More and more beaders are choosing to buy their materials online. And since the worldwide web has become a veritable buffet of delectable beads and findings that are sold online, who could blame them? While online shopping will never replace a trip to the local bead store in my book (my favorite bead store is walking distance from my house--great for my bead addiction, dangerous for my wallet!), I have found that when I have a specific project in mind, ordering materials online is the easiest way to find the items that I need. Of course, one of the tradeoffs of ordering online is that you never know exactly what you are going to get. It can be really difficult to gauge the exact size, shape, and color of the materials you are ordering from a picture on a computer screen. Time and again, I have opened a package of new goodies and been surprised by what was in it. Sometimes, these were pleasant surprises (don't you just love it when you get a free charm with your order?)...but not always. In my years of ordering bead supplies, I have learned a thing or two about buying online, and developed some helpful tips and tricks:
1) Keep a ruler and measuring tape handy. The first thing I do when I am preparing for a digital shopping spree is get out my measuring tools. Make sure you have a way to measure in both inches and millimeters! This way, I can at least get a rough visual for the sizes of the materials I am buying.
2) Refer to a necklace sizing guide for items that are sold by the length. Charts like the one you see here (which I found on this blog on ArtFire.com), show standard necklace lengths on a model and can be found on a number of online jewelry retail sites. This is especially helpful if I am buying chain, cord, or leather that I plan to use in a necklace. There are similar guides available for bracelet sizes, also.
3) Order in small quantities first. Since ordering materials online is always a gamble, I like to place small orders, usually only enough for one or two projects. This way, I haven't taken a bath on materials that I end up not liking, and I can always order more of the ones that I do like!
4) Keep your receipts! I have a special folder in my email inbox for receipts, and I file all of my digital receipts there. This way, if I want to order more of an item that I bought a long time ago, I have a record of where I got it, and exactly what it was. Similarly, I save any marked packaging that seems like it might help in identifying an item down the road. Companies will often mark each bag that they send off with a product number, which makes finding materials again on the vendor's website super simple.
5) Do the math. Make sure that you are ordering enough of each product for the project you are planning. There are very few things that are more frustrating than reaching the final steps of a new design, only to find that you are three beads short. For a recent charm bracelet workshop that I taught with fellow editor Debbie Blair (see her latest blog here), I quadruple-checked my calculations before ordering supplies for our students. In part, this was to make sure that I ordered enough for everyone, but it was also to avoid wasting money by over-ordering. Better safe than sorry...
6) Utilize buyers' guides. Companies that publish craft magazines and books often publish buyers' guides as well. Right now we are working on collecting products for Beads 2012, the ultimate bead-buyer's guide (check out last year's Beads 2011 here). If you are looking for some exciting new materials, but aren't sure where to look, resources like this are a great place to start.
7) Be flexible. Once you pull the trigger and place an order, remember that you might be surprised by the materials that arrive at your doorstep. They may not end up working for the project that you had in mind, but odds are they will work perfectly for a different project! I have found that when I try to make a new design match the exact picture I had of it in my head, I just end up frustrated. Allow your designs to evolve as you work on them. If a new item looks nothing like what you thought it would, you could choose to get out your chasing hammer and bench block and smash the disappointing item into a million tiny pieces in a blind rage...or you could see it as an opportunity for a completely new design. I think you'll find that option two is far more pleasant (and requires less clean up!).
I am sure there are points that I missed...what are your online bead shopping secrets?