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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Andrea Browne Taylor, Online Editor
| September 21, 2018
It's become second nature for many online shoppers to go straight to Amazon.com to make a purchase -- especially Amazon Prime members who shop using their voice-activated Alexa devices. And why not? Amazon's selection is vast, its prices tend to be low, and the free two-day shipping that comes with a Prime membership is reliable and convenient.
But while Amazon does, indeed, offer many great deals on many items, it doesn't always offer the best deal on every item it sells. We asked several shopping experts to weigh in on which products online shoppers should avoid on Amazon. While cost is critical, it's not always the deciding factor. Take a look at some of the worst things to buy on Amazon.
Most major department stores, specialty stores and big-box retailers that sell name-brand clothing and accessories regularly offer in-store coupons and online discount promo codes. These are savings that you simply won't get on Amazon. "You can easily spend at least 20% more buying name-brand clothing from Amazon compared to clothing-specific retailers such as Lands' End, American Eagle or Macy's,” says Kyle James, founder of Rather-Be-Shopping.com, a site that aggregates in-store and online coupons and discount codes.
We found a Cole Haan Payson Leather Tote on Amazon for $270. The same handbag was marked down to $143 on Neiman Marcus's Last Call e-commerce site -- nearly 50% less. A Movado Men's Museum Watch priced at $184.99 on Amazon cost $5 less on Sears.com through its third-party marketplace.
If you've spotted a fashion item on Amazon that you'd like to buy, do some comparison shopping first. As long as it's not a hot-ticket item that may sell out fast, you may want to wait until another retailer selling the same item has a sale (for example, an end-of-season clearance) or offers an online discount code, James recommends.
Buying electronics, such as laptops, digital cameras or televisions, on Amazon can be tricky -- whether you buy directly from Amazon or from a third-party seller on Amazon Marketplace. Unlike at a bricks-and-mortar retailer, you can't physically see or touch a desired item before buying it online. You also don’t have the luxury of being able to ask a customer service representative any questions in person about the product.
The purchasing decision becomes even trickier with off-brand electronics, which don't have the reputation and reliability that come with name brands. As such, you run the risk of purchasing sight unseen a poor-quality product with a short lifespan. It may be worth the peace of mind to buy pricey electronics from a big-box retailer, where you can ask questions and get immediate assistance if there's a problem with the purchase.
If you decide to buy from Amazon, beware unreliable third-party sellers offering subpar off-brand products or even name-brand knockoffs, says Saundra Latham, a staff writer for Cheapism.com. Start by reading customer reviews, but do so with a skeptical eye. "Even if there are a ton of five-star reviews, confirm they are substantive and don't simply say the product is great without explanation," Latham adds. That could signal it's a fake review. Next, check the third-party seller's refund/return policies, which can differ from Amazon's. Finally, go to the seller's merchant page and send a message with any product-related questions you may have. The response -- or lack of one -- can help you determine whether buying the item is a smart move.
It might come as a surprise to Costco members, but the warehouse club's popular Kirkland Signature store-brand products are also sold on Amazon.com. Online shoppers who don't want to pay Costco's $60 annual membership fee might be tempted to add Kirkland items to their Amazon shopping cart, but that would be a costly mistake, says Cindy Livesey, founder of LivingRichWithCoupons.com. The price mark-ups on all the Kirkland products sold on Amazon are substantial.
We searched on Amazon to see what types of Kirkland products were available, and then we did price comparisons. Here's what we found: A 30-count package of Kirkland Signature 2-ply bath tissue costs $29 on Amazon versus $19 at Costco. A two-bottle pack of Kirkland ibuprofen (containing 500 tablets each) totaled $12 on Amazon, while the warehouse club has the same package for $9.30. On Amazon, a 69-ounce container of Kirkland Signature Premium Dishwasher Pacs cost $20 versus $12 at Costco.
Amazon offers a variety of cosmetics and skincare items, but if you're looking to cut costs your local drugstore is your best bet for finding deals on affordable brands such as CoverGirl and L'Oreal, LivingRichWithCoupons.com's Livesey suggests. Chains including CVS and Walgreens often have in-store coupons and sale promotions, as well as free rewards programs that allow customers to score even deeper discounts on select items.
Amazon tries to entice beauty shoppers with temptingly low prices on certain products such as lip balm, but be aware that these items will likely only be available to purchase as an add-on item to a larger order. That means you'll need to place a minimum order of $25 to score the low-priced lip balm. At Walgreens, for example, we found a tube of L'Oreal brand mascara for $7 (after using a $1 off Walgreens Balance Rewards coupon). On Amazon, that same mascara sold for $5.55, but only as an add-on item. At CVS, a four-ounce bottle of Oil of Olay facial moisturizer totaled $8.40, while the same size bottle was priced at $7 on Amazon -- but, again, available only as an add-on item.
When it comes to high-end cosmetics items (think: La Mer or Estee Lauder), you should probably steer clear of Amazon altogether, Cheapism.com's Latham advises. That's because the site has a documented problem with counterfeiters in its third-party marketplace, she notes. Those merchants could be selling fake cosmetics or skincare products with harmful ingredients. Buy high-end cosmetics direct from the manufacturer's website or through an authorized retailer to ensure you're getting an authentic product.
When it comes to purchasing fine jewelry such as a diamond ring, it may be wise to skip perusing Amazon and shop at a bricks-and-mortar establishment instead, suggests Cheapism.com's Latham. If you're planning to spend several hundred or even thousands of dollars on a piece of jewelry, you'll want to be able to examine the intricate details including how it sparkles in the light, as well as the cut, color and clarity of the stone in-person, she notes. Otherwise, if you receive the item and decide you don't like it, you'll be forced to jump through several hoops to return the order to Amazon and get a refund.
According to Amazon's return policy on jewelry:
(1) You must return items over $35 using a trackable shipping method. This can be done through USPS, FedEx or UPS for an additional fee that you’re responsible for paying;
(2) All product packaging including manuals, warranty cards and certificates of authenticity/grading/appraisal must be included with the item being returned;
(3) Items that have been resized, damaged or altered after delivery aren't eligible for returns;
(4) Those returned without all the original documentation will be rejected.
It's worth taking the extra step to visit a fine jewelry store in-person. That way you can talk with a sales professional about any issues you may have with a desired item.
With the holidays rapidly approaching, you're likely thinking about stocking up now on essentials such as gift-wrapping paper. While Amazon does offer a variety of options, its prices on gift wrap aren't the cheapest. Your local dollar store is the go-to place for cheap gift wrap, says LivingRichWithCoupons.com's Livesey.
We searched for gift-wrapping paper on Amazon and found 28 options at various price points. The least expensive among them cost $10 for a single 16 square-foot roll. At Dollar Tree, we found several types of gift-wrapping paper (from printed to solid colors) that ranged in size from 12- to 20-square-foot rolls all for $1 each. If you decide to go the dollar-store route, consider picking up a few other gift-giving essentials including greeting cards, invisible tape, decorative ribbons and gift bags that you can also snag for a buck.
No dollar store near you? Keep an eye out for holiday clearance sales at retailers such as Michaels, Walmart and Target. You should be able to stock up on gift-wrapping paper and related items in larger quantities at deeply discounted prices, Livesey adds.
Buying larger appliances online, such as a washer, dryer or refrigerator, can be problematic. Yes, customer reviews are helpful, but nothing beats being able to examine appliances up close at an actual store, Cheapism.com's Latham suggests. That way you can take measurements, see hook-ups and peruse features, not to mention ask questions of a sales rep in person.
Big-box retailers and major department stores including Best Buy and JC Penney are popular with consumers on the hunt for large appliances. "It's simply easier to ensure you're getting exactly what you need -- the right size and specs -- in-store," Latham says. Another upside: You can haggle over the price, which physical retailers are willing to do face-to-face on large appliance purchases, she adds.
If you insist of buying through Amazon, Latham recommends sticking with the Kenmore brand, which the e-commerce giant sells directly. Prime members can also get two-day shipping on eligible items. Keep in mind, however, that returns can be a hassle. If you're returning a major appliance for any reason other than it arrived damaged or you were sent the incorrect item, you're responsible for scheduling the return and paying the shipping costs. Also, if you didn't discover that you purchased the wrong appliance until after it had been delivered and an installation attempt was made, installation and labor costs will be deducted from your refund. Large appliances purchased through third-party merchants are subject to that merchant's return policy.
Home improvement stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot are consumer favorites for good reason. Their vast inventory, knowledgeable staff and bargain prices are the main draw, Rather-Be-Shopping.com's James says. You'll find the best deals on hand and power tools, as well as hardware including nails and screws, at these big-box retailers compared to Amazon, he adds.
We found a 1,000-count package of Hitachi brand three-inch framing nails at Lowe's for $24, while Amazon offered the same package of nails for $31 plus a $9 shipping fee. At Home Depot, a Husky brand 12-inch double speed adjustable wrench cost $15. Amazon had the same wrench available through a third-party merchant for $30 plus a $4.50 shipping fee -- more than double Home Depot's price. Neither items found on Amazon were Prime-eligible.
How are big-box retailers able to hold up against Amazon when others have been hard hit? Amazon has a difficult time competing on price with Home Depot and Lowe's, because those chains still have more leverage with their suppliers. "They're able to get their costs down and pass the savings on to their customers," James says.
If you have young children, you'll need to restock their supply of pencils, pens, paper and crayons on a regular basis. For those on a budget, Amazon shouldn't be the first place you turn to -- regardless of whether you're a Prime member with access to expedited shipping.
As with gift wrap, it's hard to compete with your local dollar store's prices on school supplies, LivingRichWithCoupons.com's Livesey says. You can find everything from composition notebooks to index cards to glue sticks -- even buy them in bulk -- for a fraction of what you'd pay on Amazon.
At Amazon, we found a four-pack of composition notebooks for $9. At Dollar General, you can purchase four composition notebooks for $4. We also comparison-shopped for binders -- an essential for school-age children. The cheapest one we found on Amazon cost $6 for a three-ring binder with one-inch rings. At the Dollar Tree, the same size binder cost $1.
The cost of pet foods and related pet supplies can quickly add up. If you're buying from Amazon simply because it's more convenient, you're likely missing out on huge savings elsewhere, Rather-Be-Shopping.com's James says. A big-box retailer such as Walmart will often stock pet food and supplies at a much lower prices than what you'd find on Amazon.
We spotted a 40-pound bag of Purina Dog Chow on Amazon for $24.99. At Walmart, that same bag of dog food cost $19.98. Amazon also had a 40-pound box of Arm & Hammer Double Duty Cat Litter available through various third-party merchants starting at $18 plus an $11 shipping fee. Walmart had the same box of cat litter for $14.26.
James adds that if you happen to be a member of a warehouse club such as Costco, consider buying your dog food in bulk. Not only can you score a cheaper per-unit price compared to smaller packages offered elsewhere, but you'll also save yourself a trip or two to the store to replenish low supplies.