How to get the best deal on practically anything

How to get the best deal on practically anything

These tools can help you get the lowest price

Published: January 14, 2015 11:00 AM

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There’s little more infuriating than going to a store, buying a product and then seeing it on sale the next day or learning that you could have bought the same thing cheaper elsewhere. Unfortunately, your old-school shopper’s intuition and instincts are no longer all you need to find the best deal, especially as more retail stores and online merchants employ sophisticated price-optimization software that tracks competitors’ prices and then adjusts their own.

To get an idea of just how hard it is to get the best price on a product consider this: Amazon.com, the mega-retailer, makes as many as 2.5 million price changes per day on its tens of thousands of products.

The upside to these practices is that you’re more likely to get a better, more competitive price, especially on products that aren’t selling well. The downside is that it’s hard to know if you’re getting the best price possible, or only the best price at any given moment in time.

Retailers are doing more than just changing prices. They are also using software to examine your shopping habits to figure out if you’re a casual shopper or a serious bargain hunter. If your shopping habits and behaviors red-flag you as a smart shopper, the retailer might target you to receive special prices and promotions in your email or right on your smart phone while you’re standing in an aisle making your purchase decision. If you’re a casual shopper who isn’t necessarily looking for the best deal, there is a greater chance that you would be willing to pay top dollar, and the store’s pricing strategy will take full advantage of that.

The goal of all this is not only to maximize sales, but also to wed you to the store brand. If you’re a tough cookie who demands the best price and you trust that a particular store is consistently competitive in terms of prices, you’ll be “less likely to shop around for a deal,” according to Planet Retail, a market research consulting firm. If you value convenience over price, you’ll buy a bargain if you see it, but at times, also accept a higher price.

To be a smart shopper, you should sharpen your high-tech shopping skills polish your image as a demanding, price-conscious customer so all of those computer-tracking programs treat you accordingly. Here’s how:

Preshop

Before setting foot in any store, shop online to see the range of prices for the items you know you want to buy. Use comparison-shopping engines such Google Shopping and PriceGrabber, which did well in a ShopSmart magazine evaluation earlier this year. These search engines aggregate product information in a standard format and show prices from multiple retailers, and they ultimately link you to the merchant’s website if you want to close the sale. Others include Bing, Shopping.com, and the advertised search results on Amazon. The Price and Shop function on ConsumerReports.org also allows you to comparison price shop while researching.

Price-shopping online is also a good way to check what the stores around town are charging because “prices on the retailer’s websites often match their store prices more than they used to,” says Mary Weinstein, content director at CPC Strategy, a digital marketing firm in San Diego.

While price shopping, become familiar with the key features of the product you are considering, compare the value of items, and assess whether a favorite brand is really the best deal. Check Consumer Reports’ Ratings on products of interest that we’ve tested independently.

Consider closing the sale online

Because of the stalled economy and Internet-savvy shoppers, competition is intense, so you might find the lowest prices at an online merchant. If your preshopping gives you sufficient information about prices at physical stores, you might have enough information to decide to buy online and save a trip.

Don’t forget online shipping costs. To properly compare online and in-store prices, add any package delivery service costs to the Internet price. Look for free shipping, of course. FreeShipping.org offers coupons that do what its name implies. Many retailers, including Best Buy, Macy’s, and Walmart, also allow you to order online and pick up your purchases at a local store.

Plug into technology

Sign up for your favorite retailers’ e-mail newsletters, coupons, and special sale alerts. Check for coupons and coupon codes for hundreds of retailers on sites such as Coupons.com,DealScience.com, and RetailMeNot.com. Ibotta, a leading mobile shopping app, will deliver cash-back offers to your cell phone when you’re near specific products that analytics have determined are of interest to you in more than 175,000 store locations.

And put your smart phone to work to compare prices offered by competitors on Amazon, Overstock, Zappos, and your favorite shopping search engines while you’re in a store considering a purchase. Many consumers already do this, but “the majority of shoppers are still coming in with the paper coupons that retailers like Macy’s sent them in the mail,” says Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a retailing consulting firm.

Be vigilant after the sale

Because prices can drop after you make a purchase, keep your receipts. If you see a price reduction on something you’ve bought, get evidence of the competing lower price, ask the original seller to match it and refund the difference, or return the item and buy it cheaper at the other store. And, of course, sharpen your haggling skills, and always be ready to bargain for a better deal.

—Jeff Blyskal (@JeffBlyskal on Twitter)

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the December 2014 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.


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