[MONEY] Tips for Online Bargain Hunters

Category: Shopping

Every shopper loves a bargain, but how can you tell when you really have one? The games that sellers play with prices are as old as commerce itself. Bargain-hunting is particularly confusing online, where prices from all over the world are available. Here are some tips for sorting bogus bargains from real deals...

"Only Suckers Pay List Price"

First, ignore “list prices,” “retail prices,” “MSRP,” and anything else that purports to be the standard price that only suckers pay. Once upon a time, “list price” meant something; but as the NY Times recently explained, it’s now just a number that sellers pull out of thin air to make their actual, everyday selling prices look good.

Many shoppers compare online prices (plus shipping cost, if any) to what brick-and-mortar stores charge (plus sales tax). Too often, they ignore the cost of going to and from a store: gas, vehicle depreciation, and the value of one’s time. The main value of inspecting goods in person lies in subjective evaluations of quality. “Showrooming,” the practice of shopping in stores and then buying online at lower prices, is the bane of retailers’ existence. But it works well for buyers, usually.

Store prices may well be lower than online prices now and then, particularly when you are shopping for mass market items at a mass marketer. Walmart in-store prices are generally lower for the same products than the prices of Amazon Marketplace sellers, who are mostly small businesses with small purchasing power.

How to find the best prices online

Price comparison services like Google Shopping seem ideal for bargain hunters. But sellers pay a percentage of each sale for referrals from such sites, and that cost is factored into the price you pay. Comparison sites may not show you the lowest price first, instead filling the first search results page with sellers who pay the highest referral fees.

Whenever you see a comparison site offering a freebie if you buy through it, you can be sure you’re paying for that gift in the form of higher prices for goods. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use price comparison sites -- just keep your eyes open and shop around. Bizrate.com, Pricegrabber.com, and Pricewatch.com can be helpful tools, epscially if you're shopping for a high-ticket item.

Smoke and Mirrors?

Here are a few bonus tips for online shoppers: 1) Online reviews can be helpful, but sometimes they're bogus. See Can You Spot A Fake Product Review? For tips on how to read product reviews. 2) Have you seen the commercials where people brag about how they bought a 55-inch HDTV for $30? See my article Penny Auctions: Scam or Legit? to see why these "Penny Auction" sites are to be avoided.

In my article, “Smoke and Mirrors at Amazon?” http://goo.gl/1nfacA I explained how Amazon regularly shows different prices for the same product to different shoppers, based on factors such as the shopper’s location, search history, and Prime membership. An item might be priced at $10 plus $4 shipping for non-Prime shoppers, and $14 plus “free” shipping for Prime members.

When I shop for the lowest price (which is not always my top priority), I often start at eBay or another auction site. I want to know what bidders have actually paid for a product, so I look at “sold” completed listings. If I can find a price that’s comparable to the lowest winning bid, I’m pretty sure I have a good deal.

Of course, there’s an old saying among auction losers: “The winner of an auction is the one who pays more than anyone else thinks something is worth, for something the seller didn’t think was worth keeping.” But that’s just sour grapes, right?

What's your strategy when going shopping online? Do you always head for the same website, or do you employ online tools to compare prices? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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This article was posted by on 15 Mar 2016


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Most recent comments on "[MONEY] Tips for Online Bargain Hunters"

(See all 22 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Sharon H
15 Mar 2016

I understand Scott Orten's concern, but for people like myself who are almost forced to shop online, even for groceries, the internet is a blessing. Even though a drugstore is close to my home (2 miles) I often try to make the trip but for one reason or another I can't. I've begun to order a lot of items drugstores carry from a popular online drugstore, and within 2 days (in one case, overnight), the products were waiting for me at my door.

So internet shopping is a must for me. Also, for many people who find their days filled up with work, children etc., this type of buying fits in nicely with their lifestyles. I foresee an expansion of this type of shopping, but also realize the impact it has on a store's workforce. No easy answer, I'm afraid.


Posted by:

clyde
15 Mar 2016

Yes check all every where you need as on line there is lots of different prices for the same thing


Posted by:

Herb Hayde
15 Mar 2016

Good article re "Online Bargains." When shopping for new automobiles the prices during clearance in November/December are indicative of what the dealer in most cases is willing to accept at other times of the year. January - March prices for the same vehicle will be back up, but you can still deal at or near the November/December prices.
If you know the percentage off MRSP at clearance, it can be a good guide for pricing when the new vehicles show up at the dealers.


Posted by:

Jon
15 Mar 2016

Is it possible that the eBay "sold" data is sometimes manipulated? I've seen the same "antique" sold several times. Selling prices fluctuated. Buyer and seller names changed some of the time.

"Buyer beware" seems the best strategy when working one's way through the Internet marketplace. Scams have become "eScams".

Thanks for your comments, I'm going to have to buy you to a tennis lesson again!


Posted by:

Doc
15 Mar 2016

Call me old Fashioned or too Moral or too Ethical, but if you look at a brick-n-mortar store THEN buy on line - you have taken money away from your LOCAL businessman. You have forced them to pay money and overhead (which is not just rent and heat and cooling and janitorial, but wages and health or other insurances) PLUS their time and energy to stock an item that you look at before you buy it else where.

You might ask: well, if I was looking for X at Y store and I always compare it prices for the same item at other stores in the area what's the difference?

The difference is that your streets are paved, your water cleaned, the fire and police departments funded, and a million things you never notice because they are 99% invisible to YOUR eye, until they stop working, like the pipe line that brings water from the main to the meter box at your house. When that springs a leak and starts to form a hole in your front yard you bet you want the City Crew there to fix it TODAY - that costs money, and that money comes from your tax dollars. That little bit of tax you pay goes towards those services. It helps 'rate' your fire department, and the higher the rating the lower your fire insurance cost - so your fire department SAVES you money! (I was a firefighter-paramedic [paid and Volunteer] so I learned this as part of my job). Your fire department MAKES you money!!!

You are committing a MORAL FRAUD if not (also) an ETHICAL FRAUD - when you use one store to see if an item is what you need, then go to the store on line that can by 100, 000 units of the same product at a SUBSTANTIAL mark down.

You hurt your local business, your local tax base, and (perhaps your immortal soul) if you look and feel one place, then buy on line (often without any tax benefit to your community or state).

I'm NOT saying DO NOT BUY ON LINE - I AM saying ACT MORALLY, ACT ETHICALLY. DO NOT BE A HYPOCRITE! If you shop on line, shop on line, if you shop local, shop local - Do NOT use one to look and feel, then shop on-line. That is cheating. It's VERY much like looking at tests all around you before you you then mark the best answer on your test.

I'd forgotten the brand name of a Balsamic Vinegar I often buy -- when I went to look to see what the name was, WOW! BOB IS RIGHT!!! The price WAS lower by .75 in the store than on-line with free shipping. I walked around the store, and YIKES! nearly ALL the prices were within $2 of on-line prices! Now I buy my kitchen things there, just as I buy my handyman supplies at our local hardware store.

STAY MORAL, STAY ETHICAL. TRY to be Moral and Ethical.


Posted by:

T Nash
15 Mar 2016

I recently priced Fels Naptha soap. I found it online anywhere from $1.97-$4.00/bar. WalMart had it for $4.00/bar! I checked the price when I was at my local WalMart and it was only $.97/bar. What a racket!


Posted by:

Lester Noyes
15 Mar 2016

I like to do my research online then shop locally (but not chains) unless the price is radically different. (What's a coupla bucks to help my neighbors?) By the way, except for the in-the-aisle "specials", WalMart frequently has higher prices than some local stores. (Example: those little L-shaped things to hold adjustable shelves -- pkg. of 4 $1 at WalMart, 10 cents each at the hardware store.)


Posted by:

Joe
15 Mar 2016

Doc's comment above is 100% spot on. Showrooming may "work well for buyers" (a debatable proposition, IMO) but doing so -- to check features, compare models, etc. -- when you intend to buy cheaper online is theft, pure and simple. Here's an excellent under-5-minute video that sums it up very nicely.

http://youtu.be/AEMd6NDT5Z8


Posted by:

A. A. McKenrick
15 Mar 2016

One other consideration for shopping online, especially for big ticket items is the surprising availability of more choices. I was looking for a new washing machine, and went to my local big box stores in the area. None of them offered the lowest price one that was offered online! It seems the stores only carried the higher priced items and there was a $300 (higher in store) difference in the least expensive one online. Also, the online site offered free shipping, while the local store charged $85 to deliver. Needless to say, my purchase was from the online store.


Posted by:

Ken Heikkila
15 Mar 2016

I use Amazon, other search sites and online retail sites a lot. While it is true the search engine often comes up with an offer that is not the best deal, if you follow the links there is always (as far as I have been able to determine on Amazon at least) a place where all offers are listed from lowest to highest total price. I use Amazon Prime quite a bit, but only after factoring in possible (not always) lower prices against the timeliness of 2-day free shipping.
I also buy local when I can, but I live quite a way out of a town of any significant size and it would be foolish not to factor in my travel time, gas, convenience and wear & tear on the vehicle against the pricing. Additionally we just don't have the selection locally to get many products.
Nowadays many of the businesses advertising on Amazon and other sites are brick and mortars stores who are moving ahead with the times to add online sales to their repertoire.


Posted by:

Bert
15 Mar 2016

You forgot to factor in one big item -- sales tax. In my location, that adds 8.875% to the cost of most items you would buy online. You can often find sellers for an item that include shipping and charge no tax. That usually beats any price from a local merchant or any major online source.


Posted by:

Heather
15 Mar 2016

I do try to shop locally -- and I don't limit it to local merchants, unlike Lester. "Chains" with brick-mortar stores in your community still employ people who live in your community, you pay sales taxes that stay in the state and/or community, and the employee and employer pay local and state income taxes staying with you.

However, on the flip side, the larger online merchants also employ local people -- Amazon has 3 fulfillment centres within a 40 minute drive of my home, one only 10 miles away. And you pay sales taxes with Amazon too!

Whilst I do try to shop where I can touch and see the items, it's not a hard and fast rule. Last week I bought a clearance InstantPot (a countertop cooking appliance that is part pressure cooker, part slow cooker, part saute' pot, part yogurt maker). It was at my stick and brick Walmart -- for $50. Online the same exact item at Walmart.com was $130, and $109 at Amazon. Why? Because that store (a smaller version of their supercenters) was not going to carry that item in-store, so they put it on the clearance rack to my pleasure! (I'd been wanting one but putting off due to the above $100 price.)

So be savvy and careful but try as Doc said, to be ethical about your buying -- but being ethical does not prevent you from asking local merchants, especially non-chains, from competing with online prices. I have done that on a number of occasions and the local merchants were happy to get the business even if they discounted a bit to come close to the online price -- and I made a connection with a place to service what I was buying too!


Posted by:

Teri
15 Mar 2016

Paribus has been saving me money lately. They shop behind me. In other words they keep track of the items I buy and get me a refund if the price comes down after I buy. Some people might thing they're expensive because they charge 25% of the savings. However, I think it is totally worth it because there is no way I would track prices for everything I buy online. I'm 75% ahead. https://paribus.co/i/21EWs0


Posted by:

Sheri
16 Mar 2016

I must admit that I shop for nearly everything online nowadays apart from groceries: not just for the lowest prices but because I want to know the full details which are very rarely displayed in 'real bricks and mortar' stores! I also like to read reviews before I buy. Granted not all reviews are real or honest but if more than half of the reviews for a product are bad, I tend to discount it and go for one that has more good reviews.

But I don't always buy from internet only companies: quite often I buy from the websites of well-known High Street stores, where I can click and collect my items :-)

And when I'm shopping for large items like TVs and washing machines, I often research their technical details online, choose a few that I like the sound of and then see if I can buy one of them from a local store. Why? Because I like that I can go back to the local store if ever I have a problem with the item.


Posted by:

Brad
16 Mar 2016

If you're concerned about fluctuations in prices on Amazon, you can check the price history for an item using http://camelcamelcamel.com/. The site also lets you set price alerts so you can be notified when an item is reduced to the price you're willing to pay.


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
16 Mar 2016

I can usually, spot a "fake" review. I am not perfect, but, I do seem to have a good track record.

I do buy online & enjoy doing so. I research most of the items I buy, long before I buy them. Most of my online buying are computer components & electronics. Trust me, there are very few brick & mortar stores that sell what I am looking for, in these categories.

Just to point out, many, many online stores are still Mom & Pop businesses. Especially, in the computer business. Why pay outlandish prices at Best Buy or Office Depot or Staples when the same thing can be purchased cheaper online, from a Mom & Pop business? I do still look at the brick & mortar computer stores to compare prices.

I have my regular online stores that I use, but, I still like to check out what others are pricing. NO different than going from store to store trying to get the best bargain possible.

Now, I could buy all of my books at Waldenbooks or Barnes & Noble - I chose to get my books, from Amazon. What I do these days, is look for the Kindle eBooks & find the ones for FREE!!! Now, there's a real bargain for you. I have a Kindle & a Kindle Cloud account. At this stage in my life, I can see the words on my 23" monitor MUCH better than a paperback book! (LOL)


Posted by:

Ronile
18 Mar 2016

Guilty - I do quite a bit of online shopping, but I don't troll the brick and mortar stores first.

However, I have done the reverse - checked out prices online then purchased at stores that will price match. Just did that today for a blu-ray player. Our store not only matched Amazon, they beat it!


Posted by:

malcolm de winter
22 Mar 2016

Around for various items which I buy online I find Cosco to be the first place I look. They don't charge me shipping and the goods come through quite rapidly. I am a customer of Amazon but their shipping charges are far higher than a lot of other companies I have dealt with. The main advantages the rapidity in which goods arrive. Unfortunately I've had two occasions when the goods never arrived and I've had to ask I'm is in for my money back.


Posted by:

BLUFF BUNNY
14 Apr 2016

I live in a remote area with few stores to buy from, so I am enjoying having more CHOICES. Also, shipping is usually a LOT more, so I have to try and find vendors who will offer a lower shipping method.
I REFUSE TO PAY MORE FOR THE SHIPPING THAN THE ITEM COSTS!!!!
Worst case? A seller whose web site would not even let me enter my credit card info because I live in Alaska!!!! Found the same item elsewhere, for less, anyway!


Posted by:

Terri T.
10 Jun 2016

Seriously... calling examining in brick and mortar stores, then buying online "theft"? Awfully judgmental there, folks.

*IF* I lived where decent shopping was not 40+ miles away, and if small businesses near me have what I need at a fair price, then I gladly support them.

However, the big box stores - local or not - do not garner the same respect. If their price is good and it's convenient for me to make the trip, then I will. Otherwise, thank goodness for Amazon - price and site to door convenience.


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