Sure, doing your holiday shopping on Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving -- is one way to score deep discounts. But if you don’t want to deal with the crowds in the stores, you can still save big by buying the items on your gift list online. In fact, if you use the strategies and sites listed below, shopping online may be the best way to get deals this holiday season.
Shop on the right days
You can save money by knowing the right days to shop online. Online shopping site Extrabux.com analyzed price data on 100,000 products over a two-year period and found that prices on some items fluctuate throughout the week.
--On Monday, you’ll find the cheapest prices on computers and electronics (on average, about $50 less than the rest of the week), says Extrabux.com co-founder Jeff Nobbs. You’ll also find the best prices on cameras (about $10 cheaper).
--Monday through Wednesday, TV and video game prices are at their lowest ($20 and $3 cheaper, respectively). Prices are at their highest points on Friday.
--On Wednesday, jewelry prices hit a low (just $2 lower on average, though).
--On Saturday, book prices are about $2 less than other days.
--On Sunday major appliances, such as washers, dryers and refrigerators, are about $12 cheaper, on average, than the rest of the week.
--Apparel prices don’t fluctuate much during the week.
Compare prices the easy way
If you’re trying to find the lowest price on a particular product, price-comparison sites make it easy. When you search for an item on these sites, they produce lists of the retailers offering the product, prices, shipping costs, and seller information and ratings. It's tough to beat Amazon.com for price comparisons. For most of the items we recently searched for, Amazon turned up the longest lists of results and the lowest prices. However, other price-comparison sites worth visiting include PriceGrabber.com and Google Product Search, which has a local shopping option to help you find products at stores near you.
You also can download the FreePriceAlerts.com tool, which will notify you instantly if a product you’re viewing online is cheaper at another site. The tool works on more than 100 sites, such as Walmart, Best Buy and Amazon (see the complete list), and more are being added every week, says founder Bob Wilkins. While you shop online as you normally would, the tool searches thousands of other retail sites and will display an alert in the top left-hand corner of the page you’re viewing that tells you whether you’ve found the lowest price or if another retailer is offering the same product for less (with a link to that retailer’s site). You don’t have to register at FreePriceAlerts.com to download the tool, but if you do register, you can set target prices for items you want and receive e-mail alerts when prices fall to the levels you want.
Use deal sites
Deal sites do the bargain hunting for you by scouring the Web for discounted items -- saving you both time and money. Our favorite is dealnews.com, which has a team of deal hunters who keep their eyes on a million products at more than 2,000 reputable online retailers and update the site with new deals at least 200 times a day. Plus, you can sign up for e-mail or RSS alerts for products or stores you're interested in and get gift ideas from the site.
GottaDeal.com is another great source for deals. You may find some here that you won't find at dealnews (we did recently). Slickdeals.net, a user-driven deal-sharing site, features a few deals a day on its home page, but its forums are where you'll hundreds of deals posted daily. And Offers.com features deals from more than 5,000 companies and stores, updated daily and organized into categories (including clothing, electronics, toys and travel). It also points you to local deals in more than 75 cities.
Track daily deals
You can find lots of bargains at deal-of-the-day sites, such as Woot.com, that offer deep discounts on select items for just a 24-hour period. But it would take a lot of time to check each one of these sites, which list only one such deal a day. DODTracker.com does the hard work for you. It lists hundreds of items from deal-a-day sites and daily deal offers from retailers, such as Amazon.com. It shows how long the deal has been posted, the time the sale ends, the amount of discount (if available) and whether the item is still in stock. When you click on any of the tabs at the top of the home page (All, Computers & Electronics, etc.), you'll get a page that lets you sort by retailer, product, price and more.
Find coupon codes
Before you make any purchase online, search for coupon codes that can help you score a discount at the checkout (basically a sequence of numbers and letters you enter during the payment process). Some retailers advertise coupon codes on their sites when they're available. However, some coupon codes can be found only at coupon sites that work with retailers to create exclusive online coupons.
CouponCabin.com has about 100,000 active coupons and deals. In addition to developing exclusive coupon codes with retailers, its staff searches merchant sites, forums, blogs, consumer e-mails and even the Sunday Paper for coupons, then updates the site’s listing three times a day. It shows when a coupon expires and when it was last tested so that you’ll know whether it still works.
Coupons.com has thousands of coupon codes that you can search for by store or category. You can sign up to receive weekly e-mails featuring coupon codes and online discounts. Retailmenot.com has coupon codes for 130,000 stores and a weekly e-mail newsletter that features the coupon codes that the site’s users consider to be the best.
Get cash back
Another way to save money when shopping online is to get cash back. Ebates.com has been around for more than a decade and offers members cash back from 1,500 stores. Rebates vary by store, but many offer at least 5% back on purchases.
Our favorite cash-back site is the relatively new Extrabux.com, which combines comparison shopping with online coupons and cash back from 2,500 top online retailers. We like Extrabux.com because you likely won’t end up spending more than necessary to get cash back. The site helps you find the best deal on a product by displaying prices and shipping charges from various retailers, plus cash-back offers and coupon codes. Basically, it puts all the available discounts on a product in front of you, says Extrabux.com founder Jeff Nobbs. Members receive cash back by check or PayPal, or they can opt to have the money donated to a charity.
Score more savings with discounted gift cards
Plastic Jungle and Gift Card Granny sell merchants' gift cards for less than face value. Buying a discounted gift card to use for your own shopping is a good way to score additional discounts. For example, buy a $100 Gap gift card for $90 (instant $10 savings), use it to shop online and use a coupon code for additional savings. Plastic Jungle offers free shipping standard. Most cards purchased through Gift Card Granny are shipped free, too, but some do have shipping fees (which are clearly displayed).
Take advantage of free shipping
If you’ve worked hard to find the best deal online, you don’t want to wipe out all your savings by paying a hefty shipping fee. FreeShipping.org offers free-shipping coupons for nearly 4,000 stores, including Amazon.com, Target and Best Buy.
Swap rather than buy new
You can save big by trading items you no longer want for things you do. An easy way to do this is to use a Web site such as Swap.com. And if you have an iPhone, you can download Swap.com's new free mobile app that makes it simple to trade your unwanted books, CDs, DVDs and video games for other items you crave. You can set up an account through the app or at Swap.com and create a list of haves and wants. The site will send you an e-mail alert when there is a swap opportunity, or you can simply click on the "what can I get?" link next to the items you have and search by media type to see what book, movie, CD or game you can get in exchange. See Why Buy New When You Can Swap? to learn more.
Pay with cash to avoid credit-card debt
Because debit cards don’t provide the same protections that credit cards do, we don’t recommend using them when making purchases online. But any of the savings you score using the techniques or sites listed above will be wiped out if you carry a balance on your credit card and pay high monthly interest charges.
EBillme and PayPal offer you a way to make secure cash payments when you shop online so that you won’t rack up credit-card debt. Both sites let you shop at hundreds of stores. At check-out, you select the eBillme or PayPal payment option.
The only personal information you have to provide to eBillme is your e-mail address, where you’ll receive your bill. Then log on to your bank account and use the online bill-payment option as you would to pay your utility bill or any other bill. You get the same protections as you would with a credit card. EBillme also has a cash-back program that allows you to earn points on every purchase and redeem them for coupons for future orders.
To create a PayPal account, you have to provide your mailing address and phone number in addition to your e-mail address. You also have to provide your bank-account information because PayPal handles the money transfer.