smart spending

9 secrets to online bargain hunting

If you don't delete your cookies, a Web site will recognize you as a returning customer when you make future visits to the site. This can hurt your bargain-hunting efforts because new customers are often treated to better deals than frequent patrons. For this reason, make clearing your cookies a regular part of your online-shopping routine.

"It's a good and healthy practice," Webb says.

Your Internet browser's help menu should provide instructions for deleting cookies.

Check out secondary sources

Sometimes, secondary sources can actually sweeten an online bargain.

For example, Freedman says it never hurts to call a merchant's toll-free customer service number to find out if any discounts are being offered in conjunction with online purchases. In other cases, deals you find in catalogs and direct-mail items may get even better when combined with online perks.

"You might get an offer for free shipping and a 20-percent discount if you enter your customer number on a retailer's Web site," Freedman says. "So be sure to look at the direct mail you're receiving because it could be another quick way to a good deal."

Even Facebook can serve as an excellent source for bargains, as more and more merchants flock to the social networking site to lure 20-somethings with coupons and discounts.

Get a little help from your friends

From blogs to discussion forums, consumers are banding together online to share deals, swap coupons and exchange money-saving tips.

For example, FatWallet claims more than 1 million registered users, 200,000 of whom visit the site daily.

"I equate FatWallet to going bargain-hunting with a couple hundred thousand of your closest friends," says Tim Storm, founder of FatWallet, which is based in Rockton, Ill.

But while some peer-to-peer advice never hurts, it's important to keep an eye out for incorrect information and expired offers before handing over your credit card number.

Consider your route

How you access a Web site can greatly influence the deal you eventually get. However, opinions differ on the best route to savings.

Often, the best deals can be found taking a direct path, Webb says. For example, online flower outfits are famous for offering varying costs on the exact same item depending on which link a visitor clicks to reach the site.

"I always recommend that people go directly to a Web site and not click through banner ads or links," says Webb.

Storm disagrees. He says customers who reach a Web site directly are often recognized as loyal patrons and, therefore, aren't always offered the lowest price possible.

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"What you'll find is there are some offers that your merchant won't promote to you," says Storm. "Some customers are not as price-conscious as others, so a merchant needs to be able to have full-priced customers as well as attract price-sensitive customers."

So the next time a banner ad leads you to a sale, take the time to experiment and approach the Web site from a variety of starting points.

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