Many stores have, or are moving towards having, an online shopping option. This allows people who do not live near the stores and those who simply prefer the convenience the option to order right from their home or office. Is it cheaper to buy online or do you have to pay more for the convenience? While every online retailer is different, there are several factors to consider when comparing the overall expense of online vs. in-store shopping.

Sticker Price

Prices in online stores are often lower than bricks-and-mortar stores, reflecting the lower cost. Online merchandise doesn't have to be displayed in an expensive storefront and often doesn't need to be held in a warehouse - it can be shipped directly from the manufacturer to the customer. Stores like Walmart often price their online offerings slightly less than you would find in-store. (For additional reading, check out: Is Online Shopping Killing Brick-And-Mortar?

Clearance Items

If you like to shop for marked down merchandise, the traditional store has the internet beat by a mile. Stores often have no choice but to mark down items at the end of a season so that they can clear the space to make room for the new season's offerings. You can often find deep discounts of this type of merchandise. An online store, on the other hand, has no such space limitation and doesn't need to offer clearance sales.

Objective Reviews and Comparisons

Estimating the quality of a purchase and how long the item will last is an important skill to ensure that you do not have to replace it over and over again. When you look at merchandise in-store, it can be difficult to assess whether it will meet your needs or whether there are similar items that would be a better buy. Many online retailers allow previous customers to rate products and describe their experience both the store and the product. You can compare different makes or models side-by-side to look at the features of each. Most importantly, you can spot a shoddy product that has had negative customer ratings and avoid it altogether.

Shipping Costs

Even though online prices are often less than in-store, shipping costs can level the playing field or even make online purchases more expensive overall. This is especially true for large or heavy items as the mailing costs jump exponentially. Some online retailers offer free shipping with a minimum purchase amount and these deals are often worthwhile, as long as you don't spend more than you intended just to get the free shipping.

Return Policies

Having to ship an item back to an online retailer can be more difficult than simply taking it back to the store. Before buying online, be sure to know the return policy so that you don't get stuck with paying to ship something back. Many of the popular online retailers will pay to have returns sent back and include return shipping labels with the purchased items. Some online stores that also have physical stores will allow you to take an online purchase back to the store rather than ship it back.

The Bottom Line

For most purchases, online shopping is convenient and can save you money in the long run by allowing you to thoroughly research your purchase before buying. If you like to shop end-of-season sales, however, going to the mall is still your best bet. (For additional reading, check out: Shopping Online: Convenience, Bargains And A Few Scams.)