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Bargain hunting in cyberspace

The great thing about the Internet is that you can peruse hundreds of different stores to find the best price without becoming physically exhausted or cranky. And, you probably have a better chance of staying within your budget. After all, there's no chance of standing in a crowded department store tired, achy and frustrated, shelling out too much money for not-quite-right gifts just to have your shopping mercifully end.

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Internet shopping allows you to shop in your pajamas, relaxed in front of your computer in the comfort of your own home. But, don't get too comfy -- you still can overspend and even get your cyber-pockets picked.

Consider these seven factors when looking for bargains online.

Contrast and compare
For the rest of you, comparison-shopping is the only way to buy online. When you find an item you like, save it in the site's shopping cart, then scour the Web for a better price. You might find it's easier to open another browser window so you can skip back and forth to compare the items, prices and shipping costs.

"Compare, compare, compare," says bargain hunter Matthew Coffin, founder and CEO of LowerMyBills.com, a free comparison service for monthly bills, such as long-distance and car insurance. He recommends checking sites, such as MySimon, BizRate, PriceGrabber and FatWallet. "It's generally cheaper to operate an online store (than a brick-and-mortar store) and those savings can be passed on to consumers," says Coffin. "The Internet empowers the community. It has an availability of information and that gives people the ability to compare prices. You can't do that in a mall."

Stay on budget
The best way to save money while shopping online is to create a budget and stick to it. It's easy to get swept up in the spirit of giving and go overboard, especially when you're paying with a credit card. So make a list of everyone you need to get a gift for and write the top dollar amount you will spend for each. Then stick to it.

Sale button is your best friend
Most sites have a clearance or sale button that will pull up great deals just by clicking. If there's a feeling of triumph better than finding the perfect gift, it's finding the perfect gift on sale.

Second only to the sale button is the gift-wizard or gift-ideas button. The results might not always be low-priced, but you can get some good ideas to help you on your bargain hunt.

Where to e-shop
Almost every business has a Web site, so if you have a favorite store, look for it online. Some businesses have special Web deals -- sales offered only on the Internet. You might do better than you would by walking into the brick-and-mortar store.

If you still don't know where to look, check out Consumer Reports. They keep a list of reliable sites, divided by categories, such as clothing, electronics and toys.

Watch shipping costs
Remember to factor shipping costs into the final price of the gift. Many sites have free shipping during the holidays for orders over a certain amount or certain number of items. If you find one of those deals, search the site for other gifts on your list to see if you can reach the minimum -- but don't buy things you don't want just to get free shipping.

You'll also need to verify the delivery date. Paying for Express shipping will nullify any bargain price you found so for the best shipping deals, buy early.

Find out if there is a guaranteed delivery date and what steps will be taken if your items don't arrive on time. A Federal Trade Commission rule requires that sellers ship items as promised or within 30 days of the order if no specific date is promised. If they can't ship the order within the promised or 30-day deadline, they are required to notify you, give you chance to cancel the order and provide a full refund if you choose to cancel.

You may be able to avoid shipping costs completely if the company allows you to place your order online, and then pick it up at your local store. Many large chain stores have this option.

Sign up for coupons
No one needs more junk mail, but everyone can use coupons. So get a second e-mail account -- a free one, such as Hotmail, and use it just for applying to the frequent shopper e-mails on Web sites. That way you get coupons and are alerted to sales. Ask your friends and co-workers if they have any coupons they can forward to you (quietly if it's your co-workers -- you don't want the boss to know you're shopping).

Sites such as Amazing Bargains and Clever Moms keep track of Internet coupon codes, so before purchasing an item, check to see if they have a coupon for it.

Shop only legitimate sites
The lowest price is too high if you end up with a shoddy product or no product at all. So check for:

  • Return policy -- Many stores, such as Gap and Barnes & Noble, allow you to return online orders to their local stores. Lillian Vernon allows you to return personalized merchandise.
  • Warranties -- If you're shopping for electronics, make sure your product comes with a warranty, and read the specifics before buying.
  • Legitimacy of the company -- Anyone, including con artists, can set up a Web site that looks legitimate. Shop at sites you know and trust. If in doubt, check with the BBB and Consumer Reports.

Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you find an item being sold for an amount that is vastly lower than other sites, maybe you just found the deal of the century -- or maybe it's a scam. So shop carefully.

-- Updated: Sept. 20, 2005




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