Given the robust state of internet retailing and the propensity of people to live their whole lives online, you'd think there was nothing left that people won't buy on the Web.
But even still, there are many items that the majority of people are reluctant to buy online. These are items that are often hard to fit, that require a buyer to see them, touch them and to try them on.
Here's what's we found out when we hit the streets with our dealnews camera:
Of the items that people are most reluctant to buy online, our national study with LightSpeed Research shows that shoes, furniture and groceries top the list
As anyone who ever walked into a shoe shop as a kid remembers, finding the right fit required one to try on a lot of shoes.
There are people with wide feet, slim feet, people who don’t like the back of the shoe rubbing against their ankle. How does one successfully sell shoes online, where the potential buyer can’t tell if they’ll love the shoe?
Zappos.com has built a business on answering this question and making it easy for customers to make the leap to buying shoes online.
“We certainly understand that it can be difficult to know what your going to get when ordering online,” says Jonathan Lueck, of Zappos.com. “So, we began to offer services like free, fast shipping both ways and a 365-day return policy so that the experience would be like bringing the store into the comfort of your living room.”
This allows customers to test their shoes out, knowing that they can return them if they’re not the right pair. Sending the shoes back won’t cost a thing, and will be fairly painless. In fact, Zappos encourages you to find the exact size and pair of shoes you want by pre-ordering a wide variety: “If you're not sure what size you are, we encourage you to order multiple sizes. For us, the free shipping both ways is similar to Netflix, where that's just part of the service.”
When shopping online for shoes, check to make sure return policies are generous, like Zappos, allowing you to return shoes that don’t fit without fuss.Furniture
If you can’t sit in it, how you can decide if you like it? That’s the central dilemma about buying furniture online.
Most online retailers are solving that with descriptions, multiple pictures, and room-planning services. Whether its Ikea with their bold, modern stylings and pictures of fully furnished rooms, or even a regional furniture store like Bob’s Discount Furniture.
Ikea offers a generous return policy to reassure customers, and Bob’s offers ‘Goof Proof’ insurance to let the customers know they stand behind their furniture and its durability. They also offer a 30-day refund policy. Both stores give you plenty of time to see if your furniture fits, is comfortable, and worth keeping.
Even though these items can be a bit challenging to order online, the truth is buying them from the right place makes it easy. Look for fantastic return policies (Land’s End is famous for allowing returns for any reason), ways to sample the product easily (Zappos allows you to order a lot with free shipping both ways and try everything and return what doesn’t fit, while perfume companies can send you samples), and enthusiastic customer support.Glasses/Frames
Shopping for glasses used to require trying various frames on to see what sat best on you. But thanks to laws that require your prescription to be printed out and given to you, you can now order your glasses online. It saves money. But it can be hard.
The biggest trick is to make sure your doctor writes down your ‘pupillary distance’ on your prescription card. That’s necessary when ordering a new pair of glasses.
There are a number of places online to order glasses. Much like Zappos.com, the important thing to look for is an easy, no fuss, return policy. This allows you to test out the glasses, and if they don’t fit right, to return them. Sites like 39dollarglasses.com offer a 100% guarantee that allow you to return the glasses for any reason.
But watch out for how much time you have to return the glasses in. 39dollarglasses has a 10-day limit, and others have 14-day limits.Groceries
Many people don’t realize it, but despite the failure of Webvan and others during the dotcom collapse, you can still buy a variety of goods online. Amazon.com, in particular, has been encouraging customers to buy many dry goods online. It’s not a full grocery list, but if you have repeatable dry goods you often buy, you can look for deals there. With some bulk purchases or warehouse deals, you can save a trip to the store.
Since these are usually recognizable brands, customers don’t have to be scared of buying them online.
Local options for fresh groceries vary across the country, but almost every major city has some sort of online option for ordering groceries and having them delivered. Many offer discounts for first-time shoppers, so you can check them out for a reduced price.Cosmetics
Cosmetics are difficult to buy online because everyone’s face has a different complexion or surface, and the way in which different cosmetics work for different people varies wildly. In this business customers should look for companies that offer free samples and good return policies.
Sephora, for example, uses a variety of tactics to help customers. There’s free shipping on orders of over $50 and free returns on all orders, via in-store locations, or via mail. Sephora also sends out three free samples with every order to encourage customers to try different products.
M.A.C also offers samplers online, free shipping for over $50, and a money back guarantee.
Some companies also offer online skin-type tutorials and live customer assistance, which can help with decision-making.
Ellana Mineral Cosmetics, a cosmetics company based in the Philippines, has found a strong following online through a combination of free product samples, guides on their website, and consults with customers.
A lot of the same companies that sell cosmetics also sell fragrances, using many of the same methods to entice customers — free shipping (perfumania.com offers free no-minimum shipping), and some offer samples. However, unlike the cosmetics, most fragrance sellers don’t offer a returns policy.
It’s hard to buy something you don’t know if you’ll like the smell of, so customers should look for companies that offer samples. Scented Monkey offers a ‘try before you buy’ program of eight different samples.
Perfume Emporium takes a different tack, they offer a vocabulary guide that helps customers understand the descriptions of the different scents.Swimwear
While we’ve all gotten quite accustomed to ordering some clothes online, making the leap to ordering something like swimwear is a big one.“Swimsuits were the last thing I ever imagined buying online,” says Jenn R., a shopper we interviewed. “But now, I'll never buy them any other way.” She’s a satisfied Zappos.com shoe customer who decided to make the jump into buying swim wear online when she discovered that Zappos sold more than just shoes.
“I read dozens of helpful reviews and added lots of different styles to my cart — styles I never would have tried on in a store, but felt comfortable trying on at home," she says.
As a result, she ended up finding more than one suit. “I found several possibilities in the first batch, and ordered a few more. The free return shipping made this the perfect way to shop.”
While not as generous with the free shipping, brands like J. Crew and Land’s End also offer swimwear online with generous return policies and a large line-up of fashions for online swimwear shoppers. And there are a number of dedicated swim wear sites online that have set out to master the online shopping experience for this hard-to-buy item. Sites like Every Thing But The Water and Couture Candy are specifically designed to make it easy for you to buy online.Lingerie
If a shopper considers swimwear hard to buy online, lingerie is an even greater challenge. But many real-world lingerie sellers have online presences that allow virtual shopping without the hassle of trying to hunt down a real world location.
But for specialty online venues, it’s hard to beat the selection of Fig Leaves or Bare Necessities. Fig Leaves offers a standard shipping price and a 20-day return policy. Bare Necessities offers free shipping on orders over $50 and a 60-day return policy, and they even include a preprinted return address label with your order, though it does deduct $6.95 from your return credit.
With generous and easy to use return policies, cheap or free shipping, getting a lingerie selection privately sent to your house is straightforward and easy.
Tobias Buckell is a freelance journalist in Ohio. Follow him on Twitter &mdash @TobiasBuckell.
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