What is sure to be the most popular electronic gadget this holiday season? The computer you already own.
Consumers are using the Internet to save money, time and shoe leather as they prepare for the holidays, says Ellen Davis, vice president of the National Retail Federation, or NRF.
"More people are shopping online this year compared to just a year ago," Davis says.
Those who don't actually buy online are browsing Web sites to compare prices. "The Internet has started to play an integral role in everyone's holiday shopping," she says. The organization estimates that the Internet will influence one in three gifts this holiday season.
Whether you're surfing and shopping, or buying and shipping, here are eight great ways your computer can help you keep a little extra green in your pockets:
1. Compare prices online
You're buying a new Blu-ray player or digital video camera. The online retailer promises "the best prices in town" or "crazy savings." But what's the reality behind the hype?
"The whole problem you're trying to figure out: Is this a good deal or not?" says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. "Unless you do your homework, you're not going to know."
Fortunately for online shoppers, "you can let someone else do the work for you," says Michael Miller, author of "Bargain Hunter's Secrets to Online Shopping." A variety of shopping sites will compare prices on an item and rank the retailers by price. Or you can chart the price of an item over time, like a share of your favorite stock, all without leaving your desk.
Some popular shopping comparison sites are: DealTime.com, BizRate.com, Shopping.com, PriceGrabber.com, Google Product Search and Pronto.com
For more high-end, less mass-market goods, check out TheFind.com, says Hillary Mendelsohn, author of "thepurplebook: The Definitive Guide to Exceptional Online Shopping," and founder of thepurplebook.com, an online shopping guide.
What you need to know is some shopping services limit their results to information sent by individual retailers, so you may not see everything, Miller says. But Google Product Search does its own comparison, he says. The lesson from this is to hit several different sites to really get an accurate comparison.
When it comes to the reviews of products or retailers, "there may be some ringers." But for the most part, reviews can give you a good sense of the service and the product, Dworsky says. And, because product reviews come from people who have been living with the product, "you may learn little facts that are important to you that have not been picked up elsewhere," he says.
One shopping site is sweetening its deal with savings for consumers. Microsoft's Bing search engine is offering a "cashback" program when consumers purchase through the site. Here's how it works: You register, make a purchase through the site and within about two months the cash-back amount, which fluctuates depending on the item, is deposited into your account. When that balance tops $5, you can request your money.
2. Find the deals
When you want to limit your purchases to really great buys, there are plenty of sites that are happy to show them to you. Go to SlickDeals.net or FatWallet.com and check out the "hot deals" forum, says Dworsky. "Both have message boards where people post the deals they find," he says.
The National Retail Federation has launched its own site, CyberMonday.com, with promotions, price breaks and some exclusive deals from more than 550 retailers.
In addition, you can find bargain or shopping sites that specialize in the category you're seeking, says Mendelsohn. One site good for finding technology-related toys is TechBargains.com.
There are even bargain site aggregators, which will give you the top buys found at a host of different deal sites, like DealDump.com.