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Is it cheaper to buy online? Add to ...

There's no doubt that when it comes to shopping, more and more Canadians foregoing trekking to the store in favour of going online. A Statistics Canada report released last fall found that 39 per cent of Canadians aged 16 and over used the internet to place more than 95 million orders in 2009 - up from 32 per cent and 70 million orders in 2007, when the survey was last conducted.

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We all know that buying online can be convenient but is it cheaper? In some cases, absolutely. And while consumers need to be cognizant of shipping costs - particularly if the store is outside of Canada, there are bargains to be had in almost all shopping categories. You likely have your own favourites but here are five that you should check out:

1) Eyeglasses/Contact Lenses

I recently ran into an old friend and asked where she got her glasses, a gorgeous pair of red-to-clear ombre plastic frames that looked tres, tres chic. Steph told me she had ordered them online and paid $50 - lenses in! Seeing as my glasses had set me back about $350, I was intrigued. Her glasses came from Clearly Contacts, a Canadian company that offers hundreds of designer frames for deep discounts. It might seem a strange concept to buy glasses without having tried them on, but the company has a 365-day return policy, and shipping is free with orders over $129 (otherwise it's about $10). You just need your prescription including your pupillary distance (they tell you how to calculate it). They also offer discounts of up to 70 per cent on contact lenses.

2) Books

Almost everyone I know buys books online, except for the people who buy in indie book shops to support small businesses, which I can totally appreciate. My friend April did an informal comparison study at Chapters recently and found every book of the dozen or so she checked were at least a few dollars cheaper on the website. And as my friend Angie says, books are pretty much the perfect thing to buy online - you don't have to worry whether it's going to fit or look good in your living room. And although shipping can be a factor, most online stores will waive the shipping if you spend enough. For example, Chapters and Amazon offer free shipping for orders over $25, which is half the cost of a typical hard-cover.

3) Travel

By now, it's pretty obvious that booking travel online is the cheaper way to go. Comparing flight prices on popular sites like Expedia and Travelocity can lead to steep discounts. I'm also a fan of "blind" buying on sites like Hotwire. You can find lower prices on hotels around the world, but the catch is that you don't know the name of the hotel at the time of booking, only the star-rating and general location. And it's non-refundable. If the idea of booking a blind gives you the willies, take note. When I booked a hotel in New York City last fall on Hotwire, I went to Betterbidding, an awesome Priceline and Hotwire forum. You can actually use their posted resources, such as location and amenities, to figure out which hotel it is. I decoded my hotel and ended up booking a nightly rate that was $200 less than the regular price.

4) Electronics

My friend Kate is partial to buying electronics online. She scored a refurbished laptop from Best Buy, regularly $799 in-store, for $599 online. She's also bought online from B&H Photo and Electronics and Tiger Direct. But she points out that buying electronics online has benefits beyond a cheaper price. "It is a lot easier to compare a set of features for different headphones online than it is in a store," she says. "Online there are spec sheets and customer reviews. In a store, you might get an educated salesperson -- if you can track one down -- or you get a teenager who knows less than you do. And they may or may not have what you want in stock."

5) Clothes/Shoes

While not all wearables will be cheaper online, many smaller brands that are exorbitant in boutique shops will be cheaper online, particularly off-season. I've heard reports of great savings on children's brands like Umi and Zutano. Kate has bought Locale shoes on sale on the website after having seen them full-price in store, and notes that it's easier to find the bargains online than it is in stores: "It's just much easier to check the website every so often than trekking to a store or calling," she says.

How often do you really find yourself browsing for bargains in a mall these days? For me, the answer is never. Why bother when an online deal is only a click, or two, away.

 

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