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Savings Battle: In-Store vs. Online Shopping

True bargain hunters know that the deals you can get in-store sometimes are different from the ones you can get online and vice versa — even at the same retailer. So how can you know where to shop for the best deals? GOBankingRates spoke to shopping experts to find out when it’s worth it to visit a brick-and-mortar store and when you’re better off perusing the website of your favorite retailer from the comfort of your own home.

Last updated: Dec. 12, 2019

When It's Better To Shop In-Store

There are certain situations that warrant visiting a physical store to get the best deals. While it’s easier to sit home and click away, these are the times when it pays to do your shopping in person.

The Retailer Doesn't Offer Free Shipping

“This one is simple, but often overlooked… you don’t have to pay shipping costs!” said Lauren Greutman, Flipp’s saving expert.

Some retailers offer free shipping, but if you’re shopping at one that doesn’t — or one that requires a high minimum purchase to qualify for free shipping — you’ll save money by shopping in the store.

You're Buying Something You're Not Sure You'll Like or Will Fit

If you buy something at an online-only retailer, you might be stuck paying for the return if it’s a clothing item that doesn’t fit or if the product doesn’t function the way you anticipated it would. When you buy in the store, you’ll never have to worry about paying for return shipping.

The Store Is Offering 'Doorbuster' Deals

“Retailers will sometimes offer doorbuster sales on big seasonal days to drive traffic into their stores,” said Kristen Gall, shopping and retail expert at Rakuten. “These in-store-only deals are particularly common during the holidays and offer extremely low prices on a few key items in limited quantities, such as electronics like TVs and computers.”

You're Willing To Buy a Floor Model or Slightly Damaged Goods

Retailers often will sell their floor and display models for a discount that you wouldn’t be able to get online for the same item. Some stores also have a section dedicated to selling slightly damaged or returned goods for a deep discount, but you’ll want to check out the flaw in person. And if you’re buying an item that you see is slightly damaged and hasn’t been marked down already, you always can ask for a discount at the register.

It's the Week Before Christmas

“The week before Christmas, retailers will offer heavy in-store discounts to capture last-minute Christmas [shoppers],” said Gall, who noted that the biggest in-store discounts will be available on Christmas Eve.

Save More: How To Save Money on All Your Monthly Expenses and Bills

The Discount Retailer Doesn't Have an Online Store

Some discount retailers, such as HomeGoods, don’t have an online store. So if you want to benefit from their markdowns, you have no choice but to shop in person.

You Might Find Better Deals on Seasonal Merchandise

“Brick-and-mortar stores have to manage inventory in an entirely different way than online retailers, especially smaller stores without regional mega-warehouses,” said Anne Keery, owner of Unique Gifter. “In-person, post-holiday or post-season, and overstock sales can score you amazing deals not available online.”

The Retail App Offers In-Store-Only Deals

“Sometimes when you use a store’s app, you’ll be able to receive exclusive deals and savings in-store only,” said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst with DealNews.

It's Easier To Take Advantage of Price Matching

“If you want a price match, your best bet is going to be to shop in-store where you can show an associate proof of the lower price elsewhere,” Ramhold said.

When It's Better To Shop Online

Online shopping is always more convenient than having to visit a store — and sometimes it can end up saving you more, too. These are some of the times when you should just shop from your couch.

It's Easier To Take Advantage of Coupons and Promo Codes

It’s less of a hassle to use and apply coupons when shopping online, said Katie Horgan McConnell, co-founder and vice president of operations of the shopping rewards program Giving Assistant.

“Think about the times you headed to the checkout in an actual store and realized you left your coupon at home or in a different purse. We’ve all been there,” she said. “Many stores have available coupons or discounts already applied when checking out online, reducing your chances of a coupon mishap.”

You're Someone Who's Easily Tempted To Overspend

Many stores now allow you to shop online and pick-up in-store free of charge. While this still entails a trip to the store, doing the actual shopping online can help you save. Not only will it make it easier to browse and apply coupon codes, but it will help you resist the temptations you’d be faced with when walking up and down the aisles. And if the store offers free shipping, even better — you’ll save time, too.

You Want To Earn Cash Back

“There are dozens of cash-back sites that allow you to shop online while earning a percentage of the cost as cash back,” Horgan McConnell said.

There are even browser plug-ins you can install that ensure you get every cash-back deal you are eligible for, which makes getting money back effortless.

It's Easier To Comparison Shop

Sure you can look an item up on your phone when you’re in the store, but it’s much easier to browse several sites at once from the comfort of your own home. Plus, if you find out that another store has the item you want for less and the retailer doesn’t offer price matching, you’ll have wasted a trip.

Other Smart Money Moves: How To Create a Budget You Can Live With

It's an Online Shopping Holiday

“Mostly we’ll see better deals online for big holidays or those that are online-based, so Cyber Monday and Prime Day are both excellent opportunities to find better deals online,” Ramhold said.

You're Purchasing Household Goods You Often Reorder

Many online retailers such as Amazon offer a “subscribe and save” option that can save you money on items you regularly use. There are no such savings when you’re shopping at a physical store.

You're Waiting for the Price To Drop

If an item you’ve been eyeing is selling for full price, you can set up a price drop alert to track the price and notify you as soon as it goes on sale. Browser extensions such as CamelCamelCamel and Honey have these capabilities.

Getting notified about online price drops is much more efficient than making repeat visits to the store in hopes that what you want is now on sale.

You're Shopping at Target

“My advice to save money at Target that most people don’t know — and that Target does not talk about — is that online prices are cheaper than in the store,” said Vanessa Valiente, a San Diego-based personal shopper and creator of the fashion blog V-Style. “To get the online price in-store and save time, order the items online and then click on the ‘pick up in store’ option. If you are already in a Target store and want to get the online price, you can look up the item online and then have the cashier price match the item.”

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