What Not to Buy at Amazon.com

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Last Updated Sep 19, 2011 5:02 PM EDT

This article is part of a package on consumers and Amazon.com. Read the other article, on what you should buy at Amazon.com.

A pioneer in online retail, Amazon has stayed on top with stellar customer service and convenient return policies, and by constantly increasing its selection. But just because you can buy anything on Amazon doesn't mean you should. Here are several products that for reasons of price, quality, or environmental impact you'd be better off getting somewhere else.

Whatever you purchase, keep in mind that not everything you buy on Amazon.com is actually sold by Amazon. Read the fine print to see if an item ships from an external vendor (it's noted on the item description). If an item doesn't come directly from the Internet giant, you'll be subject to the policies of that other company — which might have longer shipping times and less helpful service, says Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillanDoolittle, a retail consulting firm. Third party sellers also set their own prices, according to an Amazon spokesperson, and so what they charge may not be as competitive as items Amazon sells itself.

1. Groceries

You can now order everything from cereal to canned salmon through Amazon Grocery — but filling a virtual grocery cart can cost more and force you to buy more than you need. If you have children, then yes, you may go through a lot of Heinz Ketchup — but that's all the more reason to be price conscious. A 20-ounce bottle costs $2.85 on FreshDirect and $2.39 on Peapod, but more than twice as much — $5.99 — on Amazon via an external vendor. A 28-ounce can of Bush's Original Baked Beans sells for $ 1.84 a can (sold in a four-pack) at regional grocery chain Meijer, but $2.75 a can on Amazon — and you have to buy a dozen. And aren't your reusable shopping totes far better for the environment than all those cardboard shipping boxes?

2. Hardware and Hand Tools

Pliers and socket wrenches and drills are usually bought on a need-to-use basis by weekend DIYers who have a short work window. So even though Amazon's prices are generally good, is buying online worth the wait when Lowe's is open until 10 p.m.? More importantly, a hands-on approach is often best for evaluating tools. "I need to see the quality and the heft of the implements and how they fit in my hand," says Richard Brandt, do-it-yourselfer and author of One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com.

3. Home Furnishings

Tools aren't the only products that benefit from being held and seen. Whether you're buying water glasses or a lamp or throw pillows, heft and feel are important. And then there is the issue of taste. "Amazon has a lower price point, but there's a lack of style and a lack of point of view," says San Francisco interior designer Martha Angus, of Martha Angus Inc., voicing an opinion shared by many other designers. "I've never bought there."
Instead, when Angus uses the Web, her go-to sites include CB2, West Elm, and Jonathan Adler, where she can count on sight-unseen quality. Cost-conscious design professionals also love style-savvy sites such as OneKingsLane, RueLaLa, and GiltGroupe, which offer designers' own unused inventory or overstock in one- or two-day flash sales with up to 70 percent off.

4. Cleaning Supplies

Stick to your warehouse club or supermarket for cleaning supplies. Even with free shipping and Subscribe and Save, Amazon just isn't competitive in this category. For example, All's Small & Mighty Free Clear 32-load liquid laundry detergent costs $6.99 in Albertson's supermarkets versus $12.75 on Amazon via a third-party seller, while a 32-ounce bottle of Murphy's Oil Soap that sells for $4.99 at Albertson's will run you $5.85 on Amazon. And the brick-and-mortar stores have a real strongman in Mr. Clean: Amazon sells a 28-ounce bottle of Summer Citrus cleaner for $8.61 — while Albertson's sells 40 ounces of the same thing for just $3.99.

Photo courtesy of Flick user Aurelijus Valeisa

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