5 tips for deciding whether to shop online or in the store

A retailer's online prices can be very different from what it charges in the store

Published: January 24, 2015 10:00 AM

When it comes to getting the best price when you go shopping, don't assume that a retailer charges the same prices in the store as it does online. Shop online, then check the prices in the store. What you find might surprise you. 

For example, we recently found a backpack selling on Target.com for $47, compared to the in-store price of $68. And a few days later, the website had the item on sale for 37, the best price we could find anywhere, while the in-store price remained the same.

Such differences between a retailer's online and in-store price are not unusual.

Other's have found similar discrepancies in price. During the holidays, a spot check of product prices by ConsumerWorld.org found differences between retailers' online and in-store prices ranging from 50 cents to nearly $200. Even more surprising, prices at retailers' walk-in stores were sometimes lower than on their websites.

“There is no universal rule-of-thumb that prices are always cheaper online compared to the retailer’s own brick-and-mortar store,” said Edgar Dworsky, the founder of ConsumerWorld.org in a prepared statement.

For instance, Dworsky found that in October, Kmart’s retail stores had a clearance on barbecue grills with prices much lower than on the retailer’s website. But he also found a Canon digital camera that Walmart was selling for $99 online, but for $139 in the store.

There are plenty of online tools to help you get the best price when you go shopping. Read about how to get the best deal on practically anything.

What to do

  • Compare retailer’s online and in-store prices. Don't just assume the prices are the same. Of course, you should look at competitors' prices, too.
  • Check a retailer’s price matching policies. Some retailers’ walk-in stores match their websites and vice versa. (Target stores price match Target.com, but Target.com doesn't match stores prices, which, incidentally, can vary by location). ConsumerWorld.org says it was able to save $180 at Staples by having the store match the retailer’s online price for a desktop computer. 
  • Don’t just consider price. When comparing, don’t forget to take into account shipping charges for online purchases. You may be able to avoid them if the retailer's website has free shipping to one of its stores.
  • Do some showrooming. Even if you have to buy a product online to get the best deal, there's no reason why you can't thoroughly check it out in the store before buying. So go ahead and ask questions and get a feel for the product before ordering online. Ask to see any manufacturer's warranty. By law, a store must show it to you before you buy the item.
  • Protect your rights. Keep in mind that you may have greater warranty rights when buying in a store. That's because most retail websites we've checked disclaim so-called implied warranties, which means they're technically selling their products "as-is." Although the websites usually have policies allowing returns, including for defective merchandise, implied warranties can give you even greater protection. In contrast, retailers generally don't sell items "as-is" in their walk-in stores. 

— Anthony Giorgianni

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Shopping News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more