Be a Better Online Shopper
Six rules to live by to get great deals and avoid getting ripped off
En español | You can shop for virtually anything on the internet, but whether you're browsing for glow-in-the-dark garden gnomes or a 65-inch ultra-HD television, check out the newest price-cutting tricks and tools.
Get money saving tips and better budgeting ideas in the AARP Money Newsletter
Gear Up to Shop
Michelle Madhok, CEO of the fashion news and deals site SheFinds, recommends services such as PricePinx.com to get notified the instant an item you're craving is marked down. She also suggests following your favorite retailers on Facebook and Twitter for early access to sales and markdowns. Another trick: buying discounted gift cards at Gift Card Granny and CardCash. In September, Granny was selling a $300 Talbot's credit for $198. "It's silly not to check," Madhok says.
Search (Smarter) and Destroy (Overspending)
Don't just Google it. Use comparison engines that are tailored to your shopping whims—for instance, ShopStyle for fashion and home products, and Shopping.com and Bizrate for commodity items such as TVs.
Gilt and One Kings Lane hold flash sales on designer goods, slashing prices by as much as 90 percent for a few hours. PriceGrabber compiles items with the lowest prices from across the virtual retail landscape. Sites such as Overstock and 6pm.com are the deal hunter's nirvana, the web's version of backroom racks. These sites let you scour ridiculous deals on closeouts from past seasons, as well as reconditioned electronics.
Beware of Scam Artists
Smarter web searching can help you avoid scams such as "retail arbitrage," in which dealers buy hot products at low prices and resell them higher on Amazon or Ebay. Googling the product name along with the phrase "best price" can remedy this, and maybe even put these retailers out of business. Then there's "dynamic pricing," by which online prices can fluctuate based on your search history, competitors' pricing or other data. Prices can change in nanoseconds, by a few cents or over $100. Avoid it, says consumer and money-saving expert Andrea Woroch: "By opening a private browser window, you can shop incognito to bypass cookies"—those digital bread crumbs our searches leave online—"and grab legitimate low prices." To open a private browser window, press Control + Shift + N (in Windows, Linux and Chrome OS) or Command + Shift + N (Mac).
The shopping site's prices change daily (sometimes hourly), so scan camelcamelcamel.com for the cost history of any item on Amazon. Amazon Outlet is perhaps the web's biggest warehouse sale, where watches, toys and other items are typically 40 to 80 percent off. Many people don't realize that Amazon offers daily rollbacks on household and grocery items. Under the Today's Deals tab, click Coupons on the left sidebar under the section Deal Type. "This could mean $1 off a box of Kleenex or 25 percent off Kashi granola bars, but it's all good for your wallet," says Woroch.
As for Amazon Prime, yes it's expensive at $99 a year. But it can pay off if you milk it. Beyond rapid free shipping on many items, there are lesser-known rewards: low-priced grocery and household products, free music, e-books and video streaming, 30-minute early access to Amazon Lightning Deals and—proud grandparent alert!—unlimited photo storage on Amazon Drive. Want to avoid the fee? Credit card companies may offer Prime as a free perk for new members (not that you need more plastic).
Take to the Streets
Some of the sweetest online savings happen, as the kids say, IRL (in real life). Madhok recommends using the phone apps for Amazon or ShopSavvy to snap a photo of an item's bar code and automatically compare prices among thousands of brick-and-mortar shops. The apps even have coupons that you can show on your phone at checkout, Madhok says. At places like T.J.Maxx and Nordstrom Rack, you can buy online and return in-store if an order doesn't work out, thereby saving shipping fees. Target's Cartwheel app offers extra savings on top of in-store sales and manufacturer's discounts. To really go high-tech, get the Shopkick app to earn Kicks, which are like frequent-flier miles for shoppers just for walking into a store. There's no need to check in. A device inside the location emits a signal that gets picked up by your phone. Says Madhok, "It's like a scavenger hunt where you get rewards for trying on clothes or scanning a bar code. You can then redeem your Kicks for gift cards."
Check Twice Before Checkout
A few final reminders: Never shop on unfamiliar sites (the ones listed here are reliable). Do not shop online using public Wi-Fi or an unsecured connection. Don't shop on any site if the URL doesn't start with "https." "The 's' means the site is secured, and your financial information is less likely to be compromised by sites set up fraudulently to grab your money," Woroch says.
Coupon Sherpa is a treasure trove of coupon codes that brings big savings just by entering a few keystrokes. And did you know that Kohl's, Victoria's Secret, Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts, and a few other retailers allow more than one promo code per order? That's savings. FreeShipping.com eliminates delivery charges at more than a thousand online retailers, including big names like Kohl's, Target and JC Penney.
But this may be the smoothest tech move of all: talking to an actual human. "I often open up live chats with customer service to ask about available discounts or offers not advertised on the site," Woroch says. "Typically, these reps are eager to help in some way, whether it's handing out coupon codes or unexpected services." Take the day Woroch needed a dress for a wedding but was short on time. The designer's site had it for a great price, but a third-party retailer offered free overnight shipping. "I opened up a chat with one of the sales reps and asked if they could match the price of the designer, and they did! Just by asking, I was able to get the dress at the price I wanted in time for the big day."
David Hochman is a writer living in Los Angeles.