Like everything during this pandemic, holiday shopping is different this year. Even die-hard brick-and-mortar 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 Twin Cities’ Consumers’ Checkbook and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices.
Keep in mind that these are broad tips for getting deals. Checkbook finds the biggest spending mistake most consumers make is failing to comparison shop for the best prices. Through special arrangement with the Star Tribune, you can access Checkbook’s ratings of local services for quality and price free until Jan. 5 via Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Shop.
•Even if the price tag says “60% off!” it’s probably not a steal — or even the lowest available price. In a nine-month-long investigation, Checkbook found many stores use deceptive practices, especially by offering continuous, misleading sales campaigns. The only way to know whether you are paying a fair price is to compare prices at several stores.
• 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 their customers a cut of these commissions and pocket the rest.
The trick is to shop via the 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 cash back available as you visit websites.
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.
• 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 are considering or to scan the bar code of a product at a local store to get prices offered by other retailers.
• Checkbook often finds the best deals online. But if a salesperson at a local store provided valuable buying advice, you might want to reward him or her 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 their competitors, even if the other seller is an online store.
• When making purchases online, you will 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.
• Follow retailers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up for their promotional e-mails, which many retailers use to announce exclusive discount codes and other deals. And many stores offer onetime discounts of 10 to 25% when you join their e-mail lists.
• 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 its 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: Pay bills in full each month; most store credit cards charge high interest rates.
•Online shopping is way up this year, and cybercriminals are all over it. Keep your guard up. If you receive an enticing offer, rather than click, go directly to the company’s website to verify the offer is legitimate.
Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization 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.