Like many other industries, the furniture business now sells most, if not all, of its products online, sometimes in addition to brick-and-mortar stores. To some extent, this keeps local independent retailers from jacking up their prices, but it may force the mom-and-pops out of business.

So should you buy online? Our best answer is “maybe,” especially if you can get a better price. But in our experience, local retailers often offer prices that are roughly equivalent to—and often below—prices on the web when delivery costs are added. (Delivery from web-based sellers often costs $150 to $200 for large pieces; local stores generally charge less than that, and sometimes nothing.)

Even if you’re getting a great price online, consider these possible drawbacks:

  • Shopping online makes it difficult to try before you buy. “I think, for the average person, you need to sit on a chair or sofa before buying it,” says interior designer Kerra Michele. “There are so many different depths of seats and heights. What’s comfortable to you might not work for your 6-foot-3-inch husband.”
  • As with ordering other furniture, there may be a delay. And since many online retailers source products overseas, it might be loooong.
  • Since a web-only store probably doesn’t have in-town reps to inspect your furniture, it may be difficult to prove you received a defective product. You can send pictures or call an independent appraiser, but it still may be difficult to force a remedy. Because web and catalog companies are not likely to have repair capabilities in the area, you may have to pay shipping and give up the piece to have repairs made. (For minor repairs, the seller might let you use a local repair service and pay the bill.) And if you must go to court, you might have to travel to the location of the web-based store.
  • If an item is damaged during carriage by an independent van line or freight carrier, you won’t know whether the carrier caused the damage or if it was present before you received the item. If neither company accepts responsibility, you’ll be left trying to force someone to make amends.
  • If there are long delivery delays and the seller won’t return your deposit, you might have to file suit in the location of the web or catalog outlet.
  • Some web-based stores offer delivery only via freight carrier. Goods might be deposited in your front yard or driveway, leaving you to carry them into your home and unpack them. For an extra fee, many stores do offer “white glove” delivery, which includes unpacking, assembly, and placement in the home.

If you decide to order from a web or catalog retailer, a few suggestions—

  • Have your furniture shipped by a van line that will pack it blanket-wrapped after the seller has inspected it and place it where you want it in your home—assembling the items, if necessary. This way you can inspect before you accept.
  • If possible, order from a store that accepts deposits of no more than 30 percent of the purchase price when you order, and pay no more until the store tells you the item is ready to ship. The smaller the deposit, the more leverage you have for obtaining prompt service and the lower your risk if disputes arise or the company goes bankrupt.
  • Ask about guarantees. Will it replace an item if it proves to be defective? How long is the warranty period?
  • Get a delivery estimate in writing. Find out if you can cancel the order if the item is delayed.
  • Pay by credit card. If there is a problem, you can dispute the transaction with your credit card company.