10 Favorite Mail-Order Websites

By Marla Walters on 8 September 2010 (Updated 5 September 2011) 13 comments
Photo: clemmac

Life on an island is really great except in one respect: you run out of stuff. Because of the isolated nature of being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2,300 miles from the mainland, retailers run out of stuff, too. When they do have the things you need, they are often overpriced. When my family moved years ago, we naively failed to anticipate how much we would use online ordering. (See also: 3 Reasons Why Buying Groceries Online is Great)

The following websites have something special: great customer service. Without exceptional customer service, we would be pretty frustrated. Another prerequisite for us that would not be necessary for people in the contiguous 48 states is a company's willingness to ship to even Hawaii or Alaska — something a surprising number of sites (and eBay vendors) refuse to do. Here are some of our favorite mail-order websites and why we think they're better than average.

Penzeys Spices

My recent search for mustard powder to complete my "Should You Make Your Own Condiments?" series led me back to Penzeys Spices. I had splurged on a jar of mustard powder locally, tried a recipe (horrible, but on about that later), and then I was out of mustard powder again. It was too expensive to buy another jar at the grocery store. Did Penzeys have mustard powder? Yes, absolutely, as well as a multitude of other spices and seasonings.

Their website itself is pretty basic. Their catalogs are quite a bit flashier and include homespun stories and customer recipes, many of which are quite good. Penzeys has become one of my favorite Christmas and birthday shopping favorites. I like the way they pack my order, adding a personalized "thank you." The last time I ordered, they included a free jar of lemon pepper in my box. Their items arrive on time, in perfect condition, and are great quality. The gift boxes have been well-received. We just tried their new "Arizona Dreaming" spice mix and it is delicious on meat, french fries, and vegetables.

QVC

I do not watch the QVC show now, but must confess that I did about 21 years ago, when I was up in the wee hours with an infant. I also ordered a lot of merchandise in those early hours. QVC's customer service is excellent, both on the website and on the phone. They quickly identify me, verify my information, and fill my order. Items arrive on time and the quality is good. I like the way the website is laid out, particularly the "food" section (which has been the source of many popular gifts). Shipping is also very reasonable — a really important factor. My favorite QVC gift to send: Junior's Cheesecakes, which are both showy and delicious.

Macy's.com

We have a Macy's store, and I do go there to shop. The reason Macy's.com made this list is that I really love their bridal registry. They have this process down perfectly. The site is easy to navigate, and even if I only know one of the parties, I can find their registry easily. The site is also nicely categorized so that you can spend just what you want. Deliveries are prompt and the item can be gift-wrapped. I am delighted to see when brides register for the Le Creuset enameled cast iron pots; I have one and know they are going to last.

Amazon

Not only does Amazon have everything but the kitchen sink (oh, wait — I just checked and they DO have kitchen sinks), but items are of good quality, and things arrive practically telepathically. I like their "recommendations" feature, especially when they alert me to a book or CD I might like. Returns to Amazon are so easy: print out the label, slap it on the box, and drop off at UPS. Shipping is fair or sometimes even free with their "Super-saver shipping" option. They let me know the status of my order via email. I also like their customer product reviews, which are very frank. This has proven to be a valuable decision-making tool on many occasions. For my post about yogurt-making, I purchased the Donvier eight-cup yogurt maker from Amazon and remain very happy with that product.

PetsGard

With two dogs and two cats, we really go through Revolution, a flea/tick/ear mite/heartworm prevention product. PetsGard, based in Australia, offers very competitive prices on pet care items. A couple of months ago, two of the medicine packets from a six-pack they sent to us were broken. My husband contacted them; they replaced it them with not just two packets, but six! There is some great customer service. Unfortunately, our declining dollar does not buy as much in Australia as it used to, but it is still cheaper than buying at the vet's. If you use Revolution or a similar product, we think PetsGard is worth a look.

English Tea Store

After a dry spell, suffering from withdrawals of Norfolk Manor Lemon Biscuits, I found them (along with Boland's Lemon Puffs) at the English Tea Store. Yum! They also have a huge variety of tea. When I watch too much BBC America, I like to peruse this website. What I really love, though, is that they consistently get things to gift recipients on time, in good condition, and alert me of the status along the way. Prices are reasonable. They are one of my new favorites for gift-giving. The lemon biscuits come in a fun cylindrical container. They are also one of the few places where I can find Lapsang Souchong black tea.

Big Island Candies

Another favorite gift site for us is our very own, local, Big Island Candies, which specializes in chocolates and shortbread cookies with an island flair. Their products draw rave reviews from our gift recipients, their customer service is excellent, and their website is beautiful. Warning: IF you want to save money, don't browse it on an empty stomach! It is really hard to pick a favorite item from this store, but we love their Peanut Butter Brownies (covered in chocolate) and their Kona Coffee Shortbread.

Kona Natural Soap Company

Indulge me in one more Hawaiian favorite: the Kona Natural Soap Company. Their use of all-natural, exotic ingredients available in Hawaii makes for gentle, unique, wonderfully scented, beautifully packaged gifts. Their customer service exudes the aloha spirit. If you cannot come here for a vacation, try some Kope Kokoleka (coffee/cacao soap) or Nani Lemi (lime/litsea soap).

Discount Dance Supply

Our college-age daughter has been taking dance since she was nine years old. Merely wearing out dance shoes and clothing is expensive enough; but each move from one geographical location to another, and each graduation from one dance troupe to another, usually results in new requirements for dance togs. Most instructors and studio programs have strict rules for the colors of leotards and tights.

All of this made it necessary for us to find a reasonably-priced alternative to more expensive and often minimally-stocked local shops. I found that alternative long ago, at Discount Dance Supply. Like all of the best mail-order places, their customer service is excellent, their prices are reasonable, and they make returns a snap. The products take a lot of abuse but are very good quality, so they last.

PlumbingSupply.com

Though my husband has only ordered from PlumbingSupply.com once, he nominated it for consideration. He ordered a valve to isolate our on-demand water heater for periodic flushing. When the valve arrived in a timely fashion, also inside the box were a thank-you note and a baggie full of hard candies. He thought that was a nice touch, indicating that his order truly was appreciated.

Readers, I know that everyone's needs for mail-order websites are different, so please chime in with your favorites! I can't wait to learn about them.

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Guest's picture
Guest

Fun article. There are a few of those that I have never heard of, and plan to try. My nominees: I have had good luck with Bass Pro Shops and Cafe Press.

Thanks for the ideas!

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Another Guest

Big Yes! on Penzey's. Been ordering from them for years and always happy. Can't stand to buy spices in the grocery store anymore - they all taste bland!

If you need rechargeable batteries (and they do wear out eventually), try http://www.greenbatteries.com/. They have good information about the different types of batteries and what each is best used for. I have always been happy with my orders from them.

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Guest

I love Zappos.com and Endless.com for shoes. You order your shoes in the morning and the next day they are on your doorstep! They have easy, free returns too.

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Guest

My friend is an Amway vendor, and though I have only ordered from them once, they're not a bad place. They sell in bulk, so it's an alternative to going to Costco, which is a bit out of the ways for me. And the fact that I get to help out a person I know is a plus, too!

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Jessica

I like Adagio for my tea - I order from them quite regularly and their tea is GREAT. :)

Guest's picture

that's an interesting assortment of online stores.

I'm a geek and NewEgg.com is a great place to get stuff.

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Marla Burpee

Another informative and entertaining article. Some new shopping sites to try!

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PaPa Jack

my daughter-in-law MaryAnne writes a blog for expats in Tokyo, called Tokyoblog.com She is always looking for mail order items that can be shipped to Japan by the vendor. Obviously the shipping will be high but less than shipping to (PaPa Jack or Uncle Pat) the gift giver who then must repack and do all of what is required to ship to another country. Toys, clothes, office supplies etc. Any suggestions?

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Brennan

A lot of these websites and companies will probably be going through changes soon with the explosion of private sales and group sales online at places such as Groupon, LivingSocial, etc. I could see QVC doing daily deals that appear online as well as promoted on their channel.

Guest's picture

This is a fun article. I try not to order from mail order sites; I live in New York and like to frequent the stores in my local community like the bookshop, my grocer, fishmonger, restaurant, etc. If my bookshop hasn't got a book I want, then I ask them to order it. What's the shopping like in Hawaii?

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, JN, and thank you for your nice comment.

We really try to "buy local" first. Unfortunately, sometimes you can't get the item you need, which makes ordering a necessity. When we aren't in a hurry to buy the item, we comparison shop - local store versus the internet. A lot of the time, it's just so much cheaper to order, even when you factor in the cost of shipping. You have to watch the shipping, though. We run into a frequent problem - some shippers refuse to use USPS; they only want to ship via UPS or Fed Ex. Those are both great companies but often make the shipping too expensive. Another problem here is that when a store is out of something, they mean it. Who knows when, or if, they'll get it again. We've learned that if it's the "last one" of something we want, or even "might want," we buy it. Shopping difficulties aside, though, we wouldn't trade it! Thanks again for commenting!

Guest's picture
Crewzzer

For true tea lovers the VERY best is Upton Tea (uptontea.com). Great tea, good prices, fast shipping, and personalized labels -- especially great for gift giving. I've been getting tea from them for about seven years and have never been disappointed!

Marla Walters's picture

Crewzzer, thank you for the tip about uptontea.com. I just pulled up their site and wow - 420 types of tea! I am sure to find everything I like. Thank you for the tip!