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4 Steps to Shopping Online Like a Boss

By 10/09/2019December 11th, 202316 Comments

A step-by-step guide to learn how to put together a room you love, regardless of budget size. Use these designer trade tips and tricks to start shopping online like a boss. 

When I present the How to Shop Online/How to Work with Clients via eDesign training on Day 3 of my Specify Colour with Confidence workshops I am often met with skepticism.

“But isn’t everyone’s monitor different?” One will declare.

“Do all merchants photograph things well?” Another will ask doubtfully.

“What about exposure? How do you account for whether the room is East, South, North or West?”

So first. I have worked with thousands of clients all over the world. My questionnaire does not ask which exposure the room is facing (We do ask if the room is bright or dark).

Why? Because if the light changes the colour for a few hours during the day, people will forgive that if it looks right the rest of the time.

Getting colour right, is all about choosing the correct undertone and very little to do with exposure.

In my Vancouver workshop last month, I had a student share that she had added a skylight to her living room. And suddenly her colours looked wrong.

I suggested that likely the real reason her colours looked wrong, was because they probably weren’t perfect before, but because the room was dark, it wasn’t as noticeable. Now that the room had a skylight, it became much harder to ignore.

She agreed that was the real issue.

Another reason you might want to make lighting the culprit, is if you let your client push you into giving them a more current colour, or example  a ‘white’, in a room that has no business being white, then that’s when it will appear to have ‘changed in the light’. A phenomenon that would not have been an issue if you chose a colour that related to what was happening in the room.

Here’s the bottom line. I’m not saying lighting is NEVER a factor. I’m saying, STOP USING IT AS A
GO-TO EXCUSE because the colour that really does end up WRONG because of the light is an exception rather than the rule.

But I digress.

So what if you just don’t trust your eye (or your computer) yet. How do you shop for decor online and make sure you’re not constantly shipping everything back?

Here’s the hot tip:

Start with the item that would cost you the most if you had it custom made

So if you are refreshing your bathroom  and you’re going to order a vanity online because it comes with a countertop, sink, cabinet hardware and sometimes even a faucet, making the whole thing more affordable, order it first.

Then after it arrives, match everything to it with items you can buy locally.

Then you will avoid this problem sent to me by a reader recently:

I painted bathroom walls with Hush grey paint, Benjamin Moore and it has a violet color on my walls. Tile on floor is dark grey and shower tile is subway white. Purchased a vanity ( was supposed to be light grey with marble top with a touch of grey) turned out to be Seafoam green! Not crazy about the walls now! Should I repaint or not! Help!!



When decorating a sofa, custom pillows are VERY expensive. If you’ve ever had a decorator specify custom pillows you’ll know they run around $200 and up EACH!. Once you buy the fabric, and the insert and pay for the labour for the pillow to be made, that’s just what one custom pillow adds up to.

So before you order your sofa (which will likely be a custom fabric) order your throw pillows first.

There are many, many gorgeous, designer pillows for a fraction of the price on Etsy. Sometimes they will save costs by using the fabric only on one side, but you still get the look, which is great!


Spark Modern | Etsy

Begin with the Special One of a Kind or Investment Piece

Often a beautiful artwork or area rug is an investment piece. And if you’re sourcing a high quality or vintage rug online, it’s a good idea to order it FIRST and build the rest of the room around it. If you fall in love with a patterned rug, it makes sense to order it and then figure out what the right blue accent colour is to coordinate with it.

Or, order the smallest rug first and then if it’s the right colour, ship it back and order the one that fits the room.

Netta Rug Lulu and Georgia

If you want a blue kitchen island, it makes sense to order the custom pillows or patterned rug first so you can get the blue paint colour for your island perfect by comparing.

Order the Pattern First

If you’ve been reading the blog for awhile, you know I basically advise avoiding accent tile. But let’s say you know that tile should be simple and classic, but you would like to go bold with some colour on your bathroom floor. You’re considering this high end patterned tile with a pretty leaf green in a fairly classic pattern below.

Ann Sacks Beau Monde Mosaics

To create the perfect white bathroom with this mosaic floor, order a sample of the main pattern (the tile) first, and then choose the supporting solid white wall tiles and and paint colours to match.

Another patterned element that is best ordered in advance is wallpaper. It’s hard to tell whether the actual colour is brighter or duller than the online image. Or whether the whites in it are true white or creamy. There’s no way around ordering a sample (same with any fabric by the way).

Ideally, you would order your wallpaper samples and then choose the right coordinating trim, paint and accent colours to match.

Full Bloom Wallpaper Anthropologie

4 Steps to Shopping Online Like a Boss

While it’s true that online photos of products may not be as reliable as we would like, it’s wise to simply work around it.

Here’s a step by step process for shopping online:

  1. Start with the Custom or Pricey Item First. As with the prefabricated vanity in the first example, it’s much easier to find tile and paint to coordinate with the vanity than to find a vanity that will exactly match whatever tile or paint you’ve chosen. Same goes with a non custom shelving unit, or kitchen cart, etc.
  2. Order the Patterned or Multi Coloured Item First. The item with a range of colours in it is going to set your decorating palette. Get that piece, or a sample of the pattern first to source and compare all other items to.
  3. Always Order a Sample. This applies to any pattern in tile, fabric, wallpaper, etc. And if a sample is not available, be sure to familiarize yourself with the return policy. Make sure you can ship the rug back inexpensively and easily if it is not what you expected. Never order furniture online without ordering a fabric sample first. If they won’t provide you with a sample, either make sure returns are easy, or keep shopping.
  4. Compare, Compare, Compare. Gather all your samples together before settling on any elements to work with the patterned or investment piece. Lay out all the samples together in the orientation they will be installed, isolated with white paper and make sure they all relate well.

This is the process. It’s the due diligence we have to do to create beauty with the extraordinary convenience of shopping at our fingertips.

Don’t Forget to Measure Twice and Click Buy Once

And while you’re focussed on getting the colour right, don’t forget to carefully measure. I have a friend who once ordered a velvet settee online for a song. She came home one day to a smallish box on her doorstep. It was a miniature velvet settee. Her dog got to lounge in style.

Birch Lane

So over to you! I would love to hear about your experiences ordering online. Give me the good, the bad and the funny, like this story above 🙂

To learn exactly how to create Mood Boards so you end up with exactly the right colours, you can buy this course here.

Related Posts

5 Reasons your Paint Colour is Wrong; It’s NOT the Lighting

Got Inspiration? 10 Steps to Create the Rest of the Room

Tricia’s Classic Bathroom Makeover Before and After

How to shop online like a boss

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  • S. Mitchell says:

    Great information! May I also add that when you order fabric to order the correct amount from the same dye lot and make sure it is the same as the sample you ordered first. In addition, if there are large expanses of wall, book the paint-mixing all the cans together before beginning. Thanks for the post Maria!

  • Liz in Oregon says:

    I had a really good experience ordering furniture online, but I was ordering fairly inexpensive “placeholder” furniture that I could get quickly. We were moving and our current furniture wouldn’t fit. I wanted a new, rather unusual color scheme. I ordered already-upholstered living room chairs from Overstock, Amazon, and Pier One (no upholstery samples)…and held my breath. They worked perfectly. Wayfair helped out with occasional tables. I actually ordered the rug last (I know, I know) with the help of a friend across the country who found it online after seeing my furniture colors. Again, perfect. I only had to return one end table that didn’t work.

    Would I break all these rules when ordering expensive custom-upholstered furniture or an expensive rug? Not on your life! My cheap, “temporary” furniture is still with us after another move, and I still love it, although I’m almost ready to invest in a couple of more comfortable chairs (aka recliners) in the same color.

  • Cathy says:

    Most valuable piece of advice is to order the smallest rug sample first. This has saved me/clients a multitude of times! In my experience online rug photos are notoriously off and not true to real life, and I’m not talking about just a slight undertone. Great post, have a good day.

  • Tara says:

    An excellent post, Maria. Thank you. And I love all the items/images you show as illustrations. I now want to use that beautiful blue floral wallpaper somewhere in my house. And the initial white Living Room in the beginning is absolutely gorgeous. Thanks for another uplifting, helpful post. Blessings to all!
    – Tara

  • Nicole says:

    When we added skylights to our great room, it changed the colors in our great room due to the UV filtering coating that was factory applied to the glass. It suddenly looked like the room was lit with cool temperature LEDs instead of the warm sunlight we anticipated. You can see that the light reflected in the drywall chase up to each skylight is a cool blue.

  • Kay says:

    Your advice about ordering the big expensive thing first is what I’ve done, with great results. I’ve never had to send anything back. Each time, the colors have been exactly what I saw on my monitor.

    The biggest issue about shopping for home furnishings online is the time it takes. I’m probably especially slow and cautious, but I look for a long time before I find the right thing.

  • Anita Rosen says:

    For those of us home owners who love to read design blogs and decorate this is really good information. I’ll add one about measuring (size). I found a beautiful club chair online, great price. I ordered a swatch, it was perfect. Using blue painters tape I boxed out the size of the chair and thought it would work. The chair arrived, perfect color, perfect design, but, it’s huge, as in “The Big Comfy Couch” big, or Lilly Tomlin’s Edith Ann’s chair big. I learned amateurs can get close, but to get a design right, there’s no shortcut for experience when it comes to scale, shape, space, texture, and color.

  • Cathryn says:

    Lucky Dog!! That is awesome! This is the best recommendation! Clients always ask me what first and I always say paint last! Happy to know I was doing it right!! Thanks Maria!

  • Mary-Illinois says:

    Hi Maria,
    When I was shopping for a teal colored rug online, I ordered the smallest size it came in as my “sample”. I figured if it didn’t work out I would be cheaper to send back a smaller rug.
    When the small rug arrived I loved It. I went ahead & ordered the large size & use my sample in front of the vanity in our guest bath.
    I was able to do that because you taught me how important it is that your colors flow. Thanks!

  • Leslye says:

    Don’t forget if you are a designer or ordering through one to get a current cutting of fabrics. It’s amazing how dye lots change! If the cutting works remember to order yardage from that dye lot!

  • Gery S. says:

    Thank you for your valued thoughts on the topic Maria. I ordered a bench cushion from an Etsy source for the top of a bookcase/sofa credenza, that my cats can lounge on, plus sofa pillows from the same fabric. The vendor estimated the yardage and allowed me to send them my own fabric, which I also ordered online from a different source, but only after getting samples first and preshrinking, since regular machine laundering is a must. The process has taken time, and I am waiting for delivery, but so far running smoothly. I also feel good about supporting a small family owned business.

  • Irene says:

    Great advice! Also, some vendors include customers photos in reviews, which gives more sense of how the item looks in varied lighting or backdrops. I live on Vancouver island and shipping/returns are often expensive. I discovered Article Furniture has amazingly convenient and inexpensive shipping/returns on large items like sofas or chairs. They provide free swatches, but small, so the easy returns take out all the risk.

  • Irene says:

    Some online vendors ( comes to mind for rugs) include a photo of the item with identifiable paint color chips on it. Brilliant!

  • M says:


    That is an interesting topic. I am surprised people can buy furniture or fabric online. I was never good at that, haha.

  • KNJ says:

    I would like to add . . . Be careful when searching wallpaper on line. I’ve found that the colours on my screen are quite close to the actual colour of the wallpaper But. . . My screen doesn’t detect shimmer/metallic finishes well at all. It takes a good imagination to envision the wallpaper even if the detailed description mentions something is glossy. Thanks for the post . . . Very helpful.

  • Tracy says:

    I ordered a beautiful custom navy blue english roll arm sofa online. After waiting 6 long weeks, it finally arrived and I HATED it. it was beautiful to look at, but beyond uncomfortable and apparently I didn’t take the measurements into account as it was also on the small side. The next day, I get a knock on my door from my mailman as he had a package for me and I asked him if he wanted a sofa. By that evening, he and his son and wife showed up and we loaded it up in his truck and his wife was in amazement at how “new” it looked. I smiled and said “that’s because it is” and she was speechless. LOL This is why I will never purchase an item before sitting on it, ever again. That was one costly mistake, but one we still laugh at.

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