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Consumer Reports

Deal or no deal: When it really pays to buy online

You can buy practically anything online, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always want to — or ought to, according to Consumer Reports.

The convenience is undeniable, of course, but the matter of cost is still very much a question. About 71 percent of products are essentially priced the same online and in-store, according to a recent study by Anthem Marketing Solutions. When there was a difference, the online product was cheaper 72 percent of the time.

But stores have advantages that the virtual world can’t match: opportunities for shoppers to touch, see and size up the goods and to walk away with a purchase.

Consumer Reports asked its experts and industry analysts about the things you should buy online — and when you’re better off with a trip to the store.

5 THINGS TO BUY ONLINE

1. Electronics. In addition to the fact that you’ll find a much wider selection online, more than two-thirds of electronics are cheaper when purchased on the Internet, according to Anthem. Still prefer to buy a TV in person? Do your research online. Many walk-in retailers will price-match a Web deal.

2. Small Appliances. You’ll find the best selection of blenders, toasters and the like online, although you’re still better off trying out heavy or hard-to-maneuver items, like vacuums, in a store first.

3. Pet Supplies. By signing up for regularly scheduled pet food delivery from Petco.com, you can save 15 percent on every qualifying order and guarantee that Fido never runs out of kibble. You can also net big discounts by buying pet meds online rather than going to the vet, where markups over wholesale prices can be 100 percent and up.

4. Theme Park Tickets. You’ll pass by the ticket booth anyway, but buying online helps you “avoid lines at the park and find some of the best ticket-price deals that a park has to offer,” says Robb Alvey, founder of ThemeParkReview.com.

5. Baby Supplies. It’s cheaper and more convenient to order diapers, baby food and ancillary items (like diaper-pail refills) online, especially if you opt for a delivery program like Amazon’s Subscribe and Save, which discounts your entire order by 15 percent if you select five or more items.

3 THINGS NOT TO BUY ONLINE

1. Paint. The colors on your computer screen are made by emitted light and will never look the same as actual paints, which are made of reflective pigments. “Color should be chosen only after viewing painted test patches or large sample color chips on the walls of the space to be painted,” says Amy Krane, an architectural color consultant.

2. Office and School Supplies. The customer-service firm StellaService has reported that the average cost of purchasing a typical list of school supplies in a store was 41 percent cheaper than buying them online. Busy parents who want the convenience of ordering can urge school districts or PTAs to sign up for a mail-order service such as Staples’ SchoolKidz, which enables you to order items on the next year’s list ahead of time and have a box of supplies delivered when school starts in the fall.

3. Drugs From Overseas. Up to 97 percent of online pharmacy storefronts are considered “rogue,” meaning that they don’t require prescriptions or they sell drugs not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, according to a January review of almost 11,000 sites by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).

Shop at one of those sites, and you could wind up with a drug that’s old or was improperly stored, or it could be adulterated or even fake, Consumer Reports warns. You also risk having your financial or personal information stolen. If you want to order medication online, choose a reputable site like CVS.com, Walgreens.com and Walmart.com, or go to legitscript.com to see whether an outlet you want meets NABP standards.

How to cut your water use in half

As the saying goes, you can’t squeeze water from a stone. But that’s what California residents have been trying to do as the state’s drought stretches into its fourth year, according to Consumer Reports.

California isn’t the only place facing a dry spell. Water managers in 40 states say that even if water conditions remain normal, they expect shortages in some part of their state over the next decade. That’s according to WaterSense, the water conservation partner of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The two best ways to save water, Consumer Reports says, are by replacing water-wasting appliances and fixtures, and changing your lifestyle and habits. Neither is easy. The first requires an up-front expense and the second, a long-term commitment. But do both, and you can cut your usage in half or better.

Outdoor watering accounts for almost 30 percent of water use, according to an analysis published by Environment Magazine. But toilets (19 percent), washing machines (15 percent), showers (12 percent) and faucets (11 percent) also use substantial amounts. Then there’s the 10 percent of water lost to leaks that are not always easy to detect.

In addition to plugging leaks, five of the most effective ways to save water indoors, says Environment Magazine, are to install low-flow toilets, use a high-efficiency washer, reduce shower time to five minutes, wash only full loads of laundry and reduce toilet flushes by 25 percent.

Consumer Reports offers these other ways to save water around the house:

IN THE KITCHEN

— Don’t rinse dishes before putting them in a dishwasher. The dishwasher is designed to do that very job — and to do it better than you can.

— Replace your old dishwasher. Energy Star dishwashers are about 15 percent more water-efficient than standard models. The most miserly use only 4 to 6 gallons during a normal cycle.

— Wash only full loads of dishes. For maximum efficiency, load your dishwasher according to the instructions in your owner’s manual, which will make the most of the sprays in your machine.

— Keep your drinking water in the refrigerator instead of running the tap until it’s cool.

— Give pots and pans a soak instead of scrubbing them under running water. And don’t wash your fruits and vegetables under the tap. Instead, rinse them in a large bowl filled with water.

IN THE LAUNDRY ROOM

— Replace your old washer. Energy Star washing machines use about 40 percent less water than a regular washer.

— Pick the appropriate water level setting — often small, medium, large — for the load if that’s how your machine works.

— Measure laundry detergent and use HE detergents for HE top-loaders and front-loaders. Regular detergents are too sudsy, and using too much can cause high-efficiency washers to use more water by extending the rinse cycle.

— Do only full loads, but don’t overstuff. Using cold water whenever possible helps save on energy costs, Consumer Reports notes.

IN THE BATHROOM

— Replace your old toilets — all of them. Older toilets use as many as 6 gallons per flush, while new WaterSense toilets do the job with 1.28 gallons or less. With new toilets, the average family can reduce water use by 20 percent per toilet.

— Instead of baths, take short showers, cutting your shower time to 5 minutes. If you’re brave, turn off the water when lathering up or shampooing. And don’t let the water run when brushing your teeth or shaving.

— Replace your old showerhead. Standard showerheads use 2.5 gallons of water per minute.

— Replace your old faucets. Replacing leaky or inefficient faucets and aerators with WaterSense models can save the average family 500 gallons of water per year.

— Don’t use your toilet as a garbage can. It wastes water and can clog your pipes. Toilet paper is designed to disintegrate. Tissues, most wipes and dental floss are not.

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