Friday, November 26, 2010

Still Life with Robin: Holiday Shopping, Online Or Off?

by Peggy Robin

It’s Black Friday but many of you have already started your holiday shopping -- especially if you’re celebrating Hanukkah, which starts on December 1 this year and is over by the 8th. Such pressure! Each year I have to decide which is better (or more accurately, which is the lesser of two evils): Navigating the crowds at the mall or navigating the wilds of the worldwide web? This year I’m asking for your opinion, too. Vote in the poll. And let me know your thoughts, as well (in the comments section below).

Here are the factors I’m already mulling over in my mind – followed by the point values I’ve assigned to each. At the end I’ll add up all the scores and we’ll see which form of holiday shopping emerges as the better gift-producing strategy.


For On-line Shopping/Against Going to Stores:

Avoid the crowds and the long lines at checkout. +5

Saves on gas, better for the environment. +3

Don’t have to fight for a parking space at the mall – or remember where it is once I leave the car. +3

No need to stand in line to use the bathroom. +2

If I want to interrupt my shopping to get something to eat or drink, all I have to do is go to the kitchen. +2

No need to hunt for a harried salesperson for help with product questions. +2

No need to put on a winter coat or go out in the rain – I can order at home in my pajamas if I like. +2

No worry about the store closing – I can order any time of the day or night. +2

Nobody interrupts my shopping to try to spritz me with perfume, offer me a massage, straighten my hair, or sell me a buckwheat neck pillow. +2

Other shoppers at the mall tend to be short-tempered and stressed; it’s easier to stay calm yourself when you’re not watching others cut in line or argue with the sales staff. +1

My Amazon orders with my Amazon card have no shipping charges (in most cases) and earn me triple Amazon reward points. +2

Easy to browse online – many of the sites I shop have helpful recommendations based on my buying history +2

If I go to the mall with a gift list, I always end up running from one end to the other in search of stores and end up retracing my steps to find a store I passed the first time around. The mall layout seems designed to maximize the number of stores you need to pass to get to an escalator. +2

Shopping at online places where I already have an account is fast, as all checkout information is stored. +1

Easy to find relevant customer reviews for most products; also easy to compare products and prices online, and easy to tell if I’m buying the latest version of an electronic product or software. +1

Can cancel an online order if I change my mind quickly enough, or just stash an item in my online cart and come back to it when ready to purchase. +1

No taxes on most online orders shipped to DC. +1

Unlike the checkout lines at the mall, there are no “impulse buy” displays to tempt you online.
If I’m buying a gadget, I can usually view the manual online before purchase. +1

Easy to have a gift shipped directly to someone out of state. +1

Don’t have to listen to endless renditions of “Silver Bells” and “The Little Drummer Boy” while shopping. +7

For In-person Shopping/Against Buying Online [Note that many of these point values exactly cancel out a similar point listed in the Pro Online Shopping section above!]

Too easy to make a mistake ordering online when you don’t actually see what you’re buying in real life. +5

If it’s clothing, you can’t try it on. (Even if you get the size right, you still won’t be able to predict how it will look on you…or the recipient of the gift.) +4

If you do make a mistake in ordering, it’s a hassle to send it back and get the right thing. +3

If you have to send an item back, even if you got free shipping when it was sent, the return shipping won’t be cheap. +2

Although it may be hard to barrel through crowds, at least mall shopping gets you out of the house and gives you some exercise. +3

Shipping isn’t free on most sites, and even if you’re getting a good online price, it can still really add a chunk o’ change to the total. +1

It’s fun to see the holiday decorations and watch the little kids in line to see Santa. +1

If you’ve never ordered from a particular online company before, you’ll need to create an account (it’s time-consuming), and keep track of yet another password. +1

On some sites it’s hard to tell if your order went through, and in some cases, you could accidentally end up putting through the same order twice. +1

Some sites won’t let you check out without making you click through and decline a lot of “specials.” +1

After placing an online order, some sites automatically add your email address to their e-newsletter or spam you frequently with product ads. +4

After placing an online order, some sites try to get you to fill out an online survey, which is time-consuming at best and at worst, is simply a scam that signs you up for more “special offers” and “prizes” that can actually end up costing you money.” +3

The gift-wrapping options are better when you shop in a real store: Many stores offer free gift-wrapping, or the mall will have a gift-wrap for charity kiosk, or you can decide yourself how best to wrap the gift. (It’s harder to choose the best gift wrap option with something you’ve just seen online and haven’t actually seen in real life. ) +1

There may not be any useful help available to answer questions when you’re buying online: No phone help, no email help – all you may see on the Customer Service page is a list of FAQs, none of which has the answer to the question that you happen to have about the product. +2

Boxes! Too many boxes! +7


Now before you offer your thoughts, let me head off the suggestion that I do all my holiday shopping in August or September. I’ve tried doing that, and here’s what happens. I buy someone clothing and their size changes before December rolls around. I buy someone a spiffy new gadget in September only to learn that she received that same gadget from someone else for her birthday in October. I buy someone a lovely little piece of jewelry in a tiny box and hide it away in a drawer, thinking to get it out and give it to the person for first night of Hanukkah, but by the time the holiday comes, I’ve forgotten about it completely and only discover the present around Passover when I’m doing some overdue cleaning and happen to look in the back of that drawer.

So...better ideas, anyone? Or factors I may have missed on my online/offline scorecard? To save you the trouble of adding up the columns, here's the result of my list so far: For Online Shopping = 40; For In-Store Shopping = 39!


  1. Peggy,
    To keep current with my Living Happily on a Shoestring column, I actually got up at 3:30 on Black Friday to be eligible for the $20 off card that was given to the first 500 shoppers. I was also armed with many a coupon. I was hoping it would be a fun thing to do.

    It. Wasn't.

    The mall was crowded, with some pushy-shovey people in the mix. You'd have thought the store would be in tip-top shape. I found that the clothes racks should have had no size signs as they didn't seem to apply anyway (in other words, I found more size 2 items in my much larger size than the one that would fit me!).

    I'll take the extra boxes (which can be recycled!) any day. You forgot to add one thing to your pro/con list -- while shopping at home you're never tempted to buy a Cinnabon! :-)

  2. Yes, I forgot about the odor of Cinnabon wafting through the mall, like the smoke from an opium den to an addict. But once I get a look at the Cinnabon line, I can usually march right by. Though I might well end up at Auntie Anne's Pretzels instead!