Buying Toiletries Online: Convenient But Not Cheap

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By Anne D'Innocenzio, AP Retail Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Tired of getting back in line at the store because you forgot shampoo?

Many merchants, from startups to big retailers, are getting into the business of selling personal-care basics like toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo online.

But buying toiletries online is not always a way to save money.

"It's all about the right value, not the cheapest price," said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail. "It has to satisfy you on a lot of different criteria."

Those criteria can include free shipping, mammoth selection and time-savers like automatic order refills. Some websites, like Alice.com and Amazon.com, let you schedule regular purchases. Others, like soon-to-launch Soap.com, offer five or six times the array of products you can find in a typical, traditional drug store.

The Associated Press shopped online and in two Manhattan stores for five toiletry items — Suave's shampoo-conditioner combination for men, Simply Ivory 4.5-ounce bars of soap, Gillette Fusion razor cartridges, Claritin 24-hour allergy tablets and Neutrogena's Deep Clean liquid soap — with some surprising results.

Above all, no store or website we consulted consistently had the lowest prices — or highest. So if cutting a deal is your top aim, says Dan de Grandpre, editor in chief of online shopping guide dealnews.com, run a full Web search for each product.

Here's what we found.

COST COMPARISONS

Be sure to include shipping fees and minimum-purchase requirements in your comparisons, and match similar quantities, perhaps by checking the price per ounce. Never assume buying in bulk is cheaper; in the case of Ivory soap, it was the most expensive option.

— Prices for Gillette Fusion cartridges:

At Amazon.com and Soap.com, they were $22.44 for eight, the best price of all; at Walmart.com, $23.97 for eight; at Drugstore.com, $23.99 for eight; and at Alice.com, $12.99 for four.

In traditional stores: Kmart in Herald Square was selling four for $17.49, and Duane Reade four for $17.29.

— Prices for Simply Ivory soap, 4.5-ounce bars:

At Soap.com, they were $2.29 for four; at Alice.com, $2.43 for four; at Drugstore.com, $1.74 for three (with coupon); and at Amazon.com, $10.59 for 10. (Walmart.com offers Ivory bars only in stores.)

In traditional stores: Duane Reade offered four bars for $2.99 (with coupon); nearby Kmart had the best deal of all, $1.59 for three.

— Prices for Claritin:

At Amazon.com, it sold for $16.90 for a pack of 30 tablets (marked down), the best deal; at Walmart.com, $19.12 for 10 tablets; at Alice.com, $22.99 for 30 tablets; at Drugstore.com, $23.99 for 40 tablets; and at Soap.com, $9.69 for 10 tablets.

In traditional stores: Duane Reade's price was $11.99 for a pack of 10, and Kmart was out of stock Wednesday.

— Prices for Neutrogena liquid soap, 6.7 ounces: At soap.com, $5.39, the best price of all; at Drugstore.com, $6.49; at Alice.com, $5.44; at Amazon.com, three bottles for $21.25; and walmart.com, $11.48 for two packs.

In traditional stores: Duane Reade's price was $7.99; Kmart didn't carry the product.

— Prices for Suave shampoo-conditioner, 14.5-ounce bottle:

At Soap.com, it was $1.99; at Alice.com, $2.29; at Amazon.com, $2.45; at Walmart.com, $3.00; and at Drugstore.com, $3.29.

In traditional stores: This product was not available in either Duane Reader or Kmart, though Kmart offered a 12-ounce bottle of Suave hair and body wash for men for at $2.25.

SELECTION

Offerings of personal-care products and household items varied dramatically, from Target's 200 items to Soap.com's promise of 40,000 products by year's end — though it counts different flavors of toothpaste separately.

Soap.com, from the founders of Quidsi, which own Diapers.com, launches next month with 25,000 toiletries and other essentials.

A typical drug store carries 6,000 to 8,000 products.

Walmart.com and Target.com, which each sell hundreds of thousands of items, do not carry many household basics. But customers seeking Procter & Gamble products, from Olay skin care and Crest toothpaste to Tide detergent, can go to its pgestore.com, where shipping is $5, not matter how big your order, and you can find P&G's digital coupons.

If you're seeking hard-to-find products, try Alice.com, which currently offers about 10,000 different items, because it carries things like Seed's collection of body care products derived from seeds.

BELLS AND WHISTLES

At Alice.com — in addition to free shipping that CEO Brian Wiegand says takes two days on average — customers can sign up to receive purchase and get help ordering only as much as they need. Wiegand says Alice.com can keep prices low and ship everything free because the site connects manufacturers directly with consumers, though it has a six-item minimum.

At Soap.com, which plans to offer free shipping on orders of $49 or more (and charge $3.99 on smaller orders) there will be a savings center where shoppers can search by product category. Drugstore.com, which provides free shipping on any order of $25 or more, has a similar page on its website. And Walmart.com charges 97 cents to ship any one health or beauty product, while Amazon.com's "subscribe & save" program gives a customer who enrolls for regular deliveries a discount of 15 plus free shipping on all orders — with no penalty for cancellation.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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