Like everything during this pandemic, holiday shopping is different this year. Even diehard mall shoppers are more likely to buy online. There are plenty of ways to save while you play cyber Santa. Here are summaries of the favorite shopping strategies of the editors at Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit group that helps consumers get the best service and lowest prices.
The biggest spending mistake most consumers make is failing to comparison shop for the best prices. To find the lowest-price stores and other money-saving advice for specific products and services, see Checkbook’s articles and ratings. Through special arrangement with the Inquirer, you can access Checkbook’s ratings of local services for quality and price free until Jan. 5 via Checkbook.org/Inquirer/Shop.
A sale price may not be a good price
Even if the price tag says “60% off!” it’s probably not a steal — or even the lowest price. Checkbook’s undercover shoppers find that at many retailers, the sales never, or almost never, end. In a nine-month investigation, Checkbook found many stores use deceptive practices, especially by offering continuous, misleading sales campaigns. The only way to know whether you’re paying a fair price is to compare prices at several stores.
Cash in on cashback portals
Many online retailers pay referral commissions to businesses that send them customers. Online shopping portals such as BeFrugal.com, CouponCabin.com, MrRebates.com, and Rakuten.com give customers a cut of these commissions and pocket the rest.
The trick is to shop via the referring portal’s website. For example, to claim rebates from shopping at JCrew.com, you have to visit, say, Rakuten.com and begin your spree by accessing J. Crew’s site through it. Otherwise, a retailer won’t know it owes Rakuten (and you) a commission. Most cashback portals let you simplify things — and remind you of available rebates — by offering browser extensions and apps that automatically tell you when there’s cashback available as you visit websites. One of our staffers just scored $30 back on a vacuum (10% of the purchase price) by shopping Dyson’s site through a portal. It can really pay.
As with most online transactions, cashback sites will share or sell info about your searches and purchases with others. If you prefer to buy online privately, these services may not be for you, or you might be selective about which purchases you make via the services. For what it’s worth, our shoppers didn’t notice an uptick in spam or other annoyances after using these services.
Use bots and bar code scanners
There are dozens of sites and apps that can help you compare prices, including ShopSavvy, BuyVia, Honey, and PriceGrabber. Amazon’s price-checking tool is right in its app. Use one of these apps to search for products you’re considering or to scan the bar code of a product at a local store to get prices offered by other retailers.
Ask for a price match
Checkbook often finds the best deals online. But if a salesperson at a local store provided valuable buying advice, you might want to reward that person with the sale. Or you may not want to wait for delivery by an online seller. Checkbook finds that retailers often will match lower prices offered by competitors, even if the other seller is an online store. Just use your smartphone or take along a printout of your deal to ask for a match.
Know the code
When making purchases online, you’ll often see spaces where you can enter a promotional or coupon code. These spaces may as well be labeled “Hey! Here’s free money!” Using a discount code is the equivalent of handing a printed coupon to a checkout clerk. Do an internet search for discount codes for the site (for example, search for “Lands’ End discount code”). Although you’ll encounter expired codes, your reward often is worth the searching and trial-and-error. Two of our favorite coupon sites are RetailMeNot.com and CouponCabin.com, but there are many others worth checking.
Follow retailers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and sign up for their promotional emails, which many retailers use to announce exclusive discount codes and other deals. And many stores offer one-time discounts of 10% to 25% when you join their email lists. Have more than one email address? Sign up with another address the next time you’re ready to buy.
Play your cards
You can usually get a big one-time discount for your first purchase made with a retailer-issued credit card, and with some, you continue to get smaller regular discounts or rebates every time you use their cards.
For example, credit cards offered by Gap companies (Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta) offer a 15% to 35% discount off your first purchase when you open a card, then 5% rebates when you use the card at its stores. Customers who have the Visa versions of the company’s cards also get a 1% rebate on all purchases made elsewhere. But before signing up for a dozen retailer credit cards, know that each application will trigger an inquiry on your credit report, and might negatively affect your credit score. Even more important: Most store credit cards charge very high interest rates (routinely 25% APR or higher) so pay the bill in full each month.
Online shopping is way up this year, and cybercriminals are all over it. The threat is serious and growing, so before you click on a link or do anything that requires you to provide personal or payment information, stop and think about it.
If you receive an enticing offer, rather than click, go directly to the company’s website to verify the offer is legitimate. Before you make a purchase, read reviews to hear what others say about the merchant. In addition, look for a physical location and any customer service information. Use secure WiFi. Using public WiFi to shop online is convenient, but not cyber-safe.
Lastly, using a credit card is much better than using a debit card because credit cards have better fraud protection. In most cases, credit card companies must remove fraudulent charges from your bill.
Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. See all our ratings and advice free until Jan. 5 at Checkbook.org/Inquirer/Shop.