Confession: I never liked shopping online.
I never even gave it a chance.
I just announced that “I’m the kind of person who needs to try things on” and stayed away from it as much as possible.
Shopping online brought up all kinds of questions, preloaded with frustration: How do you try on multiple sizes? How do you know if the fabric will feel good against your skin? How do you know if it’s a piece that’s prone to wrinkle?
And maybe the most pressing question: What if you have to return it?
Ah, the dreaded return.
Step One: Print the return label. Foiled already, the printer is out of ink!
Step Two: Give up.
I’m kidding (kind of).
But the point is, I never liked shopping online. And that was fine because I always lived in a big city with plenty of real stores.
Then I moved to a small town.
And everything changed.
Before we moved, I would often get emails from people who wanted to create a closet they loved, but lived in a small town without any stores they liked. I never knew how to address their challenge.
But now, a year into small town life, I do.
So here we go. We’ll start with some tips to simplify + streamline the whole experience, I’ll reveal my favorite stores that offer free shipping, and I’ll share how shopping online has actually changed my habits for the better. This is a long post, so strap in — let’s go!
• • •
5 TIPS TO SIMPLIFY ONLINE SHOPPING
01 | Start a Fit Kit.
What’s a Fit Kit, you ask?
It’s essentially a place where you can keep track of notes like your measurements, the way certain fabrics drape, and brands that fit you well.
You could start your Fit Kit in a document on your computer, in a notebook, or simply on a piece of typing paper.
Let’s take a quick look three things you should include in it:
My success rate with shopping online went through the roof once I finally broke down and bought a tape measure and measured myself.
I measured the regular stuff like waist and bust, but I also took more specific measurements like foot length and shoulder width.
I also measured some of my actual clothing — like the length of my favorite dress (AKA my ideal dress length) or the hip measurements on my favorite loose shift dress. This really helps. Sometimes it’s hard to know how a piece might fit based on body measurements alone, but the measurements of your favorite clothes can give you context — you can compare the measurements of clothes online with clothes you own that already work.
So, when I find something I like online, I grab the list of all of my measurements (and the measurements of my favorite clothes) and compare them.
Size charts still have their flaws, of course, but I’m finding more and more success as I learn to use measurements in creative ways.
Remember my frustrated questions earlier?
How do I know how the fabric will feel against my skin? How do I know if it’s prone to wrinkles?
My ever-evolving fabric notes can help me get the answers.
In about 10 minutes, you can jump start your fabric notes:
- Look through your closet. Pull out two or three pieces that feel great against your skin. Look at the tag. What is it made of? How thick or thin is the fabric? Anything else special about the fabric? Write it down.
- Now pull out two or three pieces that don’t feel great against your skin — they’re scratchy, itchy, or stiff. Look at the tag. What’s it made of? Make notes.
- Pull out two or three pieces that don’t wrinkle. What’s it made of? Make notes.
- Pull out a couple of pieces that do wrinkle. What’s it made of?
You get the idea. You could do this with pilling, stretching, and shrinking too.
If I find a piece I might buy online, I check out the fabric content. When I compare it with my notes, I can predict how a piece will drape, how it will feel, and how prone it might be to wrinkles.
Sometimes you’ll come up with conflicting notes — one 100% cotton shirt does wrinkle and another one doesn’t. It happens — not all fabrics are created equally. But try not to let it frustrate you. Keep making your notes and over time you’ll begin to see patterns. (Hint: Perhaps it has to do with the brand or where the fabric is made)
When you know the general quality of a brand, it can help you predict the quality of an item. To minimize returns, take notes on the sizes and fabric quality of your favorite brands.
As you might be able to tell, Madewell is my sure bet when it comes to getting the right size and good quality right off the bat.
But, while it’s helpful to have go-to brands, sometimes we want to explore new brands. Right now, I’m wanting to do less Madewell and more exploring.
But discovering new brands can be tricky online — sometimes it’s just hard to take that risk when you have no experience with their clothes. I’ll share more on this topic in just a second, in tip number five.
02| Pick a visible place for receipts and return packing slips.
I’m vigilant about those returns. Buying something online and forgetting to return it is not something I want to do.
So when I’m deciding on a piece, I keep my receipts in plain sight, right on top of my dresser. It reminds me I’ve got an “open” order that I need to “close” soon.
If it’s hard to remember to ship things back on time, try designating one day each week or each month that can be your return day. Not that you’ll have something to return each time, it’ll just help you become more conscious of returns.
On that note, pay careful attention to return policies. Not everyone has as generous a return policy as Nordstrom.
For example, Garmentory has a three day return window. Yikes! If I hadn’t known that beforehand, I might have missed my opportunity to return a pair of shoes I tried there.
03 | Get two sizes or styles to try on, and then return the one that doesn’t fit.
I rarely do this. And sometimes it can just feel wrong, because twice as much money is temporarily tied up in the order.
But, when needed, it can help expedite the process. Or it can help when you think your size might be out of stock by the time you make the exchange.
04 | Set up a packaging station.
No need to make this fancy or complicated. My packaging station is basically a roll of packing tape and a sharpie next to the printer. But I have everything I need to repackage the return right there with minimal running around. It just helps simplify things a bit.
And for those days when your printer does run out of ink (or if you don’t have a printer), they’ll print out your return label for a small fee at UPS.
05 | Use the rare in-store shopping trip as research.
When I actually get to go to a store, I usually spend most of my time researching brands I’m interested in — instead of actually shopping to buy.
For example, I’m trying to find some new denim brands that are made in the USA. I got to go to Nordstrom in Dallas a few weeks ago, and I used most of my time to try on different washes, cuts, and sizes of Rag + Bone jeans, Paige Denim, and Current/Elliot — even washes and cuts I wasn’t interested in. I just wanted to get a feel for their quality and consistency.
If there’s a brand you want to explore, try on a variety of their clothes — even pieces you’re not interested in. Make notes on how they fit + the overall quality vibe you’re getting. If there’s a lot of inconsistency in the dressing room, it might be better to stay away from that brand online.
• • •
MY FAVS: STORES THAT OFFER FREE SHIPPING
I almost included free shipping in that list of tips you just read.
But no. Free shipping doesn’t get a bullet point. It gets a whole section.
Because the dollars that get lost in shipping were the primary source of my frustration about shopping online. But there’s hope! Here are my favorite places that offer free shipping to the US (and most offer free returns too!).
NORDSTROM | Responsible options + Free returns | Looking for responsible options? Simply type “Made in USA” in the search bar. You’ll be happy you did.
MADEWELL | Returns are $5.95 | I’m confident in their sizing and quality so that makes it easy — I rarely make returns here.
GARMENTORY | Responsible options + Free Returns | Garmentory is a great source if you’re looking for independent designers. But get familiar with their super strict return policy before you order.
ZAPPOS | Responsible options + Free Returns | Hint: Type “Made in USA” in the search bar, then use their filters to refine.
MOTT AND BOW | They don’t offer free shipping (unless you buy two or more pairs of jeans), but they are still worth a mention because of their innovative at home try on program. I like their faded black skinnies.
• • •
After doing most all of my shopping online this year, I’ve got to admit, I actually prefer it now.
It’s a peaceful experience — there’s no traffic or checkout lines to deal with. You can wear PJs and listen to a nice playlist. And you can try things on with clothes you already have — a big plus for avoiding those “fantasy life” purchases.
But my favorite thing about shopping online?
It takes instant gratification out of the equation, because of the shipping wait.
Before I started keeping an edited closet, instant gratification was the number one reason I used to go shopping.
Bad day? I know what will fix it! A new top (that I can wear tonight)!
But now, since I’m shopping online, there’s a built in wait time — shipping.
Much like my capsule experiment, learning how to shop online has helped me get off that instant gratification train. The whole experience of shopping is slower now — allowing more room for me to be intentional and thoughtful with my purchases.
Do you have any tips to simplify shopping online? I would love to hear because, while this is what I’ve learned so far, I’m always excited to learn more. Share away!