Every year, more and more people are opting to avoid crowded stores in favor of doing their holiday shopping online.
In 2012 alone, U.S. consumers spent over $42 billion shopping on the internet in November and December—a 14% increase from the year before—according to comScore, a company that tracks digital statistics.
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Shopping online can be especially useful if you’re sending a gift to long-distance relatives, in-laws and friends. But which mail-order companies truly deliver the best product for your hard-earned cash?
Is sending chocolate-dipped berries really a good deal? And who sells the best bouquets, anyway? Read: The flowers shouldn't wilt after just two days.
We asked three consumer experts to weigh in on the most reliable, high-quality and unique mail-order companies to use this holiday season.
Best for ... Sweets
You’ve seen the company’s mouthwatering ads for strawberries dipped in milk, dark or white chocolate and then covered with such delicious toppings as walnuts, salted caramel almonds or crumbled cookies.
But when it comes to quality, does the company deliver? The answer: yes.
“Every time that I order through them, I always get great feedback," says Andrea Woroch, a consumer savings expert based in central California. "I got two dozen strawberries dipped in a variety of chocolates and toppings for my friend’s 30th birthday party—and everyone devoured them."
Woroch is also a fan of the company because it usually offers stellar deals online. For instance, if you Google “Shari’s Berries coupon code” or if you search for “Shari’s Berries” on FreeShipping.org, you'll often find ways to save. “Sometimes I’m able to use a 20% off coupon and a free shipping code, which I love,” says Woroch.
If your friend or loved one isn’t into strawberries, Shari’s Berries offers plenty of other sweet treats, including dipped apples, cherries, pretzels, cookies and more. Gifts from $19.99.
Best for ... Flowers
For Woroch, 1-800-Flowers is her top pick in the bouquet-making business for a couple of reasons: The company delivers flowers in good condition—and on time. But there is one caveat to keep in mind.
“They go through local florists to fulfill orders, so when they say that certain flowers are ‘in season,’ that may not be true in every region,” says Woroch. “The more types of flowers that are in the bouquet, the more substitutions you’re likely to get—so what your loved one gets won’t necessarily look exactly like what you saw on your computer screen.”
Her advice when ordering: Opt for one type of flower, such as roses or tulips, and then you’re more likely to get your money’s worth. Gifts from $19.99.
Best for ... Gift Baskets
“My top choice is a lesser-known company based in Ann Arbor, Mich., called Zingerman’s,” says Richard Feinberg, a professor of retail management at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. “Their gifts come in beautifully packaged crates, so they look very substantial. And when I send them to people, I always get a phone call as a thank you because they’re so blown away.”
The company's other big plus: It offers hard-to-find seasonal foods in holiday-themed packages, such as the Christmas Goodies Gift Box (packed with spiced pecans, chocolate sourdough bread, a handmade candy bar, hot cocoa coffeecake, a German-style cake, Spanish-chocolate-covered figs and cheddar) and a Chanukah Foods Gift Box that includes rugelach, macaroons, olive oil cake and a book of children’s Chanukah tales by longtime customer Marilyn Kallet. Gifts from $7.
Best for ... Beauty
When it comes to choosing a body wash, perfume or shaving gel, it can be tough to know what someone else will like. Enter Birchbox.
Each month (you can choose a three-month, six-month or one-year subscription), the company sends a variety pack of new product samples from companies like Benefit and DevaCurl, so the recipient can try a bunch of different items to see what he or she likes best. That’s right—he or she. In addition to finds for women, Birchbox offers everything from after-shave to men’s fragrances.
“What’s great is that you can customize the sampler based on a person’s skin type or hair," says Woroch. "And it’s such a fun surprise to keep getting a gift in your mailbox each month.” Gifts from $30.
Best for ... Home Decor
Sure, you could get someone a nice serving dish or Christmas ornament from a national chain like Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel, but those stores are so ubiquitous that your gift may not feel quite as special.
That’s why Steven Kirn, executive director of the Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research at the University of Florida in Gainesville, prefers to buy from the smaller, Kentucky-based Hadley Pottery, which handcrafts each and every item that it sells, so you can be certain that you’re getting a one-of-a-kind gift.
Bonus: All of their items can be designed with a theme of your choice, including seasonal "peace on earth" and “happy holidays” messages or playful illustrations, like a cat poking its head out of a gift box. Gifts from $14.