I used to buy most of my drugstore items online. One reason was convenience — I typically have to go to two or three stores to find everything I use, especially since I favor earth- and people-friendly personal care items. But health food stores don’t always carry other basics we use, so I wind up going to a few stores depending on what I need to buy. The other reason was rebates and airline miles. I liked the cash back deals and was working toward rewards flights to Europe.
But I fell out of the habit of ordering online about a year ago, and as I was searching online for a product I couldn’t find in the stores, I started to wonder: Is buying online a better deal than buying in the store?
It’s difficult to compare the two. For one thing, there are people who are master coupon clippers. They can walk into a store on a special sales day with their binder full of quadruple coupons and pay two cents for more than $380 of merchandise. And speaking of sales, getting a better deal might just depend on which retailer is running a great buy-one-get-one-free sale since both online and in-store retailers run promotions.
But I’m too lazy to bother with coupons, or maybe I’d rather spend my time in other ways (yeah, that sounds better, we’ll go with that excuse). I read those inspirational stories and think, “Today is the day I will become a coupon clipper!” That resolve lasts for about a week. Usually I clip five coupons and never redeem them. I find them two months after they expire when I clean out my purse.
What I really wanted to know is this: if I bought 20 or so of my regular drugstore items online, how would my bill compare with buying those same items in-store?
To answer my question, I made a list of items I regularly use, such as soap, laundry detergent, dish soap, sponges, sunblock lotion, toothpaste, floss, etc.
I looked up the price of each item on Drugstore.com and then went to Whole Foods and Walgreens to compare the online price with the in-store price. Here were the results:
Since I wanted the best price I could get for each item if I purchased it today, I used the sales price if an item was on sale. According to the prices I found, I’d save $8.39 by purchasing through the online drugstore (shipping is free on orders totaling more than $25).
Coupons, cash back offer even more savings
But the savings doesn’t end there. A 10-second Google search for “drugstore.com” and “coupon” turned up a coupon code for $10 off an order of $80 or more, bringing my online order down to $104.83, a savings of $18.39.
Next are the rebates. Drugstore.com offers Drugstore.com Dollars, which is a rebate program that currently gives you 5% back on every eligible purchase you make during a calendar quarter. You have one month to spend your credit. For example, if I bought $300 in eligible products between July and September, I’d earn $15 off my first order in October.
Although I never remember to use coupons, I always used my Drugstore.com Dollars because I ordered regularly and they were automatically applied to my first eligible order. You also can opt-in on reminder e-mails that let you know when you have rebate dollars and when they’ll expire. If we count these future savings, that’s an additional $5.24 off the order total, bringing it to $99.59.
Keep the rebates coming
If you shop online, you really should have an eBates account. Founded in 1998, eBates offers cash back on online purchases from more than 1,200 participating retailers. Every quarter you’re mailed a rebate check or the money is transferred to your PayPal account. It’s free to sign up and free to use — eBates receives a commission from the stores when you make a purchase and shares it with you.
Right now eBates offers 6% back on purchases from drugstore.com. Since the total purchase was $104.83, I’d get a rebate of $6.29 next quarter, bringing my total order to $93.30. That’s a savings of $30.02, or approximately 24%, over buying in-store. Of course that figure includes the rebates from the online retailer and eBates, savings that won’t be realized until next quarter.
A professional coupon clipper could beat my savings, but like I said, I’m going with what would work for me. This method only requires me to search for a coupon code and login to eBates before making a purchase, two steps that take less than 5 minutes to complete. The rest is handled automatically.
Of course price isn’t the only aspect to consider, but I suspect I could make myself crazy if I throw in too many variables, such as:
- What about the money I might save in gas, assuming I left the house only to buy drugstore products?
- Is online really more convenient? Sure, it comes to your front door, but sometimes the wait time isn’t convenient if you need something right away.
- What about environmental effects of shipping? And is it more important to buy local or to drive less? (As I said, I have to go to two or three stores to find everything I need, and I live 35 minutes from the nearest Whole Foods.)
- If I don’t have a locally-owned drugstore near me, is buying from Walgreens any different from buying from drugstore.com? (Apparently it’s now the same company.)
Because it’s so difficult to quantify and compare the effects of my single purchase, I simply stuck to price for the purposes of this comparison, which showed that for these 18 products, buying online yielded the greatest savings, both immediately and after rebates.
Typically I only comparison shop when making a big-ticket purchase, such as a camera or a laptop, or when choosing an insurance policy or considering a different credit card. But saving $30 on one drugstore purchase is significant, especially because I’ll be making a similar purchase in a couple of months or so. I think I’ll be a regular Drugstore.com customer again, and I’m wondering, do any of you make drugstore purchases online, and do you save more money that way, or is it a matter of convenience? Besides drugstore items, are there products you’ve discovered are cheaper depending on whether you buy them online or in-store?
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