8 ways to save online during the holidays

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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.

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“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.

3. Shop the clearance rack

Just because you’re online doesn’t mean you can’t get buys on end-of-season clearance close-outs. Try sites like Overstock.com, or visit your favorite online site and look for the clearance page, says Miller.

This can be a great strategy for people who don’t need the latest model or who are interested in buying out-of-season merchandise. These kinds of bargains may not show up on your favorite shopping engines.

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4. Save green, shop greener

If you’re debating between two bargains and want to know which is better for the global neighborhood, look at Greenhome.com. The site offers green alternatives to many common products.

5. Get member deals

Are you a member of AAA, AARP or your local public-broadcasting station? Or do you carry certain branded credit cards? Explore the organization’s Web site for member-related shopping or travel discounts, Mendelsohn says. Many times, the groups also will offer deals through brick-and-mortar stores and local malls, she says.

Sometimes, card companies will get a good buy on a hot item and offer it in limited quantities or for only a short time period on their Web sites, Dworsky says.

Member deals may even save you some money off-line, says Mendelsohn. “Sometimes you can print a coupon,” she says. “It just depends on the store.”

Or you can start your own club. If you have a couple of retailers — online or off line — that are particular favorites, you can register with them online to get coupons, special deals and advance notice of sales, Mendelsohn says.

6. Save on shipping

Seventy percent to 80 percent of online merchants will offer free shipping at some point during this holiday season, says Davis.

In addition, the Web can offer other accommodations that can save time and money. Some retailers with real-world locations will let you order online and pick up your gifts at the store. You save money and days waiting for your gifts in the mail. It’s great for those last-minute buys and purchases you plan to pack or deliver yourself.

Another way to save for gifts you plan to mail is to order online and have them delivered directly to the recipient. It’s greener, because you’re shipping once instead of twice. And even if the store doesn’t offer free shipping, you’re still saving money.

7. Ask brick-and-mortar retailers to match online deals

Sometimes retail locations will match their online prices or even their competitors’ deals. And, this year especially, stores want your business.

So if you want to buy at a brick-and-mortar store, you might be able to score the same deals. Just print out any price information you find and talk with the store manager about honoring the same deal.

8. Get extra discounts with coupon codes

You might not have to pay full price. Before you check out online, pull up your favorite search engine and put in the name of the retailer and either “coupon code” or “promotion code.” Try to use the same language they use on the check-out page, Miller says.

Sometimes the coupons will net you free shipping or wrapping. Other times you’ll get a discount on one item or your whole purchase. Some sites for coupon codes are RetailMeNot.com, CouponCabin.com and CouponMountain.com.

Or investigate ReesyCakes.com or DealIgg.com, which have “hotel deals and all kinds of other stuff,” says Mendelsohn.

And the main thing with the online portion of your shopping is to have fun with it. Says Mendelsohn, “This should be a challenge and a treasure hunt for you.”