The Awesome Art of Getting Great Deals Online

by Torley Wong on 23 April 2009 14 comments
Photo: bogenfreund

Ah, the modern marvels of being able to type a few things in, click your mouse, and have a desired object delivered to your place in a few days. Even tumultuous economic conditions don't mean so-called ecommerce is going away; rather, it stresses being a savvy, frugal shopper, and opens up opportunities for businesses to attract your attention.

Whether it's buying or building, being resourceful helps you score the same great stuff at lower prices, and possibly faster delivery. (Think MacGyver marrying the A-Team.) The following isn't an exhaustive guide to each and every to-do under the sun, but it is experience-worn advice which I'll gladly impart for your benefit. It mainly concentrates on buying in the US of A, but the principles are mostly true worldwide. I'll also specify for the scope of this article, by "Stuff", I mean possessions you can carry (like a microwave) or at the most, can transport around (like a car) — so, not a new house.

Let's dive in with the spirit of Scrooge McDuck, then!

Know where you're looking

Some questions have very easy answers. If you're looking for books and other sundry merchandise, you'll almost always go right with Amazon.com. Yes, I know it has competitors — as well as other sellers which've partnered with it — but 2 special things call it out:

  1. Amazon Prime - If you're a shopaholic, even a thrifty one, it's currently US$80/year for free 2-day shipping. Other details apply, but if you buy frequently enough — say, at least a dozen times a year — this will have you covered both cost- and convenience-wise. Of course, they do this to make you buy more! So don't spend just because you want to, but consider how it fits your lifestyle, and try their free 1-month trial.
  2. Amazon's service - It's not just about the raw dollar, it's about the smile on your face. I've had questions about my orders and confusion about pricing, and I've consistently received timely, pleasant replies. That peace of mind pays for itself, and serves as a model of what you should expect elsewhere.

I give the obligatory disclaimer that I'm not professionally affiliated with Amazon — just a happy customer many times over that cites them as an "example megahub" for many goods.

Let's open it up…

You'll want to be familiar with the major deals sites. There are many out there which duplicate the same style and deals, so here are a few I check daily — they're all stored as bookmarks in my Firefox toolbar, highly recommended for saving time via "Open All in Tabs":

  • Woot - I was drawn to their flavorful copywriting. Aside from their famed "Woot-Offs" and "Bags of crap", they sell ONE thing a day. Sometimes it's what you're looking for. Often it's not. But they're full of whimsy and fun, and fill a great niche.
  • DealsPlus - Some deals site make the horrendous mistake of piling on more text than you'll care to parse. DealsPlus is very visual, providing thumbnails and a quick-browse summary of each deal.
  • Dealhack - In the "More text but not so much that it makes your eyes fall out" dept., they also provide a very thumbnail-ish view, with a vertically-designed navigation. So get your scroll wheel ready and skim down.
  • dealnews.com - Again, good use of thumbnails (I find they make browsing a lot easier). Wider layout than Dealhack, and as you gain experience, you'll notice when the same popular deals appear on different sites. But what I like here is the quick summary of the hottest stuff at the very top.
  • SlickDeals.net Forums - Disparate deals sites have forums. Among the best is SlickDeals. They also have their own front page, but I heart their forums because of the unadulterated spontaneity of excitement that punches through the hype. You can smell it in the air — like the inevitable scramble for cheap hard drives before they're OoS (Out of Stock)! And to make this sound more like a restaurant guide, be sure to check out the offerings of the legendary Selma, a gothy deal-sharer who's posted 50,000+ times. If you feel lost, look for the thumbs-up ratings and # of thread views you can sort.
  • FatWallet - Finally, a site without "deals" in the name. They tend to broadcast deals which are broadly advertised by stores themselves (as opposed to "secret coupons"). Part of the reason behind this is that they offer cashback & coupons. I haven't really used their cashback, but I think FatWallet's a fine overview of the more commercial (for lack of a better term) bargains.

Be brave to explore beyond these, and let me know what gems you uncover and have missed! For example, RedFlagDeals.com reigns surpreme in Canada. The jungle o' deals is thick, indeed.

By immersing yourself in deals sites, you'll become familiar with which stores are favored by veteran dealhunters. E.g., you'll often see buy.com and NewEgg mentioned for computer gear. And a sensible way to get a grasp on various stores is to see their customer feedback on eBay (if they have a presence there), or search ResellerRatings. Don't zoom in on outliers (the occasional bad review), look for consistency.

Beyond mere observation, do chat up with your fellow dealhunters — especially those who know a lot more. They'll save you dollars and hardship.

Know what you're looking for

Were you expecting something less obvious? That's coming up soon! But for now, I'll say…

It's fun to browse bargain sites. It's also time-consuming if you do it too much, and while it may inform you of what fair prices are for various items, it also tends to be unfocused.

Give yourself a direction, and at the very least, take advantage of the "deal alerts" most bargain sites make available. These come in varying forms, but tend to work like this: you enter keyword(s) and frequency of when you want to be notified. They'll ping (via onsite notice, email, and in some cases SMS) you when new deals are available.

This is useful, by the way, if you just missed a substantial rebate on an item and are waiting for it to come around again. Chances are high it will (unless an item's being discontinued). If you don't really want a gadget, don't fall for ad pressure to "ACT NOW BECAUSE SUPPLIES ARE LIMITED!" because if something's really in demand, they'll want to sell more of it. I rebate-waited and got my Logitech diNovo Edge keyboard for US$50 cheaper — a price that'd command a fair meal!

Emphasis on rebate-waited, because…

Mail-in rebates will make you wait

a LONG time. Not always, but often enough for it to be a point of consideration, especially if finances are tight. You may see estimated expectations of "6-8 weeks", and these tend to be pretty common. Thankfully, some companies like Logitech do email you to check your rebate status online, along with an estimated mail date for your cheque.

That's why if you can't wait, don't depend on mail-in rebates. And be wary of companies that've been called out by expert dealhunters as scams, because while the majority aren't, lack of communication does create that perception. Thus, my fave kind of rebate is the instant rebate.

You may be wondering then, besides the understandable processing time, why so long a wait for MIRs? Wikipedia has the backstory.

Be smart about coupons & price comparison

RetailMeNot.com isn't just a beautiful site, it makes it very easy to look for discount coupons. I've regretted not checking here in the past because I discovered a substantial savings after I bought something — talk about buyer's remorse! So whenever I have a significant (obviously relative, but a good rule of thumb is above US$200) purchase, I fire up RetailMeNot and do the groundwork.

For price comparison, Shopzilla and PriceGrabber.com are your friends. Use them and if they're really useful, you'll keep using them.

Major search engines, like Google, also have their own price comparisons, and links to many others. Through experience, naturally find what works for you.

After practicing coupons & price comparison for a few weeks, odds are high you'll spot diminishing returns. For instance, it's not healthy to spend half an hour trying to save US$2. Aim for the big savings, stack coupons whenever possible (mmmm, compound discounts), and be quick.

Be quick (Part II)

Hot deals often sell out very quickly. (Not to be confused by artificial pressure like "ACT NOW!" mentioned above.) That's why it's important for you to have a solid understanding of the context you're involved in: for example, on deals forums, you'll notice a few of the same posters grab deal after deal and boast about it. (There's a certain social bonding that comes when you become an involved member of deal-communities.) This, like any other acquired skill, comes with extended practice. Have your alerts set up so you can pounce on deals that matter. The most advanced dealhunters use automation, like macros, to cut down on tedious steps and jump to the front of the virtual checkout line.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

What also counts for a lot: have accounts pre-setup with payment info at the sites you want to shop from. You want to be selective with who you give your personal info to, but if it's a reputable store, your data should be safe, in all practical likelihood. This saves you the trouble of having to fumble with a credit card # when it comes down to crunch time. I once missed out on a hot MP3 player sale at Woot because I hadn't signed up for an account yet — I learned my lesson!

Don't be fooled by fake free shipping

If an item is a fine price and has free shipping, then praise be! But, sometimes "free shipping" is deceptive, because the shipping cost is absorbed in a jacked-up item cost. For example, I saw a pair of headphones on eBay for US$20 that claimed "free shipping". The same pair could be found elsewhere for US$15 with approx. US$5 shipping clearly stated, so it's really not a better deal.

The inverse is also true: beware of inordinate shipping costs. And taxes. A number of stores charge sales tax if you buy in-state/province/region — see Amazon's policy — and while sometimes this is unavoidable due to a lack of alternatives, it's worth keeping in mind. While tax laws are out-of-scope of this article, you won't ever regret being prepared and being aware.

Do your best to find out a store's shipping costs beforehand so you can factor that in ASAP.

Look for gems with eBay's Buy It Now

eBay is synonymous with popularizing and dominating online auctions. While it's still famous for auctions, gems (not just in the mineral sense) can be found by way of many smaller stores which are trying to build their presence and business via eBay's big visibility.

Often, this is new or refurbished/B-stock material with warranty which is sent to you not from an individual, but a company. And it has a "Buy It Now" graphic to indicate such. (It may or may not have a corresponding auction if you want to try your hand at getting it for lower.)

Buy It Now can be good for rarer, but not highly obscure goods. There're sometimes package deals — like a digital camera that comes with a case + memory card + mini-tripod + extra battery at the same cost of the camera alone elsewhere.

In my web browser, I often have one tab opened on eBay and another opened on Amazon, and I do searches and compare. To supplement my info when it's tough to tell, I use the comparison shopping resources mentioned above.

While it's past, much of a dealhunter ballyhoo was made about Microsoft Live.com's 25% cashback through eBay (apparently, it was 35% last time it came 'round). Being on top of opportunities like these can sweeten already honey-soaked deals. Make sure you read the terms and conditions and revel in the savings.

Do your best to assure the clothing fits

Measure yourself accurately. My wife stresses how important this is, because we've been subject to inaccurate pictures and vague sense of scale when buying clothes online. I thought a pair of pants, despite the specs, would fit me snugly. Turns out they're baggy as heck! While I haven't opted for an accompanying pair of suspenders since they're surprisingly comfy, my position still stands.

A good "fit" is also transferably applicable to non-clothing goods which you may feel compelled to see in-person, like TVs and flat panel monitors: a JPG picture can't give you its actual display quality, but if your local store's stock costs much more than what's online, it's fair to compare. (A store's physical presence can add to the cost.)

Some stores offer 3D 360-degree views of their merchandise, but this is still a novelty, rather than a common staple. Still worth looking out for.

Keep customer service and return policy close

I'll often tell you: it's not just about the $$$. Saving a few bucks isn't worth it if you have a problem with your order and the merchants turn out to be jerks! You'd rather much have prompt, friendly "service with a smile" than being unheard or being treated rudely.

Consumer reviews often keep track of this, combining real stories with numerical ratings. And your own experiences will be the most visceral. If you're cautious, why not send an email or make a phone call before buying anything? Test the waters. See how they respond and if that makes you comfortable. Above any human-constructed currency, feeling good and expressing our identity through what we buy is an intriguing psychological phenomenon, and great customer service goes a long way towards reinforcing our beliefs.

If a store has a brick-and-mortar presence (like Old Navy), then you'll likely be able to return merchandise to a nearby store. If you live in the boonies, it may not as be as convenient, but good to know. If a store only allows you to mail a package back, verify who'd be responsible for postage costs beforehand, and be intimate with their RMA policy. A key keyphrase is: hassle-free.

Get ready to recycle

If you buy stuff online, it's going to come in a box. And if it arrives at your house, soon, you'll have a whole extended family of boxes, yes sirree, with itty-bitty baby boxes, and big grandparent boxes. So you'll either want to use those boxes to do something else, or have them recycled or otherwise disposed of.

It's an omnipresent, yet understated part of getting great deals.

Time-shift your holidays

Lastly, I'll suggest something unorthodox which you may not be able to do, especially if you're under social pressure from your family & friends. But consider liberating yourself because of this: when is Halloween and Easter candy cheapest? No, not in the stretch leading up to the holiday — look at the markdown prices after! This is easily observable in both offline and online stores, but it goes to show: when something's out of style/season and perceived value is less, prices plummet.

By being "out of sync" with society at large and other cultural waves, you can create your own opportunities to acquire the same stuff at much-reduced prices. Granted, I feel strongly about this because my family used to wait until after Christmas to grab boxes of bonbons and ornaments to prepare for the next year, but there's much truth… once you break free of generic trappings. (And I'm partially referring to Boxing Day sales, but saturated marketing of Dec. 26th has created its own traps.)

This is awesome news if you're flexible about traditional holidays. Clearly not for everyone — but if you can be an exception, consider yourself exceptional.

Happy buying!

While the above should never be considered an end-all or be-all since the Art of Getting Great Deals Online will continue to adapt and evolve, I hope my personal experiences and specific suggestions will enlighten you to discover the joy of consumerism in refreshing and eclectic ways.

Devoted dealhunters know that saving money goes beyond lopping off a fraction of the price — it's a way of life.

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Guest's picture

Nice article Torley. Very comprehensive. I use MyPoints for online rebates too, but I generally prefer FatWallet to them. MyPoints does give you points for clicking on emailed ads however (but only 5 cents per ad or so).

Guest's picture
Carole

Also check out Extrabux and Ebates for additional discounts. They offer rebates as high as 20% on a wide variety of online stores. Simple to register, then just a click or two to have the rebate applied to your purchase. I get a nice check every quarter for all my accumulated rebates. Free money!

Guest's picture
Guest

They have the smallest store online, with great offers everyday. http://twitter.com/smallshop

Fred Lee's picture

There's a lot to be wary of with deals that are too good be true, because they usually are. Thanks for the comprehensive review.

Guest's picture
vilkri

Thanks for posting such a good list! After setting up a budget it will help us and others to stay within a budget, since we won't spend more on stuff than we have to. There are also other sites that may help such as http://www.mysimon.com/ where you can comparison shop.

Guest's picture
yipeng

Good job including the bit on recycling!

Guest's picture

Great list of deal sites! There are so many good ones, it's hard to narrow it down. I love Slickdeals.net, that site has helped me the most by far!

Torley Wong's picture

Thanks for the comments and additional knowledge-sharing, I appreciate the encouragement and helping each other out!

Just wanted to share I noticed Live.com's eBay cashback is BACK, appears to be up to 14%. We live in exciting, dealhunting times. :D

Guest's picture

Thanks for the mention. In addition to the coupon and Cash Back on FatWallet, forums are a wealth of information from savvy shoppers and are equipped with convenient keyword and category alerts as well.

Thanks again for the mention.

Laura Pagles
FatWallet.com

Guest's picture
Coupons

I'd also note that there are many free shipping offers for that require a minimum purchase, so if you're looking at a free shipping deal be sure to note if there is a minimum purchase to qualify or you may just end up spending more than you thought.

Guest's picture

Great list of resources-- thank you!

Guest's picture
Sarah

Amazon.com came to the rescue just before the holidays, when during an unfortunate thug infestation in my building, a package that had supposedly been delivered vanished.

This was a third-party sale through Amazon with Tiger Direct. I contacted Tiger Direct a few time, and to this day, I still have not heard from them.

Amazon has an A-Z guarantee on orders placed through their website,

http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/?nodeId=537868&#what

and within a week of filing my claim, I received a refund. There is a limit to how many claims you can ever make, but this is the first and only time a package has ever vanished.

I am now an Amazon customer for life after such excellent service. Needless to say, I will never order anything else through Tiger Direct until they contact me about my claim. I won't hold my breath.

Guest's picture

If you've had good experiences with discount plans (like I have), you may want to look at this website I found called, http://www.helpfulbenefits.com. It contains three different "benefit packages" and one if them is a Health Benefits package. It basically combines 5 different health benefit plans for about $17/month...which included my entire family. The plan contains discounts with prescriptions, vision care (through Coast-to-Coast), dental care (through Aetna Dental Access), chiropractic care, and some program called Teladoc (which you can call and talk live to a doctor - no charge).

The website also has benefit packages for other "non-health related" things like LifeLock and Legal Care Direct. All the packages seem to be around $15/month, and they include your immediate family. Anyway, great experiences all the way around, and great bang for your buck.
-Jeremy

Guest's picture

My Shopping Genie

Your article is quite informative. However, are you aware of a great tool known as My Shopping Genie? Visit www.myshoppinggenie.com/dreamlowprices and download the free shopping tool that will help you find the lowest prices for any item found online. This free software will also drastically eliminate the amount of time you spend searching for the lowest and best prices for the items you're looking for.

After you download the free tool and it installs, go to your favorite search engine, such as Google or Yahoo and type in the name of the product you are looking for, and instantly, you'll find the lowest prices for that item by clicking on the vendor in the bar at the bottom of the screen. Check it out! You'll regret it if you don't!