Shopping for Deals Online

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2747, 2009-11-20, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 6-8) and their website.

It has been said that "everyone loves a bargain." That is just as true today as it was back in the pre-Web era, when any major shopping expedition required plenty of time and energy. This usually took the form of endless driving around town, hoping that the advertised sales were as good as the newspaper ads made them appear. A second approach was to work the phone, calling every business in one's area (or at least those listed in the Yellow Pages). A third option involved flipping through a stack of catalogs received in the mail, and calling the toll-free numbers, on the off chance that the retailer had the products you wanted on sale and in stock. This was the most pleasant method for all those people out there who enjoy being on hold, listening to Muzak — both of them.

Then the Internet came along and revolutionized bargain hunting — as it has so many other areas of life. These days, there is plenty of online up-to-date information on products, sales, coupons, auctions, liquidations, and other factors that can turn a full-priced purchase into a terrific bargain. Unfortunately, there is oftentimes too much information, with search engines returning millions of hits when you key in terms that you hope will narrow the result list. Even the top-ranked hits form a long list of shopping websites, each claiming to find you the very best deals.

In this article, we are going to examine some of the most popular and well-regarded online resources to help you separate the wheat from the chaff, and thus not only save money but time. There are countless online shopping sites, so it is good to know of some of the better choices. One type of product that we will not be focusing on, is computers — specifically, complete desktop systems and laptops, as well as computer parts and peripherals, such as printers. If you are in the market for a new or refurbished system, or you need some other PC-related hardware, your best bet is to visit a local computer shop (not to be confused with the computer sections of the huge electronics stores — at least those still in business).

Too Much of a Good Thing

Oftentimes manufacturers and retailers will stock up on a particular item, only to discover that it sells poorly, or not at all. What do they then do with that excess merchandise? Usually, they pass it along to resellers, at a huge discount. Their loss can be your gain, if you happen to be in the market for some item they couldn't find a buyer for, until you spotted it. An example of an online liquidator is SmartBargains, which clears out products in just about every imaginable category, ranging from household goods to kitchen supplies, luggage to gift cards, and clothing for women and men. Interestingly, for every item, they list the quantity left in stock, which no doubt spurs compulsive shoppers when they see that a compelling product is almost gone.

No discussion of online bargain hunting would be complete without a nod to the granddaddy of all online retailers for excess inventory — Overstock.com. As one of the pioneers in the field, Overstock.com has the advantage of years to hone their website and to build the sort of purchasing power that makes it possible for them to maximize inventory and minimize prices. The number of available items can be overwhelming, so they have everything organized into eleven major categories: furniture, home and garden, bedding and bath, clothing and shoes, jewelry, watches, electronics, sports, books and other media, world items, and a miscellaneous category. Within each one, everything is further grouped into subcategories, including one for clearance items.

Overstock.com specializes in selling excess products from other retailers, and consequently the inventory is continually changing. The discounts from listed retail prices can exceed 70 percent, but there is no indication as to whether those list prices are the inflated manufacturer's suggested prices, or the actual ones charged by the previous retailer. Fortunately, if you do find an outstanding price, you won't get hit by excessive shipping and handling charges — a favorite tactic among remote retailers — because Overstock.com charges only $2.95 shipping for your entire order (as of this writing).

Searching for You

Even though the results from general search engines can end up listing far too many Web pages — most of which may be of no use to a bargain hunter — there are online deal aggregators that automatically search the Web for merchandise and special offers. Sometimes these services are referred to as "shopping bots", reflecting their similarity with search engine bots, which are the programs that robotically scour the Web and store what they find in online databases, for later retrieval.

The tagline for PriceGrabber is "Comparison Shopping Beyond Compare", and that may be a justifiable claim, given the impressive amount of product and price information that the site offers, in addition to product reviews from multiple sources. They list the details of items in 26 major categories, ranging from Appliances to Videos. Anyone can sign up for a free account, and create lists of saved product entries. The site has pages dedicated to their most popular products, rebates and merchant coupons, and a "Deal of the Day". Unfortunately, navigating the site can become frustrating because every time you land on a page, focus is automatically put on the search entry field; consequently, when you try to navigate up and down with your keyboard, nothing happens.

Joining the current green bandwagon, PriceGrabber has an entire section devoted to supposedly eco-friendly products, most of which appear to be there only because they are Energy Star compliant. (For true green products, check out San Diego's own PristinePlanet.com.) Another problem with PriceGrabber is the way they lump all sorts of related products into a single category, which makes the sort-by-price functionality essentially useless, since the smallest and cheapest items get sorted to the top, even though they are not even the type of product you are interested in purchasing.

PriceGrabber distinguishes itself from the legion of other price comparison sites, with its extensive support for product reviews, submitted by users of the site, as well as product reviewers associated with various publications. The reviews contain detailed commentary on a particular product, and a five-star rating. Other users can then vote for and against the usefulness of each review, allowing prospective shoppers to read all the submitted reviews for any given product, starting with those ranked by others as most useful. Given that there are a substantial number of reviews — with new ones being added frequently for the most popular product categories — this can be an effective way to gauge whether a particular product will prove satisfying or disappointing to you.

Shopping.com is similar to PriceGrabber in that it combines price searching with user reviews, and also boasts a large number of items. Formally known as DealTime, Shopping.com has fewer top-level categories, but a substantial category structure nonetheless. They also have a "Shop Green" section, which appears to engage in much of the "greenwashing" seen with PriceGrabber. Another flaw exhibited by both sites, and possibly every other major price aggregator, is how they initially sort products so the featured stores appear first, thereby requiring probably every shopper to then manually sort by price. In addition, the same bias toward featured merchants is reflected in the first results page of each subcategory. Be sure to click on the link that compares the results from all merchants for the product in question.

The bottom line is that these and the innumerable other shopping websites can save you a tremendous amount of time and frustration, when you are looking to locate and compare bargains. Just be sure to not settle for the first few products that are displayed. As with any bargain shopping, you oftentimes need to dig a little deeper to find the true gems. As always, caveat emptor.

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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