Top Sites for Bargain Hunters

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Like any savvy shopper, I use the Web to research prices for tech products. But last year I learned to appreciate sites that come to you with bargains.

Deal sites are great when you're not on a deadline to buy--in other words, when you're willing to wait for the right price on a wish list of items, or see products you might not even have realized you wanted affordably listed. I found my HDTV at a great price thanks to a specialized subgenre of deal site--a 'Black Friday' site called BFAds that sent subscribers e-mail messages about "Hotter than Black Friday" deals throughout the holiday season.

But plenty of year-round deal sites track all manner of bargains--everything from special sales and coupons to the weekly Sunday-circular ads by major retailers. In fact, I was surprised by the sheer number of bargain sites.

Some, including Dealcatcher and TechBargains, are huge, professional-looking operations that track lots of products, product categories, and retailers. Others, such as BFAds partner site, are more like blogs. Some are community-based, like Dealio, or really search engines, such as Clipfire, which retrieves deals from other deal sites.

How do these sites learn about bargains? Are the deals really deals? After checking out a couple dozen sites, I found myself drawn to the ones with good notification and community features. Social networking and Internet bargain-hunting--that's a marriage made in shopping heaven, in my book.

Deals in My Inbox

Notification is big for me because I'm too lazy to fire up my browser to keep tabs on much of anything on a day-in, day-out basis. I'd much rather peruse my inbox, or the headlines in my RSS reader.

General newsletters and RSS feeds are most useful if the site itself is narrowly focused in some way. For instance, SpendFish tracks only deals on Amazon; it has both a general e-mail newsletter and an RSS feed for its bargains. Plus, a couple of years ago, its operator posted a list of other deal sites; while not complete, the list is still a good resource, thanks especially to the reader contributions in a lengthy comments section.

If you know what you're looking for or where you want to shop, you'll like sites that let you customize your notifications. On DealCatcher, for example, you can set up Deal Alerts based on keywords such as the name of a vendor (Dell or HP, say); a product category (digital camcorder or LCD TV); or a retailer (Best Buy or Amazon). You can further request that you be notified right away whenever a deal that matches your preferences is posted, or you can opt for one e-mail message a day.

TechBargains has a Deal Request form in which you can get as granular or as generic as you wish (but results aren't guaranteed). And DealNews offers daily newsletters and e-mail alerts about new deals; you can also sign up for pre-defined or customized RSS feeds.

Rely on the Pack

Most deal sites have FAQs or "About Us" sections where they talk about how they work but tend to be short on specifics: Are they paid to tout deals? How much of the deal-hunting is automated? Are humans involved in deciding what makes a deal? You may never get hard answers, but no matter: If the site has decent community features, you'll quickly get a sense of the real deals and the duds.

Most of the sites have, at the very least, forums where users can compare notes. Fat Wallet, for one, appears to have an active community, and while it does allow advertisers to post, it labels ads as such. Other sites let users post comments on deals. From browsing through comment strings on several sites, I learned that deal pricing on Amazon can be a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't affair: Several users talked about not seeing the sale price until they refreshed their browsers.

Some sites have more innovative community features. Dealio, for example, is a Digg-like site where registered users can post deals and rate the deals of others. The site does post what appear to be ads (they're called "featured deals"), but you can cut straight to the user-rated deals (which you can sort by date or ranking), and it's easy to see when people aren't impressed since it records negative as well as positive votes. That's the sort of Web 2.0 action that warms this shopper's heart.

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