How to Buy Things Online

I often buy things online. Here’s how I do it. I hope my technique is helpful to you!

For normal stuff

So, let’s say you want to buy some chalk for your home chalkboard, where you share notes (“buy milk”) with people in your household.

We can assume:

  • There’s a baseline level of quality, after which there’s not much added value. Top shelf chalk is not really important to you; you just don’t want shitty chalk that doesn’t work.
  • For the range of prices for normal chalk, you don’t care too much about the difference in price. Chalk is like $5 a box, right? Something like that. So really getting a great deal is not important to you.
  • You don’t know of a big social impact of different brands of chalk. You aren’t worried about that.
  • You want it soon, sure, but it’s not urgent. This is not a chalk emergency.
  • You don’t enjoy shopping for chalk.
  • You do not want to do this very often.

In these circumstances, you can use the following procedure to buy chalk online:

1. Go to the Amazon app or Web site.

2. Search for “chalk”. You’ll have to scroll to find actual chalk. Amazon puts a lot of random bullshit in their search results.

3. You can safely ignore anything that is marked “Sponsored”. These are usually scams, or products that are so bad that they have to pay to get attention.

4. You can safely skip anything with an X, Q, or Z in the brand name. These are made up companies that only exist to arbitrage commodities on Amazon.

5. You can safely skip stuff that’s expensive and high tech, like chalk markers, or specialized for a purpose, like sidewalk chalk. First, you don’t need it. Second, it probably won’t work.

6. Look for a brand you recognize. Here’s “Crayola”. You know them from crayons, sure, but those are school supplies, right? They probably have OK chalk. It is kind of a school supply.

7. You can also look for flags like “Amazon’s Choice” or “Bestseller”. That usually means you’re not going to get scammed, and you’re going to get something that most people call “chalk”.

8. Stuff marked “Prime” is good. It’s a good indicator that the product will probably ship, for real, and probably arrive soon. Stuff with estimated arrival ranges more than a month out are not worth looking at.

9. Don’t worry too much about stars and reviews. Unless it’s like 1000 reviews and 1.5 stars. More reviews is better; it means a lot of people actually bought this thing.

10. This Crayola White Chalk is probably going to do the trick. It’s really small and cheap, though. Are you going to feel bad when you get a delivery of a single $1.69 box of chalk? If so, look for a bigger box farther down the list. If you can’t find it, buy like 10 boxes. Or bundle this with another purchase.

11. Triple-check the title and description before checkout, especially if the price seems weird. Is this a chalk carrying case? Is it a framed photo of chalk? Or is it really chalk?

With luck, you will receive your chalk in a couple of days. It may be postmarked in Peru, or have a weird religious note in the package, or be quadruple-wrapped in cardboard and styrofoam, but that’s just how Amazon works.

For interesting stuff

Let’s say you want to buy a pocket knife for your son as a gift. We can assume the following:

  • Quality matters. Your son might own this knife for a long time. A good one will serve him well; a bad one will cut his thumb off. A good knife just feels great, too.
  • Value matters. Prices can go up pretty wildly. You have a budget in mind; maybe $50 or $100? You want a good knife for the price.
  • Time is important, but it’s not urgent. This might be for a birthday or a camping trip in a few weeks.
  • You might enjoy learning about pocket knives. Somewhat. They’re pretty interesting tools, right? There’s a whole subculture around them.
  • You don’t know about any big social issues with pocket knives. Maybe some ultra-conservative brands exist? So you might want to watch for those.

In these circumstances, here is a good plan:

1. Go to Google. Search for “best pocket knife 2022”.

2. You can safely skip the Google Shopping results and Sponsored results.

3. Scroll down and look for “best of” review articles. Skip ones where you don’t recognize the name or URL of the publication, or where the publication might not have anything to do with pocket knives.

4. We want 2-3 articles to cross check. In this case, I choose articles from the New York Times, Field and Stream, and Forbes. Forbes is kind of unreliable, but I’ll give it a shot. All the “outdoorzombo” and “zombogear” ones sound fishy.

5. In each article, check for the different categories. “Best overall”, “Best value”, “Best budget” and “Best for beginners”. You can safely skip the ones for specialized use, like hunting. The “premium” choice is bad. You don’t know enough about this type of product to understand or appreciate premium features.

6. Check the prices to see if they’re in your budget. You might have to click through the links to find the price. In this case, the “best overall” is $139, which is too high, and the “best budget” is $19.99, which might be too low for a gift?

7. Look at the other articles and check for commonalities. Pocket knives that appear on multiple lists probably have a broad consensus on quality, rather than the opinion of one reviewer or a board. Watch for seemingly minor variations, though. There’s a Benchmade Griptilian on the Wirecutter page, but it’s got the word “mini” in it, plus a model number. It may be about the same? Or wildly different?

8. Look up acronyms and jargon. “EDC”, for example, isn’t a kind of steel or a style of handle. It means “everyday carry”, that is, a knife you keep in your pocket for all kinds of tasks.

9. Make a short list of best choices; 3-5 are best. Search on Google for each one. See if there are bad reviews, shortages, or whatever. See if the prices in the articles reflect actual market price. You might learn about issues like blade quality, one-handed open, or weight. If this is fun and interesting, keep going. You can take a few sessions to learn more.

10. You have to make a choice between “budget” and “overall” eventually. One way to decide is this:

  • If the object is something it would make sense to own two or more of, like a fountain pen or a pocket knife, then start at budget or beginner, decide if you like it, and upgrade later, using your budget knife as a backup or fallback.
  • If the object is something it wouldn’t make sense to have two of, like a laser printer or a lawnmower, do a little more research and get the best overall choice the first time.

11. Eventually, it’s time to buy. Start with your top choice; work your way down the list if things are unavailable. Find an online retailer that has the exact make and model you want. Note that this is usually not Amazon. You will mostly get weird brands like MOXWO CK instead of what you search for. If they return the brand you want, it will be for the wrong model number. Amazon hates selling you what you ask for.

This House of Knives seems fine. They have the product you want, and they ship to Canada.

12. Check shipping prices. Are they crazy high? If you’re used to free shipping with Amazon, they can be shocking.

13. If possible, skip creating an account. It’s time consuming and puts a lot of your personal info into a database of dubious security.

14. Make sure to uncheck any newsletter signup options when you check out.

15. Checking out with Google Pay, PayPal, or some other integrated payment can save a lot of time filling out forms.

That’s it! We’re all done.

Choosing quality

How do you know whether quality matters? In most cases, I just guess. I have a pretty good idea that quality matters for electronics, tools, and clothes. I don’t think it really matters for household goods with a limited life span like paper towels, light bulbs, or trashcans.

Sometimes I guess wrong, and I have to learn from experience. For example, we bought a house, and the previous owner had left a garden hose attached to the spigot. It leaked and sprayed all over the place.

I bought a cheap replacement on Amazon, and in a month or two it was broken and leaking and spraying. My wife bought another replacement at the store, and it was all messed up in a few months, too.

So I went through the process to find a quality garden hose. It cost about 50% more than I expected, but it’s been working for about 18 months, so it already paid for itself.


I’m sure there might be some better ways to do this kind of work, but this technique is working well for me right now.

I have enough income that I don’t have to hyperoptimise on price, thankfully, and I have sufficiently modest tastes that I’m normally buying pocket knives, chalk and garden hoses, not speedboats or villas on Lake Como.

I also don’t often buy things for status, so issues around luxury brands and celebrity endorsements don’t matter a lot to me. In fact, it’s usually a bad signal; if the company paid Kanye West to use his name on the garden hose, it probably means the intrinsic quality is not enough for them to build their own brand. I just don’t think I’ll appreciate Gucci chalk versus Crayola.

Feel free to tell me how you shop online.

One thought on “How to Buy Things Online

  1. I try to skip Amazon as they are already a bit too big to give them my money but also for the adversarial search you also mentioned. My default is eBay which is still of course a big corporation, but at least has genuine small sellers and decent filters with proper metadata. Wish Google would do better for product search, but even here in the UK most of the results are pretty useless, very US centric and not possible to filter.

    I’d never think of writing a blog post of a topic which sounds so basic on the face of it, but it was interesting to read your thought process so thanks for sharing!

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