The Art of the Deal

If there's a golden rule of shopping, it's that you can always score a better deal. But finding real bargains on PCs, digital cameras, and other types of tech products takes skill, patience, and persistence. To help you get started, we've compiled a list of insider shopping secrets that can save you money, shield you from shady retailers, and help you recognize a genuinely good buy.

Know thy product: You can't make an informed buy if you don't understand the way that an item's features and bundled accessories affect its price. Find out whether your product comes with cables, batteries, software, and so on. Shady vendors may charge you for something that's already in the box.

Get a sense of the market: Don't give up searching for bargains prematurely: Know whether there are 3 or 30 products that meet your specific criteria. Browse reviews at established sources such as ConsumerReview.com and Epinions.com. Similarly effective is Overstock.com's natural-language search feature; it delivers a snapshot of available products based on the query that you type in. For example, enter the phrase Find all digital cameras for less than $300 in the search window, and Overstock searches its database for items that match the request.

Compare every which way: It's not enough to purchase the cheapest product that pops up in a search of one price-comparison site. For better deals and a better sense of who is selling what, try multiple search options. Visit a few pricing engines (see the chart below), consult sites like Froogle (Google's product search site), and browse retail shelves. Exhaustive searches pay.

Search like a pro: At search and pricing engines, different combinations of words produce different results. Be as specific as possible. For instance, the search term cameras is less specific than digital cameras, which in turn is less specific than Sony Cyber-shot DSC-U50. Add the word bargain to the string, and you'll likely get results for sites that claim to sell the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-U50 at lower prices. Experiment with words and with using quotation marks around phrases: Replace bargain with words like deal, sale, reduced, and rebate. But be skeptical: Some vendors that come up on your search for, say, discount digital cameras may be selling the goods at top dollar.

Let decision trees guide you: Instead of researching every feature, follow an automated decision tree to find product candidates. Activebuyersguide.com employs an on-screen question-and-answer process that explains key features and ends with recommended products. PriceScan.com offers a similar weeding-out engine for pinpointing the product that matches your needs.

Nextag.com provides a chart that shows a product's price history.
Nextag.com provides a chart that shows a product's price history.
Sign up for e-mail alerts: Ask to receive e-mail messages when the price of an item you want drops. At Yahoo Shopping, you can set an alert; at Nextag.com and PriceGrabber.com, you can indicate a target price and specify item condition (for example, new or refurbished).

Check bargain sites: For lists of sales, coupons, and rebates, browse Amazing-Bargains.com, CleverMoms.com, Bargainshopping.org, DealCatcher.com, DealHunting.com, Getmeadeal.com, Overstock.com, RefundSweepers.com, Techbargains.com, and TotalDeals.com. You'll find both new stuff and old clunkers at these sites, many of which link directly to deals featuring the latest products at the manufacturers' sites.

Browse the maker's site: With a little effort on your part a good deal can become a great one. Once you see on a pricing engine a product you like for a price that seems reasonable, you should check the manufacturer's site to see how much your desired item costs there. Sometimes makers update prices on their sites before the data can reach the pricing engines.

Click sales and clearance links: Brand-name sites always have sales. Scroll around, and you'll see links for sales, clearance centers, free shipping, and so on. CNet's Shopper.com, for example, has a tab for its Clearance Center, which includes refurbished and overstock items, and another for Price Drops, which shows the discounting date and percentage of savings. Amazon.com dedicates sections of its site to Today's Deals and an Outlet link. Dell.com has Dell Outlet and an area for refurbished systems (which includes almost-new, returned items), while IBM.com has a Special Offers page.

Seek out rebates: At Ebates.com, search for coupons, free shipping, or other kinds of deals. Search by product category--computers, DVD and video, books, and so on--and specify the manufacturer or store you're interested in (for example, Amazon.com, HP, or Sears). But beware: Getting your rebate money can be a hassle. So be prepared to put some time and effort into the process.

Visit newsgroups: To get the most exhaustive and impassioned counsel, visit sites dedicated to a particular device. From any search engine, type the name of your desired product in the search field. For example, doing a search at Google's Groups page can lead you to newsgroups where people debate a product's merits and flaws. Post a message, and you're likely to be besieged with advice (consider using a secondary e-mail address to avoid spam). Alternatively, visit Epinions.com for product and vendor reviews. If you favor a particular reviewer, you can add him or her to your network of reliable, online-shopping sources.

Keep records: Invoke your inner lawyer. Print or capture a screen shot of every page of your online transactions, save all receipts and e-mail correspondence, and write down the names of the salespeople you talk to, along with the dates of your conversations. Write the description and price of the item (in case you don't get what you ordered), plus warranty information, expected delivery date, and other pertinent data. If dates don't automatically appear on your paper trail, write them in; disreputable vendors may put incorrect information in their documentation.

Read privacy notices: It may seem unnecessary to inquire about privacy issues when all you want is a bargain, but you might really pay, so to speak, if you're not careful. For example, a site may offer attractive discounts but make up for the resulting low profit margin with revenue earned by selling your data--name, credit information, shopping habits, and so on. This could lead to more spam, unsolicited telephone calls, or even identity theft. If a site shows seals from Truste, BBBOnline, or WebTrust, it will likely exercise a reasonable level of privacy protection. But even these seals are no guarantee.

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