If you think you can save money this holiday season by buying gifts online instead of in brick-and-mortar stores, you may be mistaken, according to a shopping cart test by budget products review site Cheapism. The survey compared Amazon vs. Walmart, pitting the online giant against the offline superstore. It revealed that a simple price comparison doesn’t tell the whole story, with factors such as sales tax, shipping costs, price matching, and return policies affecting the bottom line.
Cheapism decided to explore whether frugal consumers should do their holiday shopping online or offline in light of the ongoing economic turmoil and shifts in consumer shopping behavior. The National Retail Federation reports that 46.7% of consumers plan to shop for holiday gifts online this year, up from 43.9% last year, while ShopperTrak predicts that foot traffic to bricks-and-mortar stores will drop 2.2%, despite an expected 3% increase in holiday retail sales.
Among the findings of Cheapism’s October survey:
Overall, online and offline price differences are negligible. Amazon won “cheapest” bragging rights in a comparison of 16 identical items with a 3.5% aggregate savings, but the price advantage dwindled to just 0.3% in a shopping cart filled with 41 similar, but not identical, products.
Not all individual products are cheaper online. The DVD Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was priced at $ 7.49 on Amazon and $ 15 at Walmart. Batteries for holiday toys, on the other hand, were more than 30% cheaper at Walmart.
Comparing prices alone can be misleading. Shoppers need to consider variables such as sales tax shipping (not an issue in brick-and-mortar stores but sometimes a cost factor online); price matching (offered for all products at Walmart but only for televisions on Amazon); and return policies (90 days at Walmart with a full refund, compared to Amazon’s January 31 holiday gift deadline with return shipping costs deducted).
Given the relatively small difference between online and offline pricing, Cheapism concluded that thrifty holiday shoppers should let the shopping experience be their guide.
“Some people prefer to touch and feel the merchandise and don’t mind driving to their local Walmart and fighting the holiday crowds,” said Max Levitte, co-founder and CEO of Cheapism. “Others like the 24/7 nature of online shopping despite the difficulty of sorting through thousands of products and the inability to physically inspect what they’re buying. Since there is no clear-cut price advantage to shopping in a physical store versus an online retailer, decide if you’re happier cocooning at home or communing with other shoppers. You can stick to your budget either way.”