Service Rep Can Help…
Track down a size or a color. Just because it’s out of stock online doesn’t mean that the object of your desire isn’t hiding out in, say, a mall in Boise, Idaho. For example, “J.Crew will search all its stores for your item and mail it to you for free,” says Madhok.
Answer questions about an item that go beyond the description you see. Does it run large or small? How sheer is it? Does the hem have fabric to spare? Ask and ye shall receive the answers.
Provide styling advice. On the prowl for medium-rise, straight-leg black pants? Instead of combing through the entire site, let someone else do the weeding-out for you. Stumped about which shoes would go best with the dress you picked out? At ModCloth, expert stylists are standing by to offer guidance.
Test-Drive at Home
When you order merchandise from companies that offer free trials, you pay for only what you want to keep. The catch? You can’t take forever to decide. “Know exactly how long the trial lasts or else you may be buying it all, whether you like it or not,” says Kathy Spencer, the founder of HowToShopForFree.net.
Athleta Put any athletic gear through a workout. If the way that sporty tank performs on the elliptical doesn’t get your heart rate up, back it goes. No washing necessary.
Norma Kamali With the “Try Before You Buy” program, you can load up on dresses, denim, and swimsuits and pay for only what you keep.
Warby Parker Select up to five pairs of eyeglass frames and try them on before deciding which specs suit you best. Shipping is free.
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7 Tactics to Outsmart Flash Sales
Filter by size or color or style. In other words, “don’t waste time browsing items that are available only in sizes 0 and 16 if you’re a 6,” says Spencer.
Start from the bottom up. Since most people scroll from the top down, there will be fewer people fighting for the items down below.
Add to cart (even if you’re unsure). You snooze, you lose that DVF blazer. Put an item in your basket, then do the pondering. You usually have 15 minutes to make a final decision. (Word of caution: On some sites, the item isn’t yours until you’ve checked out—it can be snatched away by another customer.) Even after purchasing, you may not be locked in. “Many sites have an hour-long grace period for you to change your mind,” says Mendelsohn.
Sold out? Use the wait list. “The retailer will sometimes go back to the manufacturer and ask for more merchandise,” says Madhok.
Google an item before buying. Sometimes the deal isn’t as good as it seems. Often the merchandise on offer is from a past season, so it could be found cheaper elsewhere. A quick run through a search engine can also turn up helpful reviews and additional photos or angles.
Factor in shipping. “High shipping costs can spoil what seems like a bargain,” says Mendelsohn. Typically, shipping runs about $10, but it could be more.
Return policy 101. Check if the item is marked “final sale” and nonreturnable. And even if your purchase is not final sale, find out if you’ll be able to get your money back or be stuck with a merchandise credit. Also, keep in mind that if return shipping isn’t free, you could be out $20 for round-trip shipping. If you buy something that’s final sale and end up not wanting it, contact the retail site anyway. The company may take it back to keep you happy, especially if it’s for a reason that involved the retailer, like a misleading color or description.
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Quick, painless ways to bag a deal online.
Let others do the work for you. If you have your eye on a pricey sweater but it’s not in the budget, sign up for Hukkster.com. This site alerts you when the brand, style, size, and color that you like goes on sale. If you want to cast a wider net, say, “black booties under $100,” check out ShopItToMe.com/Threads, which serves up a customized list of what you’re looking for that’s currently marked down.
Stop wasting time on bunk coupon codes. Many coupon sites don’t remove old discounts from the mix, so the Web is littered with expired offers. ZenDeals.com verifies all codes on a daily basis, so you’ll know that what you find there is legit.
Play hard-to-get. Put an item in your basket…then leave the site. You may get a follow-up e-mail offering a discount or free shipping.
Change your web browser. Sites that recognize you may quote you a higher price based on your spending history or ZIP code (seriously). You can sometimes get around this by clearing your cookies or opening a new browser.
Outsource Your Shopping
Not a fan of the hunt? Then by all means, delegate. KeatonRow.com matches you with a stylist who does the legwork for you, whether you want a dress for your cousin’s wedding or a wardrobe overhaul. (The service is free. The stylists are paid a commission on the sales they generate from retailers like Shopbop and TrendSeeder.com.) “Remember: You’re not committed to buying anything,” says Spencer.
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How to Shop In-Store
There’s something to be said for instant gratification—finding the perfect item in a shop and leaving with it in your hot little hands. Still, browsing stores takes time and (remember this?) human interaction. Hone your hunting skills with these tactics.
Beware of Traps
Merchants are struggling to find ways to get consumers to buy, says Paco Underhill, the CEO of Envirosell, a consumer-based research firm, and the author of What Women Want ($16, amazon.com). Sidestep their sensory land mines with these three tips:
Watch what you touch. Research has found that when shoppers hold an item, they may feel a sense of ownership before purchasing it. A study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making found that this attachment can form as quickly as 30 seconds after making contact. So Mom was right: Keep your hands to yourself!
Don’t rely on “skinny” mirrors. “You want mirrors that are hung straight up and down, rather than tilting or leaning, which will make you look taller and slimmer,” says Spencer. For a more reliable gauge, “ask someone to snap a smartphone photo of you.”
Heed the right. “About 90 percent of us are right-handed, and retailers keep that in mind when you enter,” says Underhill. Since righties instinctively look to the right, that’s where you’re more likely to spot the priciest stuff. Stores often add extra lights and music there, too, to entice you to come closer. Feeling like a zoo creature yet?
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Fast Fashion Frenzy
Andrea Howe, the founder of FortheLoveOf.net, a style blog, offers ways to conquer the madness of megastores like H&M and Forever 21 without wasting an entire afternoon.
Beat the crowds. Go before one o’clock on weekdays—except Mondays. The stores will be a mess from the weekend.
Dress for battle. Wear a fitted tee and slip-on shoes for easy, quick changes.
Shop jewels first. Raid the accessories for five minutes while your hands are free.
Choose wisely. Pick up multiple sizes (you may never find the one you need again), but limit yourself to 10 items. Skip anything that looks as if a 13-year-old would wear it (unless you are 13).
Try on. Reserve 15 minutes for the dressing room. Line crazy long? Slip tops on over your shirt in the middle of the store.
Cool Fit Innovation
With the ingenious technology called Me-Ality, now available in more than 20 malls and department stores nationwide, you can get a better fit without trying on half the store. Step into the futuristic booth for a free 10-second body scan. Like a TSA screening machine, it uses low-power electromagnetic waves to pinpoint your proportions and determine the styles and sizes that suit your frame. Once you have your fit profile, you’ll get suggestions (there are more than 200 participating brands) and e-mail updates on styles that should flatter you.