I have to confess that I’ve become a certified online shopper. Even if I see what looks like a good deal in a store, I still won’t buy it until I check the price at an online competitor. Amazon.com for example, seems to be able to cut prices below the lowest price you see in a retail store outlet and they do it pretty darn consistently.

But that doesn’t mean that shopping online is always cheaper. Online shopping has its own limitations, and that can make it even more expensive than buying in a store in a lot of cases.

Shipping and handling

Girl Shopping OnlineThe biggest and most obvious add-on expense with online shopping are shipping and handling costs. They can transform a low-priced item into less of a deal than you originally thought.

I recently needed to buy a replacement head for a lawn edger. In the stores this item was priced at $20 and higher. Online however, I was able to find the same replacement part for about ten dollars. That’s a good deal but it cost more than eight dollars for shipping and handling. Overall, by buying online, I paid $18 and change. That only save me about a dollar or two on buying in a store, and I had to wait a week to get the part.

If an item is particularly large or heavy, shipping and handling can make it more expensive than buying in a local store.

Delivery times

This isn’t an actual expense but it is a cost in a real way. Sometimes you need an item and you need it now. It may be cheaper to pay more in a store and have the item now, than to buy at a discount online but have to wait for the item to come in.

Sometimes this delivery delay can result in you having to develop an interim solution. That solution can cost additional money that when added to the purchase price of the online item makes it more expensive than it would have been if you had bought it in a local store.

The delivery issue is further complicated by the fact that delivery times can be unreliable. An online merchant may give you a range on delivery of anywhere from 3 to 10 days. If the delivery is on the outside date this could create problems for you and may even cost you extra money. You may have to pay for expedited shipping, and if you do it may mean good-bye discount!

Return policies

One of the reasons that we shop at certain stores is because of the confidence that we have in those merchants to provide reliable return and exchange policies. Many online merchants haven’t been around long enough to build that kind of confidence. In addition, since there are so many online merchants it’s not always possible to know exactly what the return policy is.

Sometimes the merchant is either based in a foreign country or relies on a foreign country for their merchandise. When that is the case returns and exchanges aren’t always possible. Still another issue is staffing. One of the reasons that online merchants can sell items for less money is that they have far less staff than bricks and mortar merchants. Many times, an online merchant that is very strong on front end sales is very weak on the backend – and that includes returns and exchanges.

It could be possible that you will be forced to purchase a replacement item from another merchant while still awaiting the return of funds on an item you sent back to the original merchant. And sometimes the refund may not come at all.

No sales

Stores often run sales of items that will make the price cheaper than online stores. Since online stores usually have lower prices they don’t have sales because there is no need. But if you can get the same item on sale at a local store it will generally be less expensive than online especially when shipping costs are factored in.

Clothes (and parts) that don‘t fit

In yet another example of a soft cost of buying online, there is the prospect of buying an item that doesn’t fit with what you need. It could be an article of clothing, or it could be a replacement part for an item that you have. If you find out that it doesn’t fit you’ll be back into the return and exchange system, which as we discussed above can sometimes be less than satisfying. Then there is the time lost in returning and replacing the item that didn’t fit.

This may not cost you extra money out-of-pocket, but it will cost you in terms of time and aggravation.

Assuming something is cheaper just because it‘s online

Finally, there is a potential psychological cost to shopping online. Online shopping has become so common that most of us might just assume that something is cheaper just because it’s online. That’s not always the case.

Some merchants may generally be cheaper than their storefront competition on most items, but they may carry a few items that are premium priced. Buried among a large number of less expensive items, the overpriced items may escape unnoticed and we can easily end up paying more than we should.

It’s often said that we should never assume, and this goes just as well for online shopping as anywhere else. Never assume that something is cheaper just because you can get it online.

Have you ever made a purchase online only to find that it wasn’t cheaper than what you would have paid at a local store?

Kevin Mercadante

Kevin Mercadante

Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, OutOfYourRut.com. He has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids and can be followed on Twitter at @OutOfYourRut.