Some might say I am bit obsessive, compulsive, self-absorbed, focused and probably a few other adjectives when it comes to my running shoes. Ok, maybe I am but this post isn't about that it's about buying shoes.
I used to buy shoes only at running stores and I will still if they have the brand I want. If I need road shoes, they have great selections but for trail shoes the running stores I usually go to only offer a couple of brands usually Inov8, Nike, Brooks and/or Asics and none of these really seem to fit my foot. Very few sell Salomon, Vasque, Teva, Merrell, Montrail, Saucony, Asolo, Oboz and all the other brands of trail shoes that are available.
In the last year though all of my shoes have been bought on-line. I have bought from Sierra Trading Post, Backcountry or REI (make sure you check out BackCountry outlet and REI outlet in addition to their main sites). I have looked at shoes at ZombieRunner, Zappos, Altrec, Running Warehouse, Holibird, RunningShoes.com, Road Runner Sports, OnLineShoes, RnJ Sports, Shoes.com, Kellys Running Warehouse and I am sure many others.
The way I go about it is fairly easy, I know my foot type very well, somewhat wider forefoot and a narrow heel. What I have always called a Saucony foot. Anyway, what I do is read reviews at Zappos, REI, Backcountry, Sierra Trading, Altrec plus many of the other websites above have reviews along with the running magazines (Running Times, Trail Runner, RunnersWorld) and a handful of other sites like Trailspace, Outside Online, Competetive Runner and then many runners who blog do reviews, there is just a world of information available. Just google the shoe you are looking at and add the word review and you will get links to look at.
One other thing, always assume you can get a coupon for extra dollars off and/or free shipping. I have found with Sierra Trading and Backcountry that by signing up for their email deal notifications they send me coupons and all of their specials. Then when I see something that strikes my interest, I take a look, do the research and if I have a need, I buy otherwise I just continue to look for other shoes which I might consider later. In the process, I usually discover a model or a brand I wasn't aware of and then I make a mental note of it for the future.
As an example of this, one of the shoe brands I would like to try is Oboz and the model that I think might work for me is the Ignition which just so happens I could get at Sierra right now and to give you an idea of the prices, take a look at the Oboz Ignition. I am not sure if the link to the Obozs will work but if you went there you should see the cost for these shoes would be $40 (with the coupons and discounts) plus $7.95 shipping. So for a total of $47.95, I would have another pair of shoes, tempting but right now I am doing ok for shoes. (Update 11/22 - Got an email from them this morning, reduced again to $35.97, total = $43.92, patience can pay off, still not buying though). They do send you a return shipping label if they don't fit (no extra expense for you - make sure whoever you buy from offer this as it does remove the risk if you do have a bad fit) and the receipt says that you can return them if problems arise for credit or replacement. I should mention that usually the shoes they have are last years model which doesn't bother me but might some folks.
With Sierra Trading or Backcountry Outlet and probably most of the online sites, you have to be patient with sizes and shoe availability so if you always run in the same model of shoe, you might have trouble finding your shoe at the 50+% off discounts. If you need a certain model, shop around and you just might find a deal.
If however you are like me and willing to experiment a bit (and like to do some research) or are still in search of the perfect shoe, it's a great to way save some money and time. I like the fact that I can usually get 2 pairs for the price of 1. The way I look at it is, if one pair doesn't work out more than likely the other pair will and then I am no worse off in the pocketbook. Truth be told, I have had as good of luck buying on-line as I did when I bought in the store, might be do to the research I have done or the fact that there is no pressure to buy so I don't just settle for what's in the store.
The way I can tell if shoes work out is the mileage I put on them. Thus far I have bought 9 pair of shoes on-line over the last 2 and 1/2 years. I have retired four of the pairs with an average of 400 miles/pair, I have four pairs that I am running in right now and I expect the same mileage from them (meaning no losers) and I have one pair that I love but the shoes have prematurely started falling apart in the heels. I have not quite 250 miles on them and I plan to nurse another 50+ miles out of them this winter and if I am lucky I think I may have figured out a way to repair them. Yes I can be cheap but when I like a pair, I like to get my miles from them.
So from my viewpoint, buying trail shoes online has worked out great. Just remember that I know my foot type, do my research and I have never found a model that I will or can buy year after year. So if you are somewhat like me give buying online a try, you will save money and the part I enjoy the most is doing the research to find the deals and the shoes and being willing to experiment with different shoes.