Internet Shopping and Tea Leaves

internet shopping tipsAs an avid Internet shopper, I thought I’d share some of my top tips for deal-hunting with you.  There are a number of clues that an Internet shopper can use to detect how the garment fits, how it looks, and so forth. I have my own theories, collected from years as a shopping civilian, as well as nearly three years of blogging about online shopping. So I thought it would be fun to start a discussion — what indicators do you look for when you’re shopping? (Pictured: Shopping cart school, originally uploaded to Flickr by kevindean.)

Good Signs

  • Lots of colors. When I find a shoe or a sweater that comes in lots of colors (4+), I generally think of that as a great sign that the manufacturer thought they had a hit on their hands when they made that item. It’s also a great sign that the store buyer wanted to stock all of those colors.
  • Best-seller status. Particularly where this product has been around for years and years, I take that as a sign that the product is a great bet — the shoe is comfortable, the dress is flattering, etc.
  • Numerous seasons. Some products come back, season after season — and you may even be able to tell that when the same product appears in two different listings on the website.  (For example, when I was looking back at the Frenchi cardigan in December, it was listed numerous times on the Nordstrom site — one in spring colors, and one (on sale) in darker fall colors.)
  • Limited sizes. When only limited sizes are left, it’s usually a sign that the item sold well because the customers loved it — and kept it.  If there are only “higher” sizes left (12, 14, 16) you can “read” that as meaning the item maybe ran slightly big; if there are only “lower” sizes left (0, 2, 4) you can generally read that as meaning the item ran slightly small so everyone had to get a bigger size.  If there are random sizes left (say, 0, 6, 10) that can mean a number of things — it could mean that the sizing was weird, or just that there truly are “lucky sizes” left, as I like to say.

Bad Signs

  • It’s 60% off and all sizes are left. If there’s something obviously wrong with the way the product was styled (and we’ve seen a lot of that here on Corporette — slouching models, too-short pants, Amazonian tall models wearing knee-length skirts that look mini), I generally take it as a genuine “buyer’s find.”  Otherwise… well, watch out; odds are that product wasn’t purchased and/or was returned a lot for a reason.

“Look Closer” Signs

  • “Editor’s Choice.” This really depends on the editor.  I find that some sites choose things based on the quality of the item (I’ve found that true of ShopBop, for example) whereas for others it’s about the curator’s point of view (e.g., Piperlime and Rachel Zoe’s picks).  If it’s a magazine editor’s choice (“as seen in ___!”) it really depends, again, on the magazine and where/how it was featured — I know that sometimes things are chosen because the editor was trying to create a trend article, or find something that looked a certain way for a certain amount of money — it may mean nothing about the quality of the item itself.
  • Review stars. I normally love customer reviews, but I find that it really depends on the customer in terms of the rating they give the item — some will say “I ordered this item and thought it looked cheap and like it might fall apart. Four stars.”  Others will say “I love this item and wear it all the time but I wish it fit me just a bit better in the waist.  Two stars.”

Readers, what signs do you look for when you’re purchasing something on the internet?


  1. If it’s a brand that I haven’t worn before and don’t know the fit, I look for good size charts or a description of the item’s dimensions (i.e. size 4 – waist =25 in., etc…). Generic size charts in a store that sells a number of brands are little help because a 6 in one brand might be an 8 in another. I like to have brand-specific size charts.

    Also, with pants, I know this is picky, but I want to know if they’re lined. Unlined suit pants don’t always hang as well and they have a tendency not to wear as well as the lined ones. I’m in court all the time, and I don’t want the pants on my suit to get ratty too quickly. Talbots, JCrew and Ann Taylor – I am totally looking at you!

  2. on that note, The Hairpin sez this:

    • This is a cool site! Thanks for introducing it here. I especially like the commenter’s tip re: doing a quick internet check for prices on flash sale sites, RueLaLa is not a frequent offender, but Gilt definitely is.

  3. I like sites that have user reviews, but I almost never liked the default sort. I will generally re-sort to see most recent reviews first and also low-to-high reviews so I can get a sense of what if anything might be wrong with the item.

    • I do this too. I find that the lower rated reviews usually tend to be more detailed about what the person liked/didn’t like about the item. It is not helpful to look at a bunch of 5-star reviews that all say “It’s great!”

  4. Good post, Kat! I would add the following: 60% off “with all sizes & colors left” can mean a sleeper hit actually (not a dud). Could be that the retailer didn’t market that collection well, it’s too “basic” and not eye-catching enough, the blogosphere didn’t spread the word about the piece, or, heck, the economy is just sucky and the price-point was too high initially. I’ve found these circumstances to be VERY TRUE of Talbot’s and, to a lesser extent, J. Crew’s hidden gems… Less so for Ann Taylor (lemming effect on that site, IMHO!) and LOFT.

  5. Definitely check the reviews. I don’t get why people would post a good review star number and then say “but I returned it.” I give stuff I returned a 2/5 or 1/5, usually.

    Also, if there are only big/small sizes left, that might also indicate that the item didn’t fit when sized up/down – eg that it is more flattering on smaller/larger figures. Or, it might mean that the item sold out in the store’s most popular sizes (J crew has a lot of size 4 teenagers shopping there, for example, at least in the store near me).

    • True, @L. I’ve found that the “magic” online size seems to size 6. Nine-times-out-ten, it seems to see sell out first. Pout (got a vested interest in that size, so I’m a little biased!). Remember this Tahari suit that Kat picked a few weeks ago? Well, I was saving up my pennies, and poof, size 6, buh-bye! Sob.

      • soulfusion :

        Ditto for size 7 for shoes – for example it took me ages to finally find a pair of the much raved about Kate Spade wedges (which I love an am currently wearing, although I did size up 1/2 size as recommended by reviewers so I’m actually wearing a 7 1/2). This is why I believe the size 7 sale racks in department stores always have the worst shoes. It is really hard to find a steal there in my size.

      • Anonymous :

        Lawgirl, maybe you will get lucky! I purchased that suit in two sizes (4 and 6), and decided that the 4 fit better. Just this morning, I put the 6 in the mail for the return.

        • Shoot, @Anonymous! If you hadn’t mailed it back, I would paid you via Paypal, stat! I’ll stalk the site for the size 6. I thought about buying the 8 and tailoring down, but for $500, I want it to fit to a tee straight out of the box. ;-)

          • Anonymous :

            I hope you get it. The suit is great. The skirt is loooooong, though, so unless you have model height, you’ll probably need to shorten it anyway.

          • Good info, @anonymous. I’m 5’3″ so it will need hemming for sure! Love that suit!!! Can’t wait ;-)

  6. TalbotsShopper :

    I do a lot of “tea-leaf reading” at Talbots, because that “final sale” thing burned me last year, with a jacket that was awful that I couldn’t return. Since Talbots doesn’t have user reviews, I think you have to do sleuthing to figure out if something will work. Here’s what my experience has been:
    – The thing Kat said about “lots of colors and sizes left on clearance” is especially true at Talbots. Any time I see something in “final sale” that has more than two colors left and more than about 6 sizes left in each size type (misses, petites and women’s) I steer clear. I’ve only very rarely bought anything in a “lots of sizes/colors available” situation that worked.
    – Anything that I admire that seems to be selling pretty fast – i.e., when I check back a week later a lot more sizes/colors are gone – I go ahead and order. It may cost more but it may not be available later, and then at least it’s still returnable.
    – Stuff seems to appear and then disappear during certain sales. If I see something disappear during a sale and then reappear afterward, I tend to lean towards buying it, because I think they do that only with things that are selling well initially. I missed out on the “Padma” platform pumps in the size and color I wanted because I didn’t jump on them when they had reappeared after a sale; and then sure enough, they sold out.
    – Most leather garments seem to go pretty quickly at Talbots. If something leather lasts long enough to go into extreme clearance, it’s because the fit is off or there’s some horrible detail that’s not obvious in the pictures. This has happened to me with the last 4 leather jackets I ordered; fortunately I ordered all before they went “final sale” and I couldn’t send them back. I have one Talbots leather jacket that I bought when it was not on clearance and I have to say, I love it and it is a go-to piece for me all the time (it’s a very simple collarless black lamb leather, with a shaped waist). If you see a leather piece you like, grab it. I was hoping to get the leather skirt from the fall catalog in the “saddle” color, but it sold out before I ever saw it go on sale.
    – Talbots shoes are a mystery to me. I love them but so many people I know say they don’t work for them at all. I think it’s the way they build the lasts for the shoes or something. If their shoes work for you, you’re generally safe to wait on the more conservative styles because those always seem to make it into the 50-percent-off-clearance sale. And I get great deals at the end of every summer on Talbots sandals, which never seem to sell that well.
    – If you ever need white or ivory pants for something, Talbots always has some in the Outlet. Every season they make white or ivory pants of various materials, and every season they never seem to sell. It’s odd.
    – I think Talbots t-shirts are great for the $7.99 clearance price. I’d never pay full price for them.
    – I also think at Talbots, simpler is better. They’ve really gotten into froufrou detailing in the last few seasons and very little of it that I’ve seen works on real people, no matter how great it looks in the catalog. Every time I buy a simple straight pant or simple v-neck sweater or simple blazer, I am generally happy. Every time I buy something with pleating, ruffles, embroidery, beading etc. I am generally disappointed. Of course, that may depend on your individual style too.
    – On that note, look at the pictures carefully. Talbots has gotten really good at the artsy photograph that hides some awful deal-breaking detail. Wish they’d quit that.

    • Concur for the most part you, @TalbotShopper. Very weird that no one buys Tal’s sandals or their cream/white pants. They’re both *very* nice! Their handbags seem to sell randomly, no rhyme or reason. I’ve snagged some cute totes and purses for a song. Overall, I think Tal doesn’t do as good of a job marketing (ala J. Crew & Ann Taylor — it’s NEW, it’s HOT, it’s YOU, NOW! LOL). They still have that “matronly” image to contend with, but they are getting better!

      • soulfusion :

        agree on the matronly image – I have had conversations with friends that I’ve either hit that age (in my mid-30s!) or Talbots is catering toward a younger crowd. I have been very happy with recent purchases there despite having to play around with sizing a bit.

      • Accountress :

        It’s so weird to hear of Talbot’s as having a matronly image! I always thought of Talbots when I was planning my first work-wardrobe- sweater sets, nicely cut (and lined!) black wool skirts and trousers. Classic pieces that will never be “out-of-style,” you know?

        • That’s exactly how I think of Talbots! I got my first work wardrobe pieces there, and they’ve been my go-to for classic pieces since I was an undergrad.

    • Talbot’s final sale:

      While it’s impossible to count on this happening consistently, over the summer Talbot’s had a really spectacular clearance sale with all the items final sale. I got 8 pieces for a total of about $75. I liked all but two (though another couple haven’t held up well…) and the two I didn’t like I was able to sell new on ebay once they were no longer available on the Talbots site for well above cost. One flyaway cardigan that I paid about $6 for sold for $30+shipping on ebay.

    • Wow. Thank you for this. I keep almost buying some of the final sale things but not because I don’t want to get burned.

      Plus the last time I bought pants, just on regular sale, 4 pair in different colors, I ended up returning 2 and wishing I returned another pair. The fabric and workmanship were way different from pair to pair. Of course 2 different people will may things slightly different but the 2 I returned were not wearable. That was several years ago and I keep wanting to give Talbots another chance. So I will take what you have written into consideration.

      • I’ve tried at least 5 times with Talbot’s dresses (sheaths, wrap dresses, you name it). Came up empty each time — baggy in the waist and sack-like throughout. Who know, maybe I just needed a different size (petite, maybe?). Anyhoo, I stick strictly to pants, sweaters, jackets (which can be boxy, but I likes!) and shoes nowadays. They’re shoes cannot. be. beat. IMHO.

        • Boy, could I make MORE typos than that, even if I tried?! Their = they’re?! No more comments for Lawgirl today. It’s a wrap!

          • LOL. I know the feeling. I am far more guilty in any given post than you are.

  7. Legally Brunette :

    I pretty much exclusively online shop at Nordstrom because they have free shipping over $200 always, very fast shipping, and have the most amazing return policy ever. I also love how they provide hem line measurements for their dresses/skirts, as well as the fact that they allow (and encourage) customer reviews.

    Also, not sure if everyone knows this, but Nordstrom RACK is now available online too!

    • do you know if you can return RACK items to a Nordstrom “normal” store?

      • You can do the reverse, so I would assume yes.

      • Legally Brunette :

        Yes, you can. I recently did this. According to other Corporetters, you can return anything at Nordstrom (including items from Ann Taylor or BR). Not sure how that could possibly be, but there it is.

  8. I simply just stopped ordering clothes from websites that do not allow users to post reviews. Theses companies are multi million dollar places and it would take thousands only to get your website to allow this. I think therefore, that if you choose not to have reviews you are hiding, plain and simple.

  9. I tend to agree with everyone’s comments and Kat’s advice. However, having spent a good deal of time working retail I do have to disagree with the lots of colors/sizes left = something wrong. I know that especially with fall/winter/holiday items things can go on super clearance not because of low sales but because of the retail timetable. I saw this happen all the time with things like sweaters and winter coats — the store buyers overestimated the need and the items didn’t sale in August or September when first introduced and come January the items are 60% off to make room for the spring merchandise. Something to keep in mind.

    • SF Bay Associate :

      This was my experience working retail as well. Could be a very nice item, but the buyer ordered too much or too late, or the weather got warmer/colder sooner/later than expected, and the stores need to make room for what’s coming in next.

      • I got a steal on a classic Burberry trench recently because it came in too late. Ithought it was funny since they’ll have the same one in the spring collection.

  10. The only tea leaves I might trust are user reviews, and even then I still would not buy clothes I could not return unworn. I find user reviews on clothes useful where people on things like whether they hold up or pill in the wash, and whether they have features like an exposed zipper that are not apparent from the website photos. I find comments on shoes to be unhelpful, because often comments on the same shoe will be equal parts “true to size,” “runs large,” and “runs small.”

  11. I never buy final sale unless I know, for a fact, that the item will work for me or I can repurpose it somehow.
    I also prefer to only buy from free shipping/free return places; second best is somewhere where I can at least return in-store.
    When I am shopping in-person at places I know I may order from, I try to try on a few things I may not intend to buy. E.g., at Talbots or Jcrew — because they have such fab sales — I will try on a couple of shirts/blazers/shoes per season, and then will check back to see if something I liked went on super clearance.
    Last but not least, I only buy if I can see the item from multiple angles, zoom in, etc. Any item where the model is making an odd pose and you can’t see half the item is usually trouble.
    Agree with others that user reviews help, but only within limits. I recently ordered some stuff from Garnet Hill & while everyone raved about both items, I found them to be awful. One dress that everyone described as super flattering & forgiving made me look like I was 5 months along. So I take what others consider “forgiving” with a grain of salt.

    • LOL about user reviews and how something raved about is awful.

      How people think Athleta is good quality is beyond me. Everything I’ve ever bought from there was over $100 for something that looked like I could the same quality for $30 somewhere like target or the gap. For $100 my yoga pants can be lululemon and hemmed to my perfect height. ANd I can go to a store and try them on. Athleta is the website that made me realize that I really cannot trust other people’s reviews, especially on quality of the garment.

      • somewherecold :

        I’m with you anon. Although I had surprisingly good luck with their bathing suits last spring, buying clothing from Athleta this past fall made me vow to stop buying from sites that don’t have free shipping and returns.

        • And I’ve had the exact opposite experience! I own several items from Athleta and love them all – they all get heavy use and have held up wonderfully. Admittedly, we’re talking actual athletic clothes here – I haven’t tried any of their dresses, etc., but I’ve had such good luck with their other things I’d really like to.

          I do wish they had actual stores, though. I’d love to be able to try things on.

      • Ugh, this! I ordered my first pair of Athleta pants just last week after I read good reviews. They were horrid! They cost close to $80 and were the quality I would expect from Target’s C9 collection (or worse!). They are going right on back!

        • I really think that Target has the best value for workout clothes. You won’t find anything too unique but oftentimes they’ll have pants in several different fits and lengths.

    • I haven’t bought anything from Boden because they always seem to exclude sale items from free shipping promotions. IMHO Interbet deals are no longer great deals if you get stuck paying for shipping and return shipping.

  12. If the cut makes the model look stumpy, I know to avoid it.

    If all those 4 and 5 star reviews are worded so closely that they could have been written by the same person. I am getting very leery of the reviews posted at store sites. They do not have to post negative reviews if they don’t want to (And some don’t. I know from first hand experience.)

    Blog surfing, especially blogs by individuals who post pictures. I love seeing clothes on real bodies. That gives me a much better idea of the fit. Maybe not the quality but at least I can see that if something looks great on someone 5’11”, I know to it may not work for my short self. But this one is usually a long shot as tastes vary so much.

    Oh, I won’t buy anything that doesn’t list the fabric contents.

    • Fabric content is a good point! What is your experience with not posting negative reviews?

      • Having worked with several online companies, I can attest that many “scrub” their site for bad reviews (delete them altogether or edit out text that they don’t like). Sad, but true.

        • I can 100% say I’ve left multiple bad reviews on banana republic’s website that somehow disappeared or never got published.

          At that point I stopped buying from them.

          • Wow, good to know!
            Merry R., that’s a great idea – do a search on the garment name and brand, many bloggers these days post the exact garment name and brand next to each outfit picture.

  13. To figure out fit, lately I’ve done the customer representative chat and asked for garment measurements. Once I know how big the actual garment is, its much easier to figure out sizing and fit.

    I also tend to do a first run through of a site and open in new tabs anything that I find cute and within 20% of the “budget” that I’ve set for myself. I then go through and eliminate items that on closer inspection really aren’t that cute or not my style. Next I do the same thing but with price in mind to weed out things that while cute, just aren’t cute enough to buy quite at that price point. Then I WALK AWAY. I give myself a break from the computer so I won’t be overloaded. After a couple of hours I return and see if whatever is left (usually 6-8 items) come in my size. Then its a matter of figuring out what fits in with my style and current wardrobe. Lastly, before I buy I check Google and other sites ( for store coupons or free shipping coupons. Sometimes I get lucky. Only after ALL of that is done, do I order.

    • Yes, A-C! I agree – walk away, and give yourself time to think. Do I think about the item after I’ve left the store or my computer? Is it truly a good deal? Oftentimes, that simple step keeps me from buying stuff I’d order and soon regret.

      • And if I’m home, my thinking tends to happen in my closet. I stand there and look at all that I’ve already got and try to figure out what that I already own would go with what I’m coveting online.

  14. I tend to disagree with the lots of sizes/color advice. I just bought the most FABULOUS silk blouses off Pendelton’s website and there were TONS of sizes left, my guess is because a) not that many people buy blouses from Pendelton in general and b) I think the company doesn’t really cater to my demographic, so the sizes that people in my demographic might have were still available. I think something similar is true at Brooks Brothers, with the added element of the fact that their sale model seems to be to stock lots of sizes and colors randomly- there have been many times a 4 or 6 is out of stock in the clearance section, but suddenly 1-2 months later there are sizes 2-8.

    In terms of reviews, I don’t mind having reviews, but honestly I don’t go by them too much. I know that one person’s holy grail item is another’s garbage bag, and everybody has different standards/expectations/etc. The only time I will listen to reviews is if there are tons of them and they are more or less all of one type. Then I am sometimes convinced to avoid buying (depending on the price) or further motivated to buy (also depending on price… that tends to be the biggest factor for me, followed by other things some commenters have mentioned such as fabric content, whether or not I know the brand’s size will work, etc.).

    • lawyerette :

      Frump – was this blouse one of them? I highly recommend these, I paid $50+ for them before and they are totally worth it. I found sizing to be like JCrew jacket sizes:

      • YES, oh goodness, YES. I don’t think I’ve ever loved a blouse so much. I just wish desperately they came in even more colors. I bought the white and black (will likely buy another white one because I love it so much and I can always use white blouses), but I wish the other colors would look a little better on my complexion- I just don’t think any of the others really would. The best part was that I paid $31 each, which is a freaking steal, but I too agree they are worth an even higher price. I may actually try to get a tailor to copy this blouse in other fabrics of my own choosing just because I think it is so great.

        I would compare the sizing to Brooks Brother’s sizing. I have heard Pendelton runs a little bigger (BB can too sometimes), so I bought a 4 in the blouse (in other things I would say I am on average a 6 to 8), and the 4’s fit perfectly (I wear a 4 in BB dresses/blouses as well).

        I wore the black one today and felt great, not to mention it was so nice to feel modestly, but well, dressed without a cardigan for once!

      • Thank you Frump and lawyerette for the recommendation. This is a beautiful blouse, and I’m planning on buying the white one bsaed on your recommendations.

  15. Chris in LA :

    Thank you for pointing me back to Pendleton. I orbit the site from time to time but a trip to a store turned me off. Matronly was definitely the theme there. But there are a few really cute pieces and some decent looking classics online.

    Thanks for the fit info (not)Frump. I also fit a BB size 4 pretty perfectly.

  16. Lawyering Mom :

    I order online all the time. I really like to get suits and work dresses on I’ve had great luck with that site and have found great suits for under $100 (including tops, sometimes)! I do like to read a few reviews to get a sense of sizing though (and quality if I’m not familiar with the brand).

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