The battle of online stores versus neighborhood and mall retailers has been going on for a decade, at least.

Though it has intensified in the past 5 years, I can remember saying to myself, “I prefer to keep the local stores in business.” Later on, when my budget started to get tighter, I knew I would have to compromise.

We all love to keep our neighborhoods humming and have new retail businesses opening up as soon as others close. However, it is a fact of life that only the strongest retailers can keep that brick-and-mortar presence in the community.

Depending on what you shop for online and how often you make purchases, you could end up paying the same price after shipping, insurance and taxes are added to your shopping cart. So I started by keeping my online purchases to items that were not as easy for me to physically locate, or too heavy for me to have to carry home - which for me were the purchases I was making in boating supplies and water sports equipment.

I used to buy all my water sports supplies in sporting good stores, depending on what they had in stock. One day I checked a price online after buying some Kwik Tek towables and realized I’d never go straight to retail stores ever again. The online savings was almost 20% every time. If you factor in the cost of hiring employees, paying rent for the space, and the remaining overhead, it makes sense why brick and mortar retailers charge more. I’d love to keep the great stores open as much as everyone, but sometimes I just can’t afford it!

The bottom line is you have to be smart about your money in this economy and that means finding the savings online.

Here are 5 tips for getting it done.

1. Browsing in person - check out the physical product.

If you know a specific item like the back of your hand, there is no need for a closer examination in a store. It’s what I call a “repeat buy.” It’s point-and-click material, really. However, when you are looking at a pair of shoes or some other clothing article, trying it on in person can save you time and energy in returns.

2. Read up on reviews.

When you aren’t sure the product you’re about to buy is exactly what you need, read the reviews online. You’ll usually find a great deal of enlightening material. If I hadn’t looked at a review of handheld GPS devices before I got mine, I would have regretted my initial choice.

3. Do a checkout “dress rehearsal.”

How much do shipping, handling and insurance add up to? How long will it take the package to arrive at your doorstep? Until you know the answers to these questions, you don’t know what you’re getting into. so "click" your way to the point of sale, and see what the total cost is, and how long it will take to receive the item. Also, look at the return policies while going through this process.*

(*Note: I learned this lesson the hard way. A few years ago, I planned a trip to the Caribbean. I ordered a new swimsuit online at a great price and waited for it to arrive in the mail. The day of trip came and went. It turned out “standard shipping” was 5-7 business days. I had to buy a new swimsuit in the Caymans and my “savings” ended up being a big waste of money.)

4. Get rewards for your purchases.

Rewards credit cards have become available in just about everything. Find one that delivers something great for you, whether it is frequent flyer miles or free shipping, once you’ve racked up the points.

5. Don’t stand (or sit) still - keep updated bookmarks.

Like the Internet itself, online shopping sites change all the time. When you find a website or blog you enjoy, check out some of the shopping they are offering, via their links. Bookmark the site or link so you can find your way back to it for a later purchase.

So enjoy your online shopping adventures. Get to know the product, read the reviews, and then click to buy with confidence. You'll feel great when you know you got the best price. And remember what Dave Barry said: “It is better to be rich and healthy, than poor and sick!


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