Part III: How to Make Smarter Purchases

This article is the final installment of a three-part series covering the development and landscape of the online return cycle, the negative environmental and consumer impacts of the system, and how you can make smarter purchasing decisions to break the cycle.

As consumers, we take a variety of factors into consideration when deciding to purchase an item—from design and function, to cost and convenience—but what are the most important details to evaluate when making the best purchase choice? 

Online shopping has become the norm for many consumers, but behind the sleek, enticing websites, shoppers should have a full understanding of the downsides it can come with: staggering return rates, planned obsolescence, and product depreciation—all of which can be exacerbated by inaccurate and deceptive listing practices. These negatives lead to more damage to both our wallets and the environment, but learning what to look for and avoid from online retailers can help you make lasting purchases that are better for everyone. 

Read on to discover the main considerations to take into account for a product’s quality, design, and longevity, as well as how to evaluate a company prior to making a purchase.

Customer Service

In today’s eCommerce landscape, online retailers have to balance environmental sustainability, competitive pricing, and responsive return policies while providing consumers with the best products, service, and overall experience. Retailers that offer responsive chat or email assistance give shoppers the opportunity to easily ask questions about a product before purchasing, ensuring you know exactly what you’re getting and avoiding the hassle of returning an item that doesn't meet your expectations.

how to make smarter purchases

Though it’s a plus for shoppers when companies offer a free return/exchange policy, understanding and having access to all the information you need to make an informed decision prior to buying will eliminate the need for a return. A free return policy doesn’t always prove that a company stands behind their product, nor is it the most important marker of a quality product or service. More often than not, a free return policy is a prerequisite for retailers to have any success in today’s online marketplace.

Smaller companies can often provide more personalized customer service using in-house employees, than retail giants. They’re also more likely to offer repair parts and services, be flexible in meeting your needs, and have knowledge on their product options and capabilities. These customer service strengths mean you’re more likely to get the perfect product for your needs. Online customer service specialists with the right tools are as apt at directing you to the products you’re looking for as a salesperson at a physical retail store.

Choosing a company that specializes in products for specific markets is another way to support an industry you care about, as well as promoting more diversity of products over time. Shopping smaller is shopping smarter—for you, retailers, and the environment. 

Repairability

Whether out of necessity or due to planned obsolescence, many companies are turning to replacement sales models rather than offering repair parts and services. Unfortunately, planned obsolescence—or intentionally reducing a product’s lifespan to boost recurring sales—has become an accepted practice in many manufacturing and marketing loops.

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The nature of certain products—namely electronics—means acknowledging that they will have a limited lifespan. With technological advances, the devices we use are continually becoming more complex and repairing them becomes infeasible after a point. Despite these complexities, there are attributes to keep in mind when considering a company’s overall product quality. 

When researching a product, look for companies that use durable materials, quality construction, and have modular components. Is the product designed for repair? Seek out companies that acknowledge if some parts of a product may wear out over time and are open about what that time frame looks like. For example, an LED fixture may not be equipped to have the light source replaced, but LEDs have a lifespan of 50,000 hours, or the equivalent of having the light on for 24 hours per day for nearly 6 years, or for 4 hours per day for 34 years. Take time to read reviews when possible, and look for goods that have a history of resisting wear and tear over time and outlasting lesser products. 

Timeless Design 

Though it may be tempting to indulge in the hottest trends, you’ll end up spending more money and wasting resources in the long run. A truly classic design won't become dated and can even improve with age. 

Beyond short-lived styles, the reality of trend-based products is often the use of cheaper materials and manufacturing practices. When companies know their products only need to last through a finite trend, they produce them as cheaply as possible, and the results are often disappointing and end in a return.

In contrast to the physical deterioration of a product through planned obsolescence, psychological obsolescence is when companies create the perception that a product is old or outdated even when it still works. This phenomenon is closely linked to cyclically changing trends that end in obsolescence, leading customers to feel as though their still-functioning items appear unfashionable or out-of-place. By choosing products with a clean visual aesthetic, you can ensure longevity for your purchases knowing they’ll never go out of style. 

Innovative Construction

Though durability is a key aspect in choosing a product worth investing in, innovative design can also extend the life of a product in unexpected ways. Look for products that have the potential to adapt to new technology or functions, can be easily outfitted with upgrades, and are designed to last longer. Products with inventive construction often come from manufacturers that invest in research on what consumers will need as technology progresses. These companies design products that will have a longer lifecycle and provide better value for your purchase. 

Look for products that are patented or patent pending—original manufacturers often use higher-quality materials and processes that result in more durable products with more useful life, whereas retailers who buy less expensive imitations haven’t invested the time to create an innovative product with the potential to evolve with a customer’s needs.

Essential Takeaways 

When it comes to making an online purchase, a bit of research up front will save you time and money in the long run—not to mention the environmental benefits to sustainably sourcing your products.

Remember to examine product listings thoroughly. Review all images and videos, making sure they’re consistent, show all angles, and offer close-ups of key product elements. However, don’t rely on photos alone—read the descriptions, diagrams, and installation instructions to ensure the seller is accurately reflecting the features, functions, and dimensions. Be wary of descriptions that don’t match the specific item on display or leave out essential details and don’t be afraid to ask questions or for additional images of a product in use.

Despite doing adequate research, you still might end up with a product that you’ve decided doesn’t meet your original needs. In these cases, ask yourself a few questions before initiating a return that could end up in the landfill: can you donate it to a friend or non-profit? Can you sell it to someone else? Can you use it for another purpose than originally intended? Can you upcycle the item into something that fulfills a different need?  

Shifting your shopping behaviors to understand when and why you’re driven to buy an item will lead you to make fewer returns and enjoy more longevity in the things you buy. Seek out retailers with proven customer service, high ratings, a history of durability, and inventive design practices, and consider what may lead to—and the consequences of—a return before you purchase an item based on convenience or impulse.

To learn more about the development of our current online return cycle and the environmental and economic impact of the system, explore parts one and two of this series.

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