Category Archives: Shopping tips

Macy’s joins the ranks of stores offering free shipping and free returns

Online shoppers, rejoice! Macy’s is now among the stores offering free shipping and free returns by mail.

In a previous post, I listed other stores offering this benefit. Now, Macy’s has gotten into the game. Previously, Macy’s typically offered free shipping with a purchase of $99 or more, but those wishing to return items without going to a Macy’s store had to pay a shipping fee. Not any more. Now, you can use the prepaid label enclosed with your purchase to return the item by UPS.

There are a few exceptions. You can’t take advantage of the free returns by mail if you live outside the United States. In addition, “free returns exclude gift cards, food, gourmet gifts, lamps, wall art, mirrors, furniture, mattresses and area rugs,” notes the Macy’s website.Macy’s doesn’t seem to put a time limit on returns — its website says items can be returned or exchanged at any time.

Since JCPenney’s merchandise has gone downhill, Macy’s has risen to the top of my shopping list, alongside Kohl’s. So, I am happy to see this new feature offered for the company’s online shoppers. To see a long list of companies offering free shipping and free returns, check out my previous post.

What’s your favorite store offering this service?

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Product review: Why I chose the UNII makeup palette

Several years ago, I grew tired of having a dozen different eye shadow containers, so I purchased a Mary Kay® makeup palette to corral them in one place. The palette allowed me to snap the uniquely shaped Mary Kay eye products in and out and see all the colors available to me at a glance. Now, however, there’s a problem: Mary Kay has changed the shape of its eye shadow containers, so the new ones won’t fit in my palette. So, I set out in search of a new solution.

Conduct an Internet search for the words “makeup palette,” and you’ll find several different designs. Some, like these Sephora makeup palettes, already come with the colors selected for you, and they don’t seem to offer you the option of replacing a color when it runs out. Mac Cosmetics allows you to build your own palette, but its product is expensive: $48 for a palette with four colors. Plus, you’re locked into using only that company’s eye shadows.

After searching for more customizable options, I discovered the Z Palette, which allows you to mix and match eye shadows from different manufacturers. Its magnetic base allows you to insert and remove products easily, and metal stickers are included to help adhere products that come in nonmetal pans. The Z Palette comes in a variety of sizes, including some that are big enough for large blush and powder tins, as well as makeup brushes. Some buyers may also like its clear lid.  The downside? The Z Palette is made from a cardboard-type materials. While this makes the product recyclable, it made me worry about its durability. I didn’t want to pay $14 to $25 (plus shipping) for something that would not hold up well over time.

Finally, I found the UNII makeup palette. At $29 plus shipping, it wasn’t exactly cheap, but its design and flexibility made it the best option.

The UNII palette's packaging offers many helpful tips about how to use the product.

The UNII palette’s packaging offers many helpful tips about how to use the product.

The plastic case appears to be durable and easy to clean.

The plastic case appears to be durable and easy to clean.

The UNII palette is made of hard plastic, giving me confidence that it will stand the test of time, even if tossed into a purse or duffle bag regularly. It should also be easier to clean due to its construction.

Note the thumb grip on the left side. It can be repositioned anywhere on the palette.

Note the thumb grip on the left side. It can be repositioned anywhere on the palette.

The UNII palette can hold makeup and tools from a variety of manufacturers, and it comes in six colors: pink, lavender, turquoise, black, white/clear and pale yellow. While you can’t see through the lid, it does have a mirror on the inside that spans the width of the case, making it easy to apply makeup on the go. Like the Z Palette, it uses a magnetic base to attach your makeup products and includes stickers you can use for pans not made of metal. The UNII Palette has a neat magnetic thumb grip that can be placed anywhere on the inside of the palette, making it easy to hold the palette with either hand. I also like the rolled-edge clasp that securely closes the palette.

How’s UNII’s customer service? Great! I emailed a question about the product before purchasing it and received a quick response. The product shipped promptly after my order, and UNII sent me an email with a a few tips to keep in mind when my product arrived. My UNII palette was packaged in a classy box that included more helpful advice. After unpacking it, I found the product to be attractive and well made.

The UNII’s biggest limitation may be its size. At 5.4 inches long and 2.8 inches wide, the interior may not hold all of your makeup products.

The palettes come in several different colors.

The palettes come in several different colors.

For me, this is not an issue, because I only intend to use it for eye shadow. It would take more than one palette to accommodate my blush, powder and/or lip products. It also may not be big enough to store all your makeup brushes. You could buy multiple palettes to house all your makeup, or use the palette as an on-the-go solution for makeup touchups or short trips.

If you buy two palettes or more, UNII ships them for free. Shipping for my one palette was a reasonable $4.

Have you tried UNII or another customizable makeup palette? Please share your experiences.

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Product review: The best oven mitts I’ve ever used!

They may not be the most exciting item you’ll ever purchase, but oven mitts are an indispensable part of a cook’s daily routine. Whether your preparing a roast for your family’s dinner or baking cookies for an office party, quality mitts protect your hands from the high temperatures you encounter when removing items from the oven.

In the past, I’ve mainly used cotton oven mitts. I liked them because they were easy to toss in the washing machine. But I found that over time, that washable fabric started to wear thin from its trips to the washer, eventually resulting in heating make its way through the mitts way to quickly. I tried some cotton mitts with silicone insets, but they didn’t fare much better. Another problem with cotton mitts is that they can pick up permanent stains, despite washing.

Finally, I decided it was time to give silicone mitts a try, and I picked one of the highest-rated designs on the Chef’s website: the OrkaPlus silicone mitt with a cotton lining. Doubtful as to how well it would work, I only ordered one at first. The OrkaPlus quickly proved its worth. It reliably protects my hands from heat, and it’s easy to wipe food off the outside of the mitt. The mitt’s grip area can be harder to clean, because it has tiny silicone “ribs” that help you grip pans securely. Thankfully, the entire silicone mitt is dishwasher safe, and I’ve found the dishwasher does a good job of cleaning those grips.

Inside, the OrkaPlus silicone mitt has a cotton lining that spans the length of the glove. This is easy to remove and can be washed in the washing machine.

According to the Chef’s website, the OrkaPlus mitt is waterproof, even in boiling water. I have not put that claim to the test, however.

The mitt is available in red, green, blue, purple and charcoal hues on the Chef’s website. Amazon offers all those colors as well, plus a raspberry shade.

There are a couple of downsides to the mitt. The first is that it is only available in one size, and that size is rather large. People with small hands may find it too large to be practical, but it has worked fine for me, even though it is loose on my hands.

The other downside is the cost. One OrkaPlus mitt sells for $15.95 at Chefscatalog.com, meaning a pair will cost you about $32. By comparison, you can get a pair of cotton oven mitts for less than $5 at discount stores. But I submit that the OrkaPlus will pay for itself over time. It offers much more stain resistance and durability than cotton mitts, and one pair of OrkaPlus mitts is likely to outlast several pairs of the cotton variety.

Do you have a favorite kitchen product you want to tell others about? Please leave a comment with your product recommendations.

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Where to get the best price on Starbucks coffee

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I thought the best price on Starbucks coffee would be at Starbucks. As it turns out, I was wrong.

Starbucks store
I recently compared prices on Starbucks bagged coffee to give as a gift. I started at the Starbucks online store, where I found  a one-pound bag of Starbucks French Roast priced at $11.95. That’s 75 cents an ounce, whether you buy ground or whole bean.

Amazon.com
Out of curiosity, I searched other online sites. Amazon offers Starbucks coffee in more than one size, as well as single- and multi-bag packaging. Some of the prices here were an improvement. For example, three 12-ounce bags of  whole bean French roast sold for $24.94 (with shipping), which equals 69 cents an ounce — that’s less than the Starbucks store. However, a one-pound bag of ground French roast sold for $14.27, or 89 cents an ounce —not a better deal.

Walmart.com
A Google search led me to Walmart.com, where I found some of the best regular (nonsale) prices on Starbucks coffee. For example, you can get a 20-ounce bag of Starbucks French roast for $11.98, which equals 60 cents an ounce (15 cents per ounce cheaper than the Starbucks store). The whole bean version was slightly higher at 64 cents an ounce ($7.68 for a 12-ounce bag).

Here are some more Walmart.com vs. Starbucks store price comparisons, per ounce:

  • Starbucks Breakfast Blend: 75 cents at Starbucks; 60 cents at Walmart for ground, 64 cents for whole bean
  • Starbucks Veranda Blend: 75 cents at Starbucks; 65 cents at Walmart for ground, 64 cents for whole bean
  • Starbucks Caffe Verona Blend: 81 cents at Starbucks; 65 cents at Walmart, 64 cents for whole bean

Online drugstores
At the time this article was written, the Walgreens website had a sale price on a 12-ounce bag of Starbucks French Roast of $6.99, or 58 cents an ounce — that’s the second-lowest price per ounce I found. The retailer offered other Starbucks ground coffee blends as well, but some were at a higher price. Competitor CVS had the same French roast coffee listed for $10.49.

Sam’s Club and grocery store
The best deal came from Sam’s Club, where a two-pound bag of Starbucks House Blend in the whole bean formulation is just $14.98, or 47 cents an ounce. Of course, you’ll have to have a Sam’s Club membership to access this deal. Sam’s Club offers a variety of other Starbucks products as well.

At my local Kroger grocery store, a 12-ounce bag of Starbucks coffee was $7.85.  That’s 65 cents an ounce.

Summary
So, the next time you want a bag or two of Starbucks coffee, shop around. You may find the best price is at a warehouse club, drugstore, grocery store or discount retailer. At the time of my comparison, Walmart offered free shipping on orders of $35 or more, while Starbucks had no free shipping offer listed. Free shipping from Walgreens was available on orders of $25 or more.

Note: All Starbucks products names listed in this article are registered trademarks.

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Know your options when JCPenney makes mistakes

I’ve been ordering items from JCPenney online for about 15 years. Despite the dozens of orders I’ve placed, JCPenney always got my order right — until now. Twice in the last month, the company has sent an item different from what I ordered. First, I ordered two pairs of pants and a set of sheets. What I received was a pair of shoes and two pairs of pants that were not the same size or style as the ones I’d requested. Then, I ordered another set of sheets because I didn’t like the color of the first set. This time, JCPenney did send the same brand of sheets, but they were not the same color as what I ordered. In both cases, the information on the packing slip was correct, but what was inside the box was not.

My two wrongly fulfilled orders led to phone calls to JCPenney’s customer service line to address the problems. Here’s a key lesson I learned: JCPenney will send UPS to pick up the wrong items at your home, but you have to request this. The customer service representatives’ first line of attack was to suggest I return the items to a store. I don’t live close to JCPenney, nor do I want to drive all the way there to fix an error that wasn’t mine. So, I asked if the company could send UPS to collect the items. In both cases, the representative agreed to do this. If you take advantage of this option, you simply set the item on your porch for UPS to pick it up or give it to the delivery driver when he rings your doorbell. UPS will only make one attempt to collect the item, so be sure to have it ready. Make sure you ask the driver to give or leave you a receipt for the package so you have proof you sent the items back. Unlike other companies, JCPenney doesn’t send you a return label to print out; UPS puts one on your package at the time of pickup.

Other notes from my JCPenney customer service encounters:

  • Things went most smoothly with the mix-up involving the wrong color of sheets. The representative seemed to know exactly how to handle the situation. She also informed me that I would get my refund sooner if I took the item back to the store.
  • The case of completely incorrect items being sent to me seemed to confound the customer service staff. I was placed on hold a couple of times while the representative tried to determine what to do, and I got a follow-up call the following day from another representative. In this situation, the company did not wait to receive the incorrect items before issuing a credit to my credit card.
  • During my latest call, the representative answered the phone by stating her name and mentioning she was located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was great to get assistance from someone with strong English-speaking skills. I also commend JCPenney for not outsourcing customer service jobs to other countries.
  • In both experiences, I found the JCPenney representatives to be polite and friendly.

I am not sure what has led JCPenney to fulfill two of my last three orders incorrectly, but it seems some new quality control procedures are in order. What have your recent online ordering experiences with JCPenney been like?

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Amazon changes the rules for free shipping

I shop at Amazon frequently to take advantage of its competitive prices (on most items) and its low threshold for free shipping. My latest shopping trip led to an unwelcome surprise. Amazon has raised the dollar amount of the minimum order you must place to get free shipping.

Look for the "FREE shipping on orders over $35" words near the top of Amazon listings.

Look for the “FREE shipping on orders over $35” words near the top of Amazon listings.

The company used to offer “free super saver shipping” on orders of $25 or more. Now, you must spend at least $35 to get your items shipped to you at no charge. In a Web announcement, Amazon says this is the first time in more than 10 years that it has changed the minimum order amount for free shipping. The announcement includes a sales pitch for Amazon Prime, which allows you to get “free” two-day shipping on orders of any size, if you pay a $79 annual subscription fee. Not exactly what I would call free shipping.

To find items that are eligible for free shipping, look for the words “FREE shipping on orders over $35” on the search results page or the product page (see photo above for example).

Keep in mind some items that are sold on Amazon but shipped by other retailers offer free shipping on orders less than $35.

If you don’t shop at Amazon frequently, you may have missed another trend in its free-shipping policy: the add-on item. Items labeled as add-ons are eligible for free shipping, but only after you already have $35 of merchandise in your cart. Amazon’s current explanation of add-on items is a bit confusing, but it appears you can add the items to a $25 order as well, but they may not be eligible for free shipping at that threshold. Examples include this Rubbermaid plastic magazine file. You can identify add-on items by the blue “Add-on Item” band near the “Add to cart” button or the explanation in the product description (see photo below for examples).

Look for the blue labels to identify Amazon add-on items.

Look for the blue labels to identify Amazon add-on items.

Sometimes, you may be a few cents away from free shipping and need a cheap item to finish off your order. If this is the case, check out my previous post on a neat tool that can help you find such items.

What do you think of Amazon’s new shipping threshold? Will it change how often you purchase items from this retailer?

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Home Depot online appliance purchase: a smooth experience delivered

After 11 years of faithful service, my washing machine bit the dust last weekend. A few hours of online research and some feedback from friends led me to choose a traditional-style machine with an agitator as its replacement. There aren’t a lot of models to choose from in this category, since most new washers are high-efficiency. Given my limited number of choices, I felt comfortable buying a washing machine online without seeing it in person, something I’ve never done.

I typically purchase appliances at Lowe’s, but Lowe’s couldn’t deliver the model I wanted until 9 days after my purchase, so I chose to purchase the same appliance at Home Depot. In a 2012 blog post, I explained what a ridiculous experience I had trying to buy an appliance online from Lowe’s. Thankfully, the Home Depot ordering process was 1,000 times easier. I started my shopping at Ebates.com, so I could earn 3% cash back on my purchase. After clicking the Ebates link to the Home Depot website, I added the appliance to my virtual cart. The only downside of the Home Depot appliance ordering process is that the company requires you to purchase new washing machine hoses, as it refuses to install your new washer with old hoses. I was planning to do this anyway, but it may be frustrating for others. I don’t believe you have to purchase the hoses from Home Depot, but you must have new hoses on hand. You can read about all the Home Depot’s appliance delivery requirements online.

During checkout, I was shown a calendar of available delivery dates and selected the one I wanted. An online notice (and follow-up email) from Home Depot informed me that I would receive a phone call the day before the delivery date and be given a delivery window. After that, I successfully completed my online purchase.

Sure enough, someone called me on Tuesday to let me know what time on Wednesday the washing machine would be delivered. The next day, the delivery driver called in advance of the delivery and even asked if he could come early. From the time the truck arrived to the time the delivery crew left with my old washing machine, only 20 minutes elapsed! I immediately washed a couple of loads of laundry and confirmed everything worked properly. The delivery drivers were courteous, and nothing was damaged during the delivery.

The Home Depot offers free appliance delivery and removal of your old appliance, while competitors like H.H. Gregg and Sears do not. Plus, Home Depot’s regular price is the same as Lowe’s for the washing machine I purchased. As I write this, it’s actually $45 less, because Home Depot is offering 10% off all appliance purchases of $397 or more.

Overall, my online appliance-buying experience was much better at Home Depot than at Lowe’s, and the delivery was icing on the cake. I will definitely consider Home Depot when another appliance needs replacement.

Where’s your favorite place to purchase appliances and why?

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Made in the USA: glass food storage containers

At my house, we try to make the most of leftovers, so we need lots of food storage containers to save them for future meals. Typically, we have stored the extra food in plastic containers, but lately, I’ve become concerned that these may be leaching chemicals into our food, especially when the food is heated. So, I set out in search of glass food storage containers made in the USA.

Pyrex glassware is made in the USA, and the company offers a mixture of shapes and sizes. I purchased two of these 6-cup rectangular pieces from Amazon — they are a great size for taking leftovers to work. I also have a 7-cup round Pyrex food storage bowl. Other available configurations include:

  • 1-cup round
  • 2-cup round
  • 4-cup round
  • 4.75-cup rectangle
  • 6-cup rectangle
  • 11-cup rectangle
  • Sets mixing various sizes

The manufacturer of Pyrex, World Kitchen, also offers another product line called Snapware®. Its plastic lids latch on all four sides of the glass container. Snapware is available in sets or as individual pieces and is made in America. Sizes include:

  • 1-cup round
  • 1-cup square
  • 2-cup rectangle
  • 4-cup square
  • 4-cup rectangle
  • 4-cup round
  • 6-cup rectangle

These products feature a lifetime limited warranty.

Anchor Hocking gives you another option for glass food storage bowls made in the USA. It offers a 10-piece TrueSeal storage set available from Amazon, Walmart and other retailers.  The set includes one 1-cup, 4-cup and 7-cup round containers plus two 2-cup containers. You can also buy individual sizes, such as these 11-cup rectangles. The product listings I reviewed did not offer warranty information for these products.

Rubbermaid also offers glass food storage containers made in America — well, sort of. The product packaging states the glass portion of the containers is made in the USA, while the lids are made in China. The products are currently available in a square configuration only. You can purchase the Rubbermaid glass containers in a set or individually in these sizes:

  • 11.5 cup
  • 8 cup
  • 5.5 cup
  • 4 cup
  • 2.5 cup
  • 1.5 cup
  • 1 cup

These products have a limited two-year warranty.

Are you aware of other glass food storage pieces made in the USA, or have you used any of those listed above? Share your knowledge and experiences so others can benefit.

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Ask Amazon, Walmart online customers for product info

I do a lot of online shopping. While it is a convenient way to find affordable products, it does have its downfalls. One is that you cannot see or try out the product you are viewing on the Internet. In some cases, you can find the same product at a local store and examine it there, but this is not always the case. That’s why I’ve been excited to discover helpful tools offered by Amazon.com and Walmart.com.

Both retailers have an “ask-a-question” feature on their product pages that allows you to post an inquiry about a specific product and get answers from other customers. I have been amazed at how quickly questions I posted on Amazon get answered and by how many people take time to share their input. Often, I will get an answer within one to two hours of posting my question on Amazon.

Answers come more slowly on Walmart.com, sometimes taking a few days or even weeks.

Both websites give you the option of being notified by email when your question is answered, so you don’t have to keep revisiting the product page to look for a response.

It can be a bit tricky to find the “Ask a question” feature on Amazon. You have to click on the link to customer reviews found just below the product name at the top of the page (behind the product’s star rating). Once the reviews page loads, you’ll see this heading on the right side of the page: “Questions? Get fast answers from reviewers.” Type your question in the box provided.

On Walmart.com, it’s not readily apparent where this feature is, either. After you open the product page, scroll down to the “Item description” section, and look for this wording at the end of the description: “Do you have questions about this product? Ask a question.”

I’ve only encountered one instance where customers disputed the correct answer to my question, and that involved a technical specification on a specialty electronic device. While there are no guarantees you’ll get a right answer, I’ve found the responses I receive to be generally helpful, friendly and accurate.

Are there other websites where you have found helpful customer question features?

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Jump to the front of the line at the cell phone store

After stopping by a local store last week, I told my husband we should quit our jobs and go into the cell phone business. The place was packed, and people were waiting in line for assistance Since cell phone transactions can be quite complicated, I could tell it might be a long wait. A visit to another store a few days later revealed a similar scene.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover a service offered by AT&T Wireless corporate stores. You can make an appointment online for assistance at your local AT&T-owned store. When scheduling mine, I found numerous times to choose from. After selecting one, I received both an email and text confirmation. Then, the day of the appointment, I received email and text reminders of my meeting.

When I arrived at the store, I discovered what “appointment” means in AT&T’s dictionary. It means you go to the front of the line, bypassing customers who walked into the store without a service appointment. So, even though I had an appointment, I still had to wait a few minutes. In the store, AT&T has a display screen that reminds me of an airline “standby” list. The screen displays the first names of people with appointments on one screen, followed by a list of walk-in customers on another screen. When a service representative is available, she calls the next customer on the appointment list, and walk-in customers are served later.

Keep in mind not all stores bearing an AT&T logo are company-owned stores. Many of these are “authorized retailers,” but they won’t help you troubleshoot account issues to the level that a corporate store will. They also probably don’t accept appointments. Go to attwireless.com and choose “Find a Store” to locate your nearest AT&T-owned retail location, then use the “Make appointment” link to set up a time.

Verizon Wireless also allows customers to make appointments when they start at its Store Locator Web page, as does Sprint on its Make An Appointment page.

Have you tried making a cell phone store appointment? What was your experience?

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