Chicago Manual of Style—2/25/2011

Keep the real world in mind when buying online

By Jessen O'Brien

Online shopping certainly has its benefits. You can buy anything in the comfort and warmth of your own home, find that one item you need without being distracted by others, and compare prices from many stores without running back and forth among them. But online shopping also has some serious downfalls, and it helps to keep a few things in mind so as to avoid them.

The truth of online shopping is that what you see is not always what you get. Although the photo might look straightforward, keep in mind that there may be a battalion of clips positioning the dress on the model, just hidden from sight. Furthermore, there’s lighting, angling, and the fact that you are seeing the clothing on someone other than yourself. The colors and fit are probably not quite what they appear to be, and it’s impossible to have certain knowledge of how comfortable the item is.

So how do you look past these tricks? First, it’s better to shop brands you know. For one, it gives boundaries to the inexhaustible world of online shopping. It’s so easy to keep looking for another, better bargain online that sometimes it’s hard to stop. If you only look at brands you know, you’ll find it easier to make a purchase. Plus, shopping at familiar stores means you’re more likely to end up with an item that fits correctly. Especially given the oddities of women’s sizes—a 0 is far more ambiguous than 25”—it’s better to buy from a company you know so that you can be certain you need a 4 and not a 6. This will help ensure that when whatever you buy arrives, it fits.

Second, take a good look at the written description. That top might look black in a photograph, but a quick glance at its description might reveal that it’s actually dark purple. You also want to check and see if there’s a size chart or a description of the material, the style—anything that provides an alternative to the photograph. A photograph seems like more concrete evidence than the written word, but a comparison of the two will provide the best understanding of what you’re purchasing.

Third, take a good look at the photograph. Examine multiple views and use the close-up feature if it’s available. If all the photos consist of the model holding the garment or posing peculiarly, it’s not a good sign. It might fit oddly or only work on a specific body type. Keep an eye out for the tell-tale sign of strange modeling, read the reviews, and, most importantly, know what works on you. If a scoop-neck isn’t your best neckline, don’t get persuaded into buying one because it looks so great online. It may very well look fantastic on you, but since you can’t try it on, you’re better off buying something you know looks great.

All of these tips follow the same basic principle: Cut down on the number of unknown variables. You’re infinitely more likely to end up with a garment you love than one to add to your outgoing mail pile or the back of your closet.