Is 'try before you buy’ online shopping too good to be true?

— Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. However, our picks and opinions are independent from USA TODAY’s newsroom and any business incentives.
Online shopping is, notoriously, a little too easy. All you have to do is pick out items you like, fill up your virtual cart and, with the click of a few buttons, you’ve got yourself a new shirt. (Or pair of jeans. Or jacket. Or a whole new wardrobe. You can relate, I’m sure.)

But the serotonin high that comes from a quick-click online purchase often drops as soon as you check your bank account and register the monetary damage of your shopping spree—even before the items are delivered to you, or you have time to peek inside the package to see that what you thought was a regular-sized top to wear to work is, in fact, a super-cropped one.

But some online stores and shopping services offer an option to try things out before you are charged for them, and ship back any items you don’t like with no (or very little) money changing hands at all.
What does it mean to "try before you buy"?
Try before you buy services offered by retailers fit into two categories. The first are subscription-based services, such as Stitch Fix and Trunk Club, which send out boxes of items on a monthly or seasonal basis and allow users to purchase the items they’d like to keep and send the rest back.

The other is a somewhat newer offering from some retailers, such as Amazon Wardrobe, that allows customers to order individual pieces without being charged within a certain time period. This gives shoppers a window to return unwanted items without having to pay for them.
The subscription-based model of try before you buy Credit: Getty Images / chokja
Most subscription boxes require a flat fee for styling, which then gets you discounted rates on clothes in the box.

One of the better-known try before you buy online methods comes in the form of subscription apparel boxes like Stitch Fix, Trunk Club, Menlo Club, Nuuly, Infinite Style by Ann Taylor, My List at Bloomingdale’s and Rent the Runway Unlimited. The ubiquity of subscription models, especially ones from traditional brick and mortar retailers—like Infinite Style, My List, and Trunk Club (which is owned by Nordstrom)—are representative of general enthusiasm for subscription boxes, which have increased by 40 percent over the past year. It’s also not too much of a stretch to imagine why subscription boxes are popular in the apparel realm. Signing up for one takes most of the time and decision-making out of shopping—which, for people with disposable income but not a lot of spare time, is a pretty sweet deal.

The specifics vary for each service, but typically shoppers pay a flat fee (anywhere from $20 to $95) for each delivery of clothing and accessories. Once the package arrives, you have a certain amount of time—usually about five days—to decide which items in the box you’d like to keep, and which ones you’d like to send back. For most services, returns are done with a free scheduled USPS pickup, so the retailer knows when stuff is coming back. For many subscriptions, including Stitch Fix and Trunk Club, the initial fee is credited towards any items you decide to buy, which may disincentivize some people from sending back their entire boxes—if you’ve already sunk cash into it, you’re probably going to want to keep something of value, even if it means you spend a little more money to do so.

Beauty subscription services like Birchbox and Ipsy also offer versions of try before you buy. Both brands send out personalized boxes of deluxe or sample-sized beauty products for about $10 a month. If you like the small sizes, you can buy a full-size version through the site.
The a la carte model of try before you buy Credit: Getty Images
It's possible to order individual items without a subscription with some retailers.

Some online retailers also offer an option to order an item to be delivered and tried on before you’re charged for it. But what sets this service apart from subscription boxes is that you select each item individually, rather than having it selected for you in a subscription box. There’s no base fee for the service (though some charge shipping), which could mean that you spend nothing to test out something that gets delivered to your door.

One example is Amazon Wardrobe, which is limited to Amazon Prime members. Managing Editor of Ecommerce Samantha Gordon tried it last year, and she found it was easy to figure out (though shipping took a little longer than Amazon’s usual two-day period) and simple to make returns. To use it, you sign into your Prime account and select up to eight items labeled “Wardrobe eligible.” You provide payment information as insurance, but may opt to provide different info when it comes time to purchase anything you want to keep. Once your box arrives, you have seven days to make a return—if you don’t send items back within that time frame, you get charged on your original payment method.

In addition to Amazon, some other retailers—particularly ones that pull most of their customers from the internet and Instagram ads—offer options to try things out before committing. Warby Parker lets anyone try five eyeglass frames for five days to decide if they want to commit to one pair. (You don’t get to keep the one you like—you send them all back and the brand sends you a new pair, with lenses customized to your prescription.) ThirdLove lets bra wearers test a bra for a month before they decide if it’s for keeps.

Other than Prime Wardrobe, Warby Parker, and ThirdLove, it’s rare to find true try before you buy options in the United States that aren’t subscription-based. More common are installment payments, processed through companies like AfterPay and Klarna, which allow shoppers to break up the cost of items over a few months—like layaway payments, except you get the item before you finish paying for it. It is also possible that retailers that don't currently offer an option to try things out before you buy them might in the future. For example, ASOS recently started a try before you buy program in the U.K. through Klarna—it's not available in the U.S. yet, though it's possible it could expand stateside eventually.
Should you try before you buy?
In either scenario, whether you choose the subscription or per-item option, you’ll have to consider whether or not you’re actually going to send your things back. Lots of people don’t like returning online purchases and, if you count yourself among them, you probably won’t like returning the things you haven’t technically purchased yet—and, as a result, end up getting charged for them all the same. On the other hand, if you’re a serial returner, you risk getting banned for overdoing it—in that case, try before you buy is a better bet.

In essence, it’s not all that different from regular online shopping. Sure, the timing is different, but when all is said and done, the two main variables—what’s in your closet and what’s in your bank account—remain the same. The order in which you’d like those things to occur can determine whether you should try before you buy.

The product experts at Reviewed have all your shopping needs covered. Follow Reviewed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the latest deals, product reviews, and more.