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6 Tips for Being a Smart Online Shopper (From Top Retail Experts)

By Trae BodgeOct 8, 2019

More than 79% of Americans purchased goods and services online in 2018 and that number is expected to exceed 90% in 2023. 

Online shopping is becoming the norm, but that doesn’t mean we’re all pro shoppers. From the growing problem with fake reviews to browser extensions that can help you but also spy on you, the internet is constantly changing. 

Meanwhile, parents have lots of things to shell out for, and buying birthday gifts is only the tip of the iceberg. There's the rising cost of childcare, for starters. One great way to avoid lifestyle creep and keep your spending in check is to be really mindful of your online purchases.

That’s why I asked shopping experts to share their favorite tricks for getting the best deals online. 

1. Be Smart About Fake Reviews

One of the primary reasons to shop online: convenience. The downside is that you can’t see, feel or test a product. Online reviews can help, but what about fake reviews? 

Kimberly Palmer, personal-finance expert at NerdWallet, always checks out reviews before making a purchase. She just takes them with a grain of salt, since many reviews are written by paid shoppers or consumers who received the product for free. “If the reviews are only positive, then I might not be getting the full story,” she says. “However, if I have a specific question—like about sizing—and a review mentions how the item fits, that can be really helpful.” 

Consumer-savings expert Andrea Woroch recommends reading reviews from multiple sites for balanced feedback. “Amazon is great since they sell just about everything,” but she also likes to cross-reference expert reviews on Consumer Reports. She also checks out Facebook and Twitter for customer feedback.

2. Use Browser Extensions to Comparison Shop

Prices always vary from retailer to retailer. You don’t even need to site-hop to see it: Simply Googling a product will get you a page full of different retailers and prices. 

One of my favorite tricks is to compare prices with browser extensions. These are free, easy ways to make your browser “smarter,” and are especially common on Google Chrome.  While you’re looking at one site, a browser extension can report more info from elsewhere on the web—like if there are coupons or cash-back opportunities available. 

Woroch uses one of my favorites, Invisible Hand. She says, “Invisible Hand provides pop-up notifications if something I’m eyeing is available for less at another retailer.” 

Palmer uses Honey. ”It is constantly checking in the background to see if there is a lower price elsewhere,” she says. “It makes it easy to buy from the retailer offering the best deal.” 

I’d suggest installing a few extensions and keeping one or two, based on which ones work best for you.

As this article from MoneyCrashers notes, online security shouldn't go out the window just because you really like that new pair of threads. Keep in mind that some browser can access more data than you might feel comfortable with. According to Lifehacker, a web tool called CRXcavator can provide a security report based on data mined from the Chrome Web Store.

3. Earn Cash Back on Your Purchases

One perk of online shopping is the opportunity to earn cash back. Lifestyle expert Carey Reilly likes the Ebates (which has recently been re-named Rakuten) browser extension for this. 

“You install it on your browser and then earn cash back as you shop. In a few months you get a check in the mail,” she says. “It’s really a no brainer. Sometimes I use this information to determine which site I shop at because of the percentage I receive.”

Want to double your cash back? You could always shop with a cash-back credit card, earning perks from both your card and from companies like Ebates.

4. Take a Few Seconds to Search for Coupons

Most e-tailers accept coupons, so if you’re not already using a coupon site or a browser extension that finds coupons for you, take a few minutes to look for coupons before you make your next purchase. 

Palmer conducts a general web search for “coupon” and the e-tailer’s name to check for available coupons. Woroch says, CouponSherpa is my go-to site for finding coupon codes from hundreds of online retailers. I’m also am a fan of CouponCause. Not only do they help you save, but they also give back to charities.” 

Digital coupons are not revolutionary, but coupons continue to offer savings on a variety of purchases. While some coupons are submitted directly by brands, some sites, like Slickdeals and RetailMeNot, also have coupons that are submitted by users.That means you can find coupons that aren’t as common.  (Full disclosure: I have worked for both Slickdeals and RetailMeNot.) 

5. Get a Price Match Without Leaving Your Living Room

Remember the days of bringing one store’s coupon with you and asking a different retailer to match or beat the price? Those days aren’t over, just easier.

If you find a lower price at one place but prefer to shop somewhere else, you might get a price match—totally online. Some retailers like Walmart, JCPenney and Home Depot may match a competitor’s price. 

Palmer recommends keeping a simple written price record for items you plan to purchase. You could have a notebook on hand, make a folder of screenshots on your desktop or keep a running list in the Memo function of your phone. If you ultimately purchase from a retailer that offers matching, you can try requesting the price adjustment through online chat.

You can also take advantage of price-matching after the fact. Woroch recommends digital platform Paribus. “The site tracks purchases I’ve made online. It lets me know if something I recently bought went on sale and if it’s eligible for a price adjustment,” she says. “The site has helped me get back over $150 in the last few months!” Note, Paribus and similar services typically track purchases by connecting to your email.

6. Time Your Online Purchases

When you buy can also make a huge difference in what you pay. “I suggest being strategic about when you buy . . . especially appliances,” Reilly says. “Make any big appliance purchases on Black Friday. Not only will there be a sale, but usually there's a Black Friday financing sale as well. Last Black Friday, I bought a stove from Lowes at 40% off, and I received 24 months of interest-free financing (from Lowe’s). Plus cash back from Ebates and a rebate from Lowes. It was a huge savings.” 

Woroch agrees that timing matters. “Shopping at the end of the season is a great way to save on the items you will eventually need. Although summer is almost over, May is coming up sooner than you think—when you may need new sandals, tank tops or swimsuits for you and your family.” 

While shopping online offers unmatched convenience and a dizzying number of options, doing it well takes some planning and skill. These tactics can help you save not only time but also quite a bit of money.  

That said, don’t forget about shopping in-store, especially locally. Brick and mortar businesses, especially small independent ones, need your support. And some items still require that in-person experience, whether for fit, feel or general functionality.  

Whatever you choose, here’s to being the smartest, savviest consumer you can be.


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Written by

Trae Bodge

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