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Start your engines!

Published: October 2010

When you're in bargain-hunting mode, you know to shop around. But you might be clicking in all the wrong places. For starters, if you're not using price-comparison search engines, you're missing out on a great saving shortcut. The trick is to use the right ones, as we discovered when we put the top 25 to the test, including giants like the shopping engines of AOL, Yahoo, and Google as well as Bing, Bizrate, NexTag, PriceGrabber.com, Shopzilla, and more. To compare the sites, we created a basket of eight items to see which ones turned up the best prices and were easiest to use. The results: The best ones make it superfast and easy to dig up juicy bargains; on the other hand, the worst ones can be real time-wasters. For example, sites like Pronto and Shopping.com sometimes served up results that had nothing to do with our search terms. (In one case, when we asked for a book we got a baseball cap.) Others didn't factor in tax and shipping costs, which can add big bucks to the final tab. One other thing we learned: It really pays to use price-comparison engines, whether you're shopping for big items or small stuff. When we looked for "Wolf Hall," a hardcover novel by Hilary Mantel, there was an almost $10 difference between the search engines' highest and lowest prices. When we hunted for binoculars that went for more than $1,000, the difference amounted to hundreds of dollars.

Our shopping list

The wide range of prices we found on eight items:

  • "Avatar" DVD, $13.50-$34.95
  • New Balance cross-training sneakers, $47.48-$69.74
  • Samsung NP-N150 Netbook, $298.99-$443.83
  • "Wolf Hall," by Hilary Mantel, $14.50-$25.11
  • Graco Quattro Tour Sport stroller, $118.10-$199.99
  • Wacoal Awareness bra, $61.18-$72.57
  • Kenneth Cole Reaction wallet, $23.99-$32.61
  • Swarovski 10x42 binoculars, $1,539.99-$1,929

Best & worst

Winner

www.pricegrabber.com*

Why we like it

We found the lowest prices on six of our eight items here. Also, the site calculates tax and shipping when you enter your ZIP code. The results are easy to read and include seller ratings. Used and refurbished items are clearly marked.

What's new

Apps for the iPad and iPhone as well as for Android phones. Also, it has partnered with Retrevo.com to list user reviews for electronics.

Cool feature

Don't see a price you like? Click on "Add Price Alert" in the upper right-hand corner, and the site will send you an e-mail if the price drops.

Runners-up

www.google.com/products

Why we like it

Google's price-comparison site found the lowest prices on many of the items we searched. And you can customize results. For example, you can see photos or view as a list.

What's new

The toolbar gives you more ways to narrow your search. You can opt to see only new items or those with free shipping, and you can specify a price range or preferred stores.

Cool feature

If you have a Google account, click "add to shopping list" to keep track of products you want.

www.nextag.com

Why we like it

It found the lowest prices on fewer items but makes it easy to compare prices and get product specs.

What's new

User reviews (millions of them!) let you know what others thought of a product you're considering.

Cool feature

As with Google, you can search by free shipping. Also, a price-history graph shows how much an item's price has gone up or down recently, so you can gauge whether to hold out for a better deal. As with PriceGrabber.com, you can sign up for price alerts.

www.bing.com

Why we like it

This relative newcomer is not only a Web search engine. It's also a price-comparison engine. Click on "shopping," choose a product category, then a specific product. Pages of photos and specs will pop up; click on "compare prices" to see what deals are out there.

What's new

Sadly, Bing has discontinued its cash-back program.

Cool feature

It's easy to spot deals offering free shipping. Look for a "free shipping" tag under the product's price.

Worst

www.shopping.com and www.pronto.com

Why we nixed them

Shopping.com had some irrelevant search results—typing in "Avatar DVD" pulled up an Avatar game, action figure, and paintball goggles, among other things. And you can't always get shipping costs for your ZIP code. Pronto had the same flaws. Our search for the novel "Wolf Hall" pulled up an Arkansas State University baseball cap. And shipping costs and tax were available for some sellers but not all. Save time and money by sticking to our top-rated sites, at left.

Search smart

Tips for zeroing in on the best deals

Start with pricegrabber.com

As we learned in our price-comparison test, this site is hands-down the easiest to use and nets you the best deals.

Next try at least one of the runners-up

No one site always turns up the best prices. To easily access Google's or Bing's price-comparison sites, go to the main search engine page and click on the "shopping" tab.

Be specific

Typing in "Lady Gaga" can bring up headphones, sheet music, and a paperback biography. If you want music, include "CD" or "MP3."

Click through

Sometimes the prices shown in search results are incorrect, so click through to the e-tailer to double-check them. For example, when we looked for the novel "Wolf Hall," one comparison site showed that Walmart's price before taxes and shipping was $11.49. But when we clicked through to Walmart, the price was actually $14.50. Also click around to confirm shipping costs, and while you're at it check return policies.

Know your model numbers

The same product might come in multiple models with different features and prices. For true comparability, type in the brand name, the model name (if it has one), and the model number.

Be open to new sites

One of the best things about starting with a search engine is discovering great sites. When we searched for the "Avatar" DVD, we found Glyde, a great money-saving source for used DVDs, books, games, and CDs.

Get coupon codes

Never click buy until you've checked for them at sites such as Coupons.com and RetailMeNot.

* Editor's Note: PriceGrabber.com operates the shopping service at ConsumerReports.org.
   

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