You couldn't drag my friend Tim to the mall for an all-day shopping trip. But he admits it can be tough to drag himself away from shopping online.
"I kind of like it just for the sport of it," he says.
Tim has a knack for finding good deals via the Internet, particularly electronics and technology. For example, he got all the components of his surround-sound home theater system--six speakers, one subwoofer, and a 7-channel receiver--online for less than $1000. "I was surprised at how good they sounded," he says.
Here's how Tim does it.
An informed consumer
Tim starts out by doing his homework. His first stop is usually Cnet.com, which provides product reviews and price comparisons for everything from camcorders to web hosting. "It's like an online 'Consumer Reports,' " he says. (He also subscribes to Consumer Reports, the magazine.)
He uses Cnet to check out a product's specifications and find out which ones offer the features he wants. For instance, he recently was shopping for a digital camera with ultralong, "12x optical zoom" and was able to quickly narrow down his choices to the few models that had that capability.
(One thing I like about Cnet is their video reviews, where an editor gives you a brief video tour of a product. When I was shopping for a digital camera, a video review helped me decide against one model because I could see that the buttons weren't placed very well on the body.)
Tim also browses through other sites to gather information. "Amazon has a lot more people using it, so you get a much broader number of reviews," he said.
On a price-hunt
Once Tim has a specific product in his crosshairs, he'll hunt for the best price. He prefers dealnews.com, a site which provides daily reports on the best product deals from established stores (It's slogan: 'How to go broke saving money'). "I'll search for prices by product or subscribe to e-mail alerts," says Tim.
Dealnews emphasizes that the deals it reports come from "reputable stores," because not all deals out there are as good as advertised, Tim cautions. You can get gypped by purchasing "grey market goods"--those not intended for use outside the United States and marketed by unauthorized resellers. While these products can be steeply discounted, you often can't get technical support or make a warranty claim if something goes wrong.
On the occasions when Tim questions a reseller's authenticity, he heads to resellerratings.com, where other users rate vendors they've used on a scale of 1 to 10.
Using loyalty as an advantage
Once Tim's found the right product at what he thinks is a good price, he pays a visit to JR.com, the website for J&R Electronics a brick-and-mortar store in New York City. If JR.com has the product he wants but at a higher price, he'll give the store a call.
"They have a price-match policy, and more often than not, they'll match a lower price somewhere else if it's within reason," he says. He's become a fairly regular J&R customer, though he's never set foot inside their unique structure at Park Row and Broadway.
"I have a comfort level with them, because they're reputable, they've always given me great service, and they have good prices," he says.
Weigh benefits versus costs
Shopping online, for all its conveniences, can take a lot of time and effort, which can outweigh the benefits of saving a few bucks on a printer. Despite the satisfaction he feels at getting a great product at a low price, Tim also knows that the point of shopping online isn't just to get the cheapest price out there.
"What's important is, are you happy with what bought, and the price you paid?" he says. "My brother could care less how much something costs, so he doesn't shop around much at all. I'm more frugal, so I'll do the legwork. But some people don't care and that's fine."
Perhaps his biggest tip: "Don't buy stuff you don't need," he says. "I saw these plastic freezer molds to make ice cube shot glasses for about $6. I thought, 'What a deal!' Then I caught myself; what the heck did I need them for? Fortunately, they were sold out."
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