Because "The one that I want to buy" is not a search phrase.
December 4, 2015 6:40 AM   Subscribe

I think I'm losing my online shopping skills. It's exhausting me, and unfortunately I strongly prefer to order online. In a sea of purchasing options, how do you find what you want at the best price without visiting multiple sites and spending half the day comparing prices and reviews? Or flipping through a hundred pages on Amazon? Is there someone aggregating this stuff? I'm not talking about fun things like Christmas gifts or personal shopping, I'm talking boring stuff. Examples within.


-I need bathroom sconces. I want to not pay too much, have them suit my taste, and not be presented with five thousand potential sconces to look at and not visit a hundred websites. I could pay between $19.99 and $300 for bathroom lighting. How can I narrow all this down?

-I want to buy a wood chipper. What's an appropriate price to pay for a wood chipper? What's a good wood chipper? Who makes good wood chippers? I could spend two hours researching wood chippers but I need those two hours because I have to look for bathroom lighting.

-Ditto the above for a lightweight battery powered chainsaw.

How do you handle this:
a) Just go to Amazon, pick the best reviewed and order it.
b) Just go to Lowe's, pick whatever, order it.
c) Just go to Overstock, pick whatever, order it.
d) Go to Wayfair, pick whatever, order it.
e) Go to a single store, pick something. Buy it.
f) Give up and just buy Thing 1 at Destination 1.

I am finding myself overwhelmed by half the purchases I make unless I know to a T what I want when I start out. I don't want All of The Things or All of the Options. I want a finite assortment of well made, interestingly styled, decently priced things to choose from in a reasonable range of styles and features and to not feel suckered that I paid too much (which is what I often do, I think, because I get stressed and just want to get the purchase made.)

Essentially, I want to pick from like maybe thirty products. Not like 'all of the products in this particular category throughout the internet'.

Do you have any go-tos that narrow shopping options down and make this faster, simpler, and less personally resource intensive? RSS feeds, aggregation sites, Google shopping searches, personal preferences for sites....anything?

I don't know why this is wearing me out -- I guess I've been doing kind of a lot of it lately.
posted by A Terrible Llama to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
It won't limit you to 30, but at least all you to aggregate and put in a price limit. Try froogle.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:42 AM on December 4, 2015

Here are bathroom sconces from 19 to 30. Of course if looking at these makes you decide you only want chrome or wood or whatever, you can narrow it down further.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:44 AM on December 4, 2015

It depends on the item. If long term durability is a concern, I go to consumer reports. For most others, Amazon (in terms of the popularity, not the actual reviews themselves), the WireCutter, sweetHome, and ConsumerSearch. For something like sconces, where the market is very fragmented and I need a specific size, Wayfair. I also don't worry so much if it's a low investment.
posted by snickerdoodle at 6:50 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

The Wirecutter was built with this problem in mind. For each product category, they survey the field and pick out the 1 best option to purchase. They describe their survey process and how they came to their decision.

They don't cover every product category. I doubt they have wall sconces and I don't know whether they have chainsaws. They also don't do much price comparison -- they pretty much link to Amazon for purchases. But I've still found it to be a great help when searching for something like a monitor, where there are literally hundreds of options and I don't even know how to begin choosing.
posted by alms at 6:56 AM on December 4, 2015 [12 favorites]

I have a few different approaches to this:
- Google for "Best woodchippers" and find someone who has reviewed a load of them. Pick one from the article. This is how I got my TV.
- Ask a group of friends (e.g. on Facebook) if anyone bought a woodchipper recently and recommends it. The first person who can recommend one that looks like it would do, buy it.
- For some specific kinds of things, have a go-to store that has a good choice of those things and buy the best one there. Like, for a drill I would go to Screwfix.
posted by emilyw at 6:56 AM on December 4, 2015

Maybe The Sweet Home would help?
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:11 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

One thing I do when I'm overwhelmed by choices online is make sure to select 'Show All' if it's available, and luckily it usually is. The images get tiny but I can scroll through a ton FAST. Looking at 20 pages of similar items is mind-numbing and I just know the perfect one is on the next page I haven't looked at. When I see one I'm interested in I control-click to open it in a new tab so I'm not going back and forth, some websites lose my place on the long page of goods and that's annoying. I may have a bunch of tabs open but as I view I discard ones I notice don't fit my needs immediately.

I go to amazon first, then if I don't see quite what I want I head over to or google the item. If I find it elsewhere, I open a new tab and google the exact product name and number to check the price is fair and that reviews are similar elsewhere too. I don't do much store shopping anymore either, prices and selection are so much better online these days.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 7:16 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, it may help to do a mental reframe where you are counting your own time and energy as something valuable. If the shopping is taking too long and causing you anguish, then you are paying too much. It might be worth it to shell out more actual dollars on something, even if its not The Best Deal, simply to save your own time.

I used to buy all my jeans from thrift stores or places like Marshall's, cause jeans are expensive but you can often find ones in quite good condition for way less money. The problem with that strategy is that it can be very difficult to find a good pair -- you have to sort through many that are not the right size or color, it means looking for jeans every time you go to a thrift store, etc. But then I realized that I can go to Macy's, find the spot on the wall with my exact size and favorite color, try on a pair, and be done in about 5 min. Bonus points if there's a sale. To me, this time and energy savings is absolutely worth the extra $50.

Granted, budget constraints may not always allow this kind of calculation -- sometimes you really have to put in the leg work to find the best deal. But thinking this way may help you have some compassion for yourself that allows you to break out of the trap of endless shopping in search of the best deal.
posted by cubby at 7:27 AM on December 4, 2015 [12 favorites]

One thing that helps me with decision fatigue is doing a lot of shopping exclusively at Costco. They don't stock crap, the prices are good for the quality. The downside is that the selection is small so this really only works when they have something in the category of item that you need. And it won't help you for bathroom sconces or woodchippers based on my quick search.

Another thing that helps me with the decision fatigue is to remember that I don't need to get The Best [Thingie], and I don't need to pay the lowest possible price. I just want A Good [Thingie], maybe within 15% or so of the best price. There are lots more Good [Thingies] than Best [Thingies], so look for a Good [Thingie] that works for you.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:33 AM on December 4, 2015 [6 favorites]

I've found that the more necessary or boring I find an object, or the more specific my requirements for that object are, the harder it is to shop for it. I can buy any old pair of shoes in my sleep, but if I'm looking for, say, a pair of slip-proof winter boots, it can take me weeks. It's always been like this, whether I shop online or in person.

If I'm really lost, I prefer to ask friends (or Metafilter) for personal recommendations; the more recommendations I get for a specific product, the more confident I am in my purchase. If not, I start at more specialized shopping sites (Sconces-R-Us or wherever) rather than Amazon, or I'll see if I can find a thing-specific site/forum with product reviews that seem trustworthy rather than shill-y. If that doesn't produce a short list of specific items for me to buy, it at least gives me an idea of terms to search for. I don't worry about comparison shopping for the best price until after I've figured out the exact thing (or a choice of two or three) I want to buy.

I've also found that the more agonizing I put into trying to find the perfect thing at the absolute best price, the more likely I am to be disappointed in my purchase. This is especially true if I focus on finding the best deal above all else: maybe I'll save $30, but the size will be a little off or I'll hate the color. Sometimes having the thing you like, or just having the decision made, is worth the extra money.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:37 AM on December 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

For stuff like the wood chipper, or appliances where performance and value matter more than subjective factors, definitely go to Consumer Reports or Wirecutter (The Sweet Home is a Wirecutter property).

For stuff where personal taste comes in to play, like the sconces, or clothes, I find it helps tremendously to think about my criteria before I start looking. Like, sconces. I may not know exactly what I want, but I can figure out what light level I need, and what color of metal, and what general style (modern, traditional, arts & crafts) is congruous with the home. Then, when I go to look at light fixtures I can immediately home in on the ones that fit my criteria instead of staring at a showroom or website full of fixtures and only then asking "oh God how do I narrow this down."
posted by mama casserole at 7:39 AM on December 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

I bought some lighting recently. I went to Lowes and HD and did not like any of what they had. Online it was worse. It is hard to tell the proportions, colors, finishes on metal and glass and overall quality. I think lighting is a product type where online shopping is very weak in spite of those lighting specific sites.

So my advice with lighting is to no let the difficulties in finding lighting make you feel down on yourself.

For a wood chipper and chainsaws, I rent them. I've also used a sawzall with an aggressive blade to cut small branches under 4" diameter.
posted by bdc34 at 7:45 AM on December 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

Get a subscription to Consumer Reports to help you pick the best thing. Honestly, that's my go-to for ratings on woodchippers, TVs, toilet paper, etc. They rate EVERYTHING!

As for things like sconces, you sort of have to be able to narrow it down first, to get a manageable number to choose from. So Mid-century, Modern, Antique, chrome. Any descriptive will help. Luckily, most sites have a thing where if you like something, it will also show you 10 other things similar to it.

At some point you have to accept that you won't be sorting through an infinite number of things. I thought I'd lose my mind trying to find a Unicorn TV stand (higher than 30", not too wide, not ugly, will go with my Danish Modern furniture.) I had an idea of what I wanted and I was able to find the exact right thing, for $120 at So it can happen, and it doesn't have to cost the earth.

Just don't make yourself crazy. So you buy the second best something, or you pay a few bucks also got to get outside and play in leaves.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:06 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Similarly to sparklemotion's advice, it might help to reframe this around whether you want/need to be a Satisficer or a Maximizer in a particular shopping situation.

I'm definitely more of a Maximizer, and online shopping can really make the urge to maximize into an infinite quest.

For things that are expensive and need to be durable, like the wood chipper or the chainsaw, I would consult Consumer Reports (you may have free access through your local library), SweetHome/The Wirecutter and any friends that have bought one recently.

Shopping for light fixtures is just an effing nightmare, full stop. You want something you like because you're going to look at it forever and you don't want to pay insane prices and there are literally thousands of light fixtures that all look pretty much the same, which is to say, utterly fug. That said, I've had some success with Destination Lighting, especially their own brand.

Alternatively, I found shopping for lighting a bit easier in person at some point because there were less choices to face.

More food for thought: maybe online shopping is just as time-consuming that in person shopping? I don't know of any websites where you can actually buy things that meet your criteria, but there probably are some IRL stores that do.

Regardless, shopping for household goods like these falls under emotional labor, imo, and it can be exhausting.
posted by purple_bird at 9:58 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I mix eBay & Amazon for my research when I'm buying something. I first go to eBay and search for the category of item I want looking for used, I watch which ones are being bid on and look those up on Amazon for the reviews.
The bonus here is finding something used/new condition on eBay for a fraction of the price.
posted by IpsoFacto at 10:54 AM on December 4, 2015

I use Amazon for this - filtering all reviews to 4+ stars, and then choosing the second most expensive one if it's reasonable and within my budget.
posted by teststrip at 11:06 AM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Get a subscription to Consumer Reports to help you pick the best thing.

Or get a library card. My public library provides free online access to consumer reports. Maybe yours does, too.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:01 PM on December 4, 2015

The reason it's difficult is because a lot of these things are not easily shoppable from your butt, unless you already know what you want.

For lighting: We ended up going to Lowe's (which had a better lighting selection than The Home Depot, and for a decently fair price) and picking up a bunch of lamp shades and returning the ones we didn't like.

We originally looked at endless online sites and got exhausted. So we just went to a store. The store had limited options, so we had limited options.

Ugh. I don't think there's an easy way to shop for lighting. (If only!)

For the woodchipper: We recently bought a gas powered chainsaw. We went to several stores, but the best one we went to was a tool sales and rental place. We told them our use case, and they told us the recommendation and a step up and a step down recommendation. They also made sure we knew how to take care of it and bought the tools/materials to take care of it properly. I feel that for a woodchipper you probably want to go a similar route.

I did try to do research online, but it was extremely difficult. Also, having bought the chainsaw from an actual store, you get way better maintenance/warranty. We haven't had to use it yet, beyond "which chainsaw oil should I get?" but basically you no longer have to do research for every subsequent purchase.

For the lightweight powered chainsaw: I imagine that The Wirecutter of The Sweet Home might have a suggestion? If not, check your library for a copy of The Consumer Reports.
posted by ethidda at 12:44 PM on December 4, 2015

for lighting I like, but you'll definitely be sorting through a lot of search results -- it helps to have as many filters as possible (nickel, or modern, or whatever). unlike, say, the chainsaw, you probably have a mental image of what you want visually for a light, in which case those are the times I just make space for myself to look at as many pages as I need to find the right thing. do it in front of the TV in the evening so it's not sucking your Life Time.
posted by acm at 1:06 PM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'll tell you one thing that our electrician told us about sconces. Get the kind that screw in from the face of the fixture, into the wall, rather than through some fancy plate/side screw mechanism. You can screw them directly into the wall, and if you look at them from the side, there's no chance of them gapping.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:15 PM on December 4, 2015

I use this process:

1. Think about much I care about the item. If I care, go to 2a. If I don't care that much, go to 2b.

2a. Read The Wirecutter and The Sweet Home and choose between their recommended pick and their budget pick. If the item isn't reviewed on either of those sites, go to 2b.

2b. Go to Amazon or Wayfair, filter by price range and reviews, and pick one.

3. If it turns out that I don't like the item I got using step 2a or 2b, return it and start over. No need to stress - it's just stuff.
posted by jcatus at 2:11 PM on December 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

I often post on Facebook or a local parenting listserv and get my friends to give me advice about things I want to purchase. I love to research certain things, but other things- meh, and most people love to give advice. I also, as I have gotten older, found myself relying on old favorites- for instance after buying multiple appliances that didn't last longer than 5/7 years, I now buy everything at Sears and get a service plan. I also take advantage of return policies. I don't buy things on Amazon unless I am 99% sure I won't return it- it I am not sure about the product I will either buy it locally or buy it from an online place that allows local returns.
posted by momochan at 9:18 AM on December 5, 2015

My process is:

Google the general category of Thing that I want.

Is there a buying guide for Thing in the first 10 results?
Is it current? If not, add the year to my search terms to find a current buying guide.
Read the buying guide to figure out what qualities I should be looking for in the Thing.

If there's no buying guide, scan the domains that come up. Pick 3ish to look at -- usually Amazon, some retailer that specializes in Things (Things-R-Us) and something that's a little more general purpose (Home Depot). If a discounter like Overstock comes up, pick that too.

Quickly scan the first page of search results on each of those pages to get an overview of different types of Things and approximate price range.

Pick a type of Thing -- it might be a size or a general style or a subset of things. Search for that type of Thing on each of the four sites I have picked to find ones that I meet and narrow down to a model number.

Go back to google and search the model number. But it from wherever it is cheapest, unless that place is super sketchy, in which case, but it from whichever non-sketchy website is cheapest.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:26 AM on December 6, 2015

For your examples, I would go to Convenient Chain Store, pick out my favorite, and then do a cursory online search for something better/ cheaper. If something appears in five minutes, yay! If not, then buy the backup.
posted by metasarah at 2:13 PM on December 6, 2015

Apologies in advance for any ramblingness, and for rounding numbers to make easier math for me.

My best friend is one of the biggest tightwads I've ever met....on some things. Makes me crazy. His biggest deal is fuel economy. He's going to drive 55 mph no matter what because he read somewhere that car engines, even today in the land of 70+ mph interstates, are made to be the most fuel-efficient at 55 mph. He currently drives me everywhere because Reasons. We keep having this discussion time and time again about saving money vs saving time.

When he's at work, he earns $15/hr. When I'm in front of a client, I average about $50/hr. Granted, neither of us is working 24/7, but it makes discussions like this make sense. If he's driving 55, where I'd drive 75, he's wasting 20 minutes of every hour. Three hours, and an hour's wasted. So every three hours, that's $65 down the drain. He did some kind of ├╝bermath once and decided he was saving some ridiculously small percentage (which I don't remember off the top of my head) of the cost per gallon of gas. I'm going to be generous and use 25%. Current price per gallon here is ~$1.80. He's saving $0.45 per gallon. Car gets ~30 mpg highway. Over the course of a tank of gas (14 gallons), he's saving $6.30. When I worked out all the numbers and went over them in painstaking detail, he finally agreed to drive 75 mph, at least when I'm in the car with him.

How much time are you wasting, trying to get the best deal? How much money are you throwing away vs how much are you saving? I used to spend hours, just like you, trying to find the best deal, to save the most money. Then I heard a mentor speaking one day, and she talked about HER mentor pointing out how much money she was losing by scrubbing her own toilets. It made me take a hard look at some things I was doing that were 100% counter-productive, like spending hours to save pennies.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 8:09 AM on December 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

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