5 Things to Do Before Buying Furniture Online

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Shopping for furniture online can be convenient and hassle-free. You can peruse hundreds of items without any rush or pressure from sales associates, take time to read reviews, and search widely for exactly what you want. On the other hand, online furniture shopping means you can't physically see or touch the item, and there is almost always a hefty shipping or delivery fee, especially for bulky pieces. Here's how to make sure you're getting what you want at the best possible price.

1. Look for ways to save.

If you shop for furniture online without taking advantage of promotions, such as online coupons and free shipping, you're missing out. Signing up for companies' e-newsletters ensures advance notice of deals. Overstock.com, for example, regularly emails discounts and promotional alerts, offers new customers an initial 10 percent discount for registering.

Another (but less likely) way to save is by shopping with a friend who lives nearby and happens to be looking for furniture, as well. By teaming up, you can split the shipping fee or meet the minimum requirements for free shipping.

2. Confirm the return policy.

You never want to order a $300 piece of furniture only to discover later that the color is way off and the item can't be returned. One difficulty with online furniture shopping is not being able to physically examine the piece before clicking "buy." The quality of online images and even individual computer screens varies; what the retailer describes as beige might seem to you like a dusty gray. Always double check the return policy, and pay particular attention to how the item can be returned and who pays for return shipping.

Note that marked-down furniture is almost always final sale, meaning you can't return the product even if it's damaged or not what you expected. Steer clear of clearance items unless you're absolutely sure about them.

3. Factor in shipping and delivery costs.

Companies determine shipping fees in several ways. Some charge by weight; some assess a set price; some charge a percentage of the order total; and others offer free shipping for orders over a certain dollar amount. Additionally, there might be a charge for oversize or bulky items.

The best deals typically involve a fixed shipping fee or free shipping once a minimum spend is met. Wayfair, an online furniture and home decor website, offers free shipping on orders exceeding $49 regardless of size and weight, although some exclusions apply. And a $50 charge entitles you to "liftgate" service, in which a machine unloads the order from the truck and brings it to your door.

Confirming delivery charges is vital when shopping for furniture online, especially if you won't have any assistance removing the item from the delivery truck, bringing it into your home, and setting it up for use. Almost all retailers tack on charges for liftgate delivery and set up. Ikea, for example, adds on fees if the customer requires a particular delivery time or if the delivery had to be cancelled due to "unsafe conditions." Delivery costs can boost the bottom line quickly and significantly, so enlisting the help of friends or family members to unload the order instead can keep costs in check.

4. Search for ‘real-life' images.

With the help of sophisticated search engines, consumers can now see unedited images of most items they might want to buy. Searching online by brand for a particular piece of furniture should yield pictures provided by people who are using it in their homes. Some retailers also allow consumers to post shots of the vendor's products on their websites. Both let you see the piece in an organic way, unadorned by professional styling or lighting and are probably the closest online shoppers can come to physically examining an item.

Another way to view a piece of furniture without visiting a store is by searching for the product on social media. Use hashtags (e.g., #ikea or #westelm) to bring up tagged images that haven't been enhanced with image editors, such as Photoshop.

5. Ask questions.

Don't be afraid to reach out to the retailer. After all, shopping for furniture online is a bit of a risk. If you're unsure about the material or measurements, ask about them. Even if you have to wait several days for a response, be sure to get the full story, because returning furniture bought online can be a royal hassle.