I've often debated this dilemma in my mind. But I'm feeling less and less guilty with buying online as I'm shopping in local shops and realizing that instead of paying a competent staff a fair wage, they hire incompetent people at minimum wage, and carry a very limited product selection so that they don't have to bear the cost of inventory.
I recently "re-tooled" and bought skis, boots, bindings, jacket, pants, baselayers. I searched high and low within 50 mi radius of my home, visited about 15 shops, and ended up buying everything online. In the case of the
garments: simply not available in my size anywhere so I paid retail price online
boots: poor selection in my size, last time I let them sell me what they had in stock and not what I really needed/wanted, boots are way too big now that they've packed out. So now, I'm buying 3 pairs online and plan to send 2 of them back, I'll create my own showroom in my house.
skis: simply can't muster paying a 60% markup to have a high schooler salesmen sells me skis, when he would never be caught dead on anything but a snowboard (no offense, snowboarders), but seriously, unless you've been on the skis yourself, I think online research for skis is just as good as someone working in a shop
I've been reading threads in frustration/jealousy where you guys have competent shops in your areas for bootfitting, advice, etc. Maybe the fact is sustainable jobs in retail are gone, or nearly gone. I think the other thing is once you are exposed to shopping online, you expect to have unlimited choices. So I see some piece of gear online, or in a magazine, read about, and then decide I need THAT, and won't settle for anything else, and can't find it anywhere locally.