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Patti Lorenzi Cowger.jpg

Patti Cowger

I’ve been wanting to address the topic of purchasing product online for a long time. Years, in fact. But I knew it would require research, and finding time has been a challenge. However, I hope to cover the basics today.

When comparing prices between online and retail brick- and-mortar stores, there seems to be three categories. Products are not actually the same, they are the same but online channels come with risks (and eventually more costs), or they are the same and you were lucky.

The first category covers a lot of internet ground. While products online may look the same and even have the same name as those found in retail stores, they are, in fact, different. They may be made with inferior materials or craftsmanship and won’t endure or perform as well as the authentic retail version.

Another online practice is showing a photo of a product that is not really accessible to the vendor. Let’s say you found tile at a retail store. You then find it online for less. You call the online source to confirm that everything is as it should be. Once confirmed, you order but soon after are told they are out of stock (they never had it in the first place, remember) and recommend something similar that they actually can sell. You don’t like that alternative and are now stuck with a disputable credit card payment.

The second category sells the correct product but you receive several flawed, broken or missing pieces. This vendor is selling you seconds that it bought at a bargain. The savings you gained are lost while reordering or returning the goods – if allowed. In this case and in the previous one, you’re responsible for shipping costs even though you’re not at fault.

I ordered something online years ago. I wasn’t looking for a deal but for a particular fabric. After designing a complicated bedding set for a client, one of the fabrics had been discontinued from my designer-trade account. I only needed one yard and felt I wasn’t slighting my sales representative for this account too terribly if I purchased it online. The fabric came in two pieces and in different dye lots. Lesson learned.

In the third category, you’re buying the real deal online at a lower price than its retail counterpart. What’s going on in these cases? Hundreds of online vendors are selling legitimate goods illegitimately. Manufacturers know of this practice and when possible, stop these enterprises. However, the online businesses just change their names and carry on.

I have a difficult time purchasing a product online knowing that I’m undercutting the source or the source’s contracted retail stores. I’m benefiting but at someone else’s expense. (Catholic guilt?). I appreciate the investment that brick and mortar stores make so that my shopping experience is easier. They provide samples, sales expertise, and customer service as well as all the other overhead. I also appreciate that my favorite retail stores handle all problems for me should any occur after the sale.

Brick-and-mortar stores have also chosen the product to sell and display in the first place. I place value in their judgement. In my case, I also place value in my sales representatives’ judgment. Using retail stores and sales people saves me the time and cost of attending trade shows and markets to see what is available. Online sources have, in effect, stolen the time, expertise, and expense stores and representatives have made.

I do make exceptions. I will purchase product online if I’ve seen it only online. I just weigh the risks and read the return policies. Even if policies are acceptable, I know I may not be buying exactly what is advertised.

I also purchase online from the manufacturer’s official website – but, again, only if I haven’t seen it in a retail store.

Product does not magically appear in retail stores or online. Having some insight on how it got there may help you decide how you want to purchase it.

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Patti L Cowger is an award-winning Napa-based interior designer and owner of PLC Interiors. For more information about her design services, visit her website at plcinteriors.com call (707) 322-6522; or email plcinteriors@sbcglobal.net.

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