When it comes to holiday shopping, more and more consumers are heading to their computers rather than the mall. Nearly 52 percent of those surveyed by the National Retail Federation plan to shop online this year, up from 44 percent in 2012. That's a smart move according to the deal experts we consulted, because shopping online can save time and money.
The savings hold true even on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when stores have big sales. Most retailers will be offering the same discounts on their websites as in their stores this holiday season, says Rob Gough, president of CouponChad.com and DefinitiveDeals.com.
Plus, when you shop online, you have access to several tools that make it easy to compare prices and find the best deals -- without spending money on gas to drive all over town and giving up time with family over the holiday weekend to battle the crowds.
Price-comparison sites and tools. It's easy to find out which retailers have the best prices on items on your holiday gift list if you use price-comparison sites such as Amazon.com (AMZN), PriceGrabber.com or Google Shopping (GOOG). 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.
Or you could download a browser add-on, such as PriceBlink, which can help you find the lowest price when you shop online. When you are viewing a product online, it scans more than 4,000 merchants' sites to determine if any offer that product at a lower price. A toolbar will pop up at the top of your browser alerting you to savings. Karl Quist, president of PriceBlink, says that if you see a merchant offering a product for up to 20 percent less than other retailers, recognize that it's a special deal that you should snap up because it won't last.
Coupon codes. When you're comparing prices at several online retailers, be sure to check whether any are offering coupons that will lower their prices even more. Sites such as CouponCabin.com, CouponChad.com, DefinitiveDeals.com and RetailMeNot.com offer coupon codes, many of which you won't find advertised on retailers' sites. The PriceBlink browser add-on also displays coupons being offered by retailers whose sites you visit.
Gough of CouponChad.com cautions shoppers to be smart about using coupons. Retailers know that consumers often opt for coupons that offer a particular dollar amount off rather than a percentage off a purchase -- even when the latter option offers better savings, he says. If both types of coupons are available for a product, calculate the savings you'll get with each to determine which coupon code to use.
Deal sites. Another reason finding deals online can be easier than in a store is the plethora of deal sites that do the bargain hunting for you, such as Ben's Bargains, dealnews.com and Offers.com. The number of deals on these sites can be overwhelming, says Joe Warner, managing editor of Ben's Bargains. So he recommends that you have a shopping list so you buy only items you need. You can register at Ben's Bargains to receive email alerts for deals based on keywords so that you'll know when items you're looking for go on sale.
Online gift cards. While you're shopping online, it's easy to check sites such as Gift Card Granny to see if it has any discounted online gift cards you can use to save money on your purchases. Gift Card Granny sells merchants' gift cards for less than face value. So if you buy a $100 Macy's gift card for $90 and use it to make a purchase on Macys.com (M), you'll get an instant $10 savings.
Free shipping. With the majority of retailers offering free shipping this holiday season, you shouldn't make a purchase online if it doesn't include free shipping, says Offers.com Vice President Howard Schaffer. You can search for free shipping codes at FreeShipping.org. If a retailer requires a minimum purchase amount to receive free shipping and you're not quite at that limit, Schaffer recommends checking your holiday gift list to see if there's another item you can add to your basket -- or perhaps a gift you need to purchase for an upcoming birthday, anniversary or other occasion. You also can wait until Free Shipping Day on Dec. 18, when more than 400 merchants will be offering free shipping on all purchases with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve.
Email alerts. You don't have to spend every hour of every day scouring the Web to get the best deals. When you register at many of the sites mentioned above or at your favorite retailers' sites, you can sign up to receive alerts for deals and coupons. If it's an offer for at least 20 percent to 50 percent off an item on your list, Schaffer says that you can be confident that you're getting it at a good price.