9 secrets to online bargain hunting

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The Internet can serve as an excellent source for bargains, from heavily discounted designer shoes to free shipping on best-selling books. And right now, the timing couldn’t be better.

“This is an excellent time to (find online bargains) because of the economy,” says Barb Webb, author of “The Mom’s Guide to Earning and Saving Thousands on the Internet.” “Companies are trying to get your business, your attention and your money so they’re offering a lot of coupons, deals and reduced pricing.”

The trick is knowing just how and where to find fantastic deals in cyberspace. Deciphering today’s price comparison Web sites, e-mail newsletters and coupon codes can be daunting.

Fortunately, by following a few simple steps, you can take advantage of the best deals online. Here are nine secrets to finding online bargains.

9 ways to find deals online
  1. Sign up for newsletters
  2. Visit coupon code sites
  3. Give Google a try
  4. Shop around
  5. Clean up your cookies
  6. Check out secondary sources
  7. Get a help from friends
  8. Consider your route
  9. Read the fine print

Sign up for newsletters

One of the most convenient ways to score deals is to sign up for e-newsletters or updates from your favorite merchants.

By creating an account with an online retailer, you’ll receive e-mail blasts with special offers and coupons on an ongoing basis, Webb says. Better yet, many of these offers are tailored to meet your online buying habits and preferences based on your shopping history.

Don’t expect to be inundated with exclusive offers of dirt-cheap products, though. Less than 15 percent of online retailers offer exclusive deals through their e-mail lists, according to the Email Experience Council, the New York-based e-mail marketing arm of the Direct Marketing Association.

Visit coupon code sites

If you can’t wait for an e-newsletter to reach your inbox, take matters into your hands by visiting a coupon code site.

RetailMeNot.com, CouponChief.com and FatWallet.com are just a few of the sites that allow you to search for coupon codes by simply entering a store’s Web address or keyword into a search engine. Codes can then be submitted through a merchant’s online order form for special offers, ranging from discounts to free shipping, which are automatically deducted from your order total.

Discounts typically start at 10 percent and can skyrocket to upward of 70 percent, says Webb, an avid online shopper who recently scored “bras for $3 apiece from Lane Bryant because of a 75 percent coupon promotion.”

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.

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.

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.

“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.

Read the fine print

Great online deals can save you bundles of money. However, if a particular promotion looks too good to be true, it probably is.

For starters, many Web sites offer price reductions on select items but carry cost-prohibitive shipping and handling charges that can offset savings.

Location can be another impediment to a great deal. Many Web-based businesses are scattered around the world. Make sure you’re dealing in U.S. dollars when making a purchase. If not, use an online currency converter to get a more accurate idea of what you can expect to pay.

Also, examine return policy details, such as whether returns are allowed, whether items can be returned in-store and who foots the bill for shipping returned goods.

“With a small mom-and-pop store, you can get some good deals,” Webb says. “But often they have a no-return policy and that can be difficult if the item is inferior (in) quality to what you expected.”

Nor are there any promises that a particular promotional offer will actually save you money.

“You’re not guaranteed a deal until the merchant accepts the promotion code and that money is taken off your purchase,” says Freedman.

That’s especially true if you’re using a coupon that isn’t necessarily “merchant-sanctioned,” so closely examine your order summary before submitting your credit card number.