How to Shop: A Beginner's Guide

Photo: Matt Buchanan

So you’ve decided to buy something. Congratulations! Here’s how to do it.

1. Pick the Right Time

First things first — you’ll need to determine when your adventure in commerce will take place. (See also: The Best Days to Shop)

This is a bigger deal than you might think, as “when to buy” can often be more important than “where to buy” when it comes to getting the best price. As a general rule of thumb, you’re a lot more likely to pay full price if you’re trying to buy something at the same time everyone else is. If you’re just now getting around to buying an air conditioner, for instance, it’s probably too late to get any kind of significant discount — this is peak season for air conditioner purchases, and most stores don’t need to offer discounts to move units. You would have been better off buying at the end of last summer or in the fall, when purchases have slowed to a trickle and stores are trying to get the last remaining units off the floor.

Timing is important for non-seasonal purchases as well. Most new products will start coming down in price after spending some time on the shelves. The waiting period can vary — iPhones and iPads tend to come down by $100 when the new model comes out a year or so later, while a new video game can see its first price drop within a couple of weeks. No matter what, though, you can expect to pay full price if you insist on getting that brand new book or DVD the day it comes out, so do your best to show a little patience.

2. Decide on Quality

People tend to talk about getting the “best bang for the buck” — that is, the best quality-to-price ratio. That’s a reasonable goal, but I find focusing on value above all else sometimes means you wind up with a low-quality product because you couldn’t pass up a too-good-to-be-true price. And that can backfire on you when your new forks and knives that you bought at the dollar store turn to rust in your sink after a couple weeks, forcing you to purchase a new set.

That’s why it’s a good idea to do some research, read user reviews, and determine which brands of your target product meet your standards for quality (and which don’t). That doesn’t mean casting aside questions of cost and simply buying the highest-quality product on the market — there’s nothing wrong with balancing quality and price to some degree. But you should go into the store having established the minimum quality standard and feature set you’re willing to tolerate.

3. Shop Around and Find Coupons

Once you’ve established what you want to buy and when you want to buy it, figure out where you’re going to make your purchase. Buying online is usually cheaper than buying in a store, so start there. While you can have some success by simply checking the price on major e-commerce sites like Amazon and NewEgg, your best bet may be to use a price comparison site like PriceGrabber or Google’s shopping tool. If you do find the best price online, don’t forget to account for the additional cost of shipping — though remember that shipping costs could be offset by the lack of tax if you live in a state which does not collect sales tax on online purchases. You could also avoid shipping costs if you go with a site that offers free shipping (sometimes this is contingent on spending a certain amount) or if you’re able to find a free shipping code.

Speaking of codes, you’ll want to hunt around for any way to get a discount off the sticker price. You can find coupon codes on deal sites (RetailMeNot is one popular destination for code-hunting) as well as on the websites and social media feeds of individual retailers. You should also check weekly circulars for deals, sales, and clip-out coupons.

4. Feel Free to Haggle

If there’s one area where brick-and-mortar retailers have a definite advantage over online shopping, it’s the potential to save by haggling. If you decide to skip the e-commerce trend and hit a physical store, don’t be shy about negotiating for a lower price.

While you can haggle for anything, you’re going to have the most luck (and the most potential for savings) haggling over big ticket items like TVs, appliances, cars, and jewelry; these have high margins and are typically sold by commissioned salespeople empowered to negotiate. Entire books have been written about the art of negotiation, so I can’t even begin to tackle all the ins and outs of the haggling process. But the basics are simple: go up the retail hierarchy until you find a salesperson or manager who’s allowed to haggle, then see how low he or she is willing to go. Don’t be afraid to walk away from the negotiation and leave a phone number for the salesperson — as the end of the month gets closer and they grow more desperate to hit their monthly quotas, they might just call you with a better offer on that big-screen TV.

5. Use a Credit Card

Now that you’ve done your research and picked out your purchase, head to the cashier (or checkout screen) and pull out your credit card. You’ll notice I said “credit,” not “debit” — whenever possible, you should use a credit card for purchases.

In part that’s because your credit card likely gives you some sort of cash-back rewards with every purchase (and if it doesn’t, you should apply for a rewards card as soon as you get the chance). But beyond the potential for rewards, there’s also the fact that credit cards simply leave you better protected against the various things that can go wrong with a transaction. Many of them, for instance, offer purchase protection that serves as a sort of warranty on your merchandise. Obviously you’ll want to read the fine print in your card agreement, but in many cases it will allow you to bypass the costly extended warranty that most salespeople will try to sell you. And if you make a purchase and somehow fail to receive the product you ordered, you can do a chargeback, which means the credit card issuer will refund you the money and then go after the shady retailer itself.

Using a credit card also provides good protection against fraud in case the transaction somehow results in someone getting a hold of your card or card number. Most credit card issuers will refund all fraudulent charges made with your card, and federal law makes you liable for no more than $50. By contrast, you could be on the hook for up to $500 if someone goes on a shopping spree with your debit card number.

Some people prefer using cash, and there are admittedly a few advantages there; being allowed only the cash in your pocket can rein in spending impulses, for instance. And using cash can also help in a negotiation, as the promise of avoiding swipe fees may prompt a retailer to knock another $5 or $10 off the price of an item. Other than that, though, you’re better off using a credit card — just don’t go getting yourself into debt.

If you did everything right, you've purchased a quality product at the lowest possible price. Don't forget your receipt! 

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Guest's picture

Another biggie, is to consider buying used. I recently purchased a German made Henckels knife at our local non-profit thrift store for 27 cents including tax.

Guest's picture
Carl Lassegue

I'm one of those people who tends to put value over everything and I've bought my fair share of items that broke down way soon after I purchased them.

Guest's picture

Now that's complete tips for all consumers to be more extra wise while they're shopping. Thanks for this!

Guest's picture

Another one to add: If you can try it on or try it out before you buy, DO IT. Just because the reviews are good and the item / service is known to have high-quality, there's still a chance you might not like it. Then you have to spend money or time returning the item / service.

Guest's picture

But the credit cards cost more for the shop owner to process, right? So if everybody pays with credit cards, then all prices will go up to compensate for that loss.