On more than one occasion, online product pictures and descriptions have failed me.
The "ruby" sweater I recently received, for example, just wasn't the same shade of red as the sweater shown on the site. Though such discrepancies are usually minor, in this instance, the sweater was meant to match a certain skirt. I had to return it.
Online shopping often is a gamble. Because you can't hold the product in your hands before the purchase, you never know what you are going to get until you get it. This can be especially problematic when a purchase, such as the sweater, is meant to pair up with something you already own.
Fortunately, some sites offer product samples for free or a small fee. Simply fill out an online request form and receive a small swatch in about a week. Whether you're shopping for a sweater or a sofa, these sites offer samples that you can hold up against the living room drapes to make sure they match.
Pottery Barn offers swatches for window covers and its upholstered furniture at www .potterybarn.com. Unlike some sites, which send only the colors a customer specifies, Pottery Barn will mail all of the swatches available for a particular product.
Within a week of placing my order--the site advertises a seven- to 10-day delivery--I received samples of Pottery Barn's velvet drapes (with names such as amber, wine, lichen, espresso and taupe) and leather furniture (cognac, black, chocolate, caramel).
The swatches, about 3 inches long and 2 inches wide, were soft to the touch, and the leather maintained its smell.
Restoration Hardware also provides swatches for some of its leather furniture, but I could not order them online. The site, at www.restorationhardware .com, indicates items for which swatches are available and includes the company's customer service number.
I called the number, and the customer service representative said she would be happy to send me samples for one of the leather recliners. More than a week later, I was still waiting for them to arrive.
Smith & Noble
Smith & Noble, which produces window treatments and custom home furnishings, offers samples for every product sold online, including blinds, bedding, tablecloths and rugs.
It has one of the most--if not the most--extensive swatch collections on the Internet. One round tablecloth on the site boasted 302 swatches.
Swatches can be ordered with a catalog number or by selecting from the samples shown online at www.smith andnoble.com.
The site charges $5 for up to 10 swatches, but place an order of at least $100 within 90 days and the $5 charge is deducted from the total bill.
Need drapes to match the fabric on the living room sofa? Smith & Noble will make its products with the customer's own material. Go to www .customersownmaterial.com for more details.
Home Depot doesn't include product samples, but it does sell flooring in 6- to 12-inch squares online. Options are limited, however. The site, at www.homedepot.com, featured only four carpet samples, for example.
Carpet samples cost 50 to 75 cents, vinyl tile samples cost 39 cents to $1.99, and sheet vinyl samples cost 50 cents to $1. There also were a few ceramic and natural stone tiles that ranged from about $1 to $9.
Hardwood floor samples are not available, as panels are sold only by the crate.
I ordered carpet, vinyl tile, sheet vinyl and natural stone tile squares for $5.49. But because my order was a purchase, and not a sample request, I had to pay for shipping. The cost for the four samples came to $10.40.
Lands' End offers swatches of its clothing online at www .landsend.com. After you select an item, the site displays the available colors. Samples, in the form of 1 1/2-inch squares, arrive in less than a week.
I think I've found the place to order my ruby sweater.
Christine Frey covers personal technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.