smart spending

9 secrets to online bargain hunting

Experts agree that you're likely to find better deals through third-party Web sites such as RetailMeNot than dealing directly with a merchant. However, Webb says that some online retailers won't allow you to cash in coupons unless you hold an active member account.

"A lot of drugstores, for example, won't let you access coupons unless you're on their mailing list," she says. "They're specifically for members, and some even put your name on coupons to prevent nonmembers from using them."

So make sure you read a coupon's fine print before banking on a discount.

Give Google a try

It may not have the flash and pizzazz of a coupon code site, but Google also can stir up some pretty hot deals.

"Even FatWallet doesn't have it all, so I always tell people to go to Google's search engine," Webb says. "It'll automatically pull up coupon offers from thousands of Web sites that you may otherwise not have accessed."

Lauren Freedman agrees. She is president of the e-tailing group, a Chicago-based e-commerce consultancy. "Always Google the name of the site you are shopping on and the word 'coupon,' as oftentimes it'll lead straight to discounts," she says.

Shop around

Price comparison Web sites, such as BizRate, PriceGrabber.com and NexTag, can give you a leg up in the search process.

These sites automatically compile information on the lowest-priced computers, home appliances, clothing and cribs. Visitors can search for specific products and sort by category.

Many shoppers also sift through merchant reviews written by other shoppers. Such reviews offer the lowdown on possible product defects or merchants with less palatable return policies.

But for all the bargain-hunting perks, there's a time and place for price-comparison shopping sites, says Webb.

"They're a great place to start for big-ticket purchases, but if you're looking for particular clothing items or smaller gift items, it really pays to conduct your own search," Webb says.

What's more, she adds, many price-comparison sites enjoy affiliations with merchants that may preclude them from offering "the best buys." So make sure you do your research.

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Freedman also warns that when using a price-comparison site, be certain you're comparing apples to apples. For example, one merchant may offer a lower initial price that quickly climbs once variables such as handling and postage are added to the final tally.

"Comparison shopping is valuable and can be a good starting point when shopping online," Freeman says. "But consumers need to look at the total price of the product, including taxes, shipping and handling for a true comparison."

Clean up your cookies

Because retailers base their promotions and price points on shoppers' buying habits, your Web browser's cookies could be condemning you to higher prices. Cookies are small bits of text placed by Web servers on your hard drive when you visit a Web site.

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