Your holiday gift list probably includes things you don't buy very often. But even when shopping in unfamiliar territory, you can get great deals on top-quality items if you know what to look for. To help you, we collected the best shopping advice from our test-lab experts and other pros for six popular gift categories: clothing, fitness equipment, jewelry, personal electronics, small appliances, and wine. These tips will help whether you intend to brave the malls, shop online, or do a little of both.
No matter what you're buying, there's a strategy regular readers of this newsletter know we always recommend: haggling. Our surveys have found that it generally pays to try to negotiate a discount. But even the most tenacious bargainers might be surprised to learn that it's possible to haggle even when shopping online, though you'll have to negotiate over the phone or by e-mail.
Of course, no matter how carefully you choose a gift, it's possible that the person you give it to will want to return it. So ask for (or print out) a copy of the store's refund and return policy and include it with your present, along with a gift receipt just in case.
You might be able to save the most at outlet stores. According to Value Retail News, which analyzes trends in outlet shopping, the average discount is 37 percent. But outlet prices aren't always the lowest, and the quality might not be quite as good as items you'll find in regular stores. Here's how to get the best duds at the best price no matter where you shop.
Buttons should be sewn on tightly, and zippers should have deep plackets (extra material over and under the zipper so that it won't show or pinch). Look for reinforced stitching on pockets, necklines, armholes, and shoulders so they won't rip when pulled or tugged. Not every garment needs a lining, but it's a sign an item is well-made. Also look for a tag that's smoothly sewn in so it won't scratch, and bonus features such as extra buttons, thread, or beads for repairs. Avoid garments with uneven seams or balls of thread on the inside of a seam. Ideally, hems should be sewn with a blind-hem stitch; the stitches are tiny, neat, and even, and you can't see them on the outside.
You might find special deals and discounts online that you can use in stores. See if the clothing retailers you'll be buying from have outlet websites or Facebook pages. Type the name of the stores and the word "outlet" into your web browser. The Reebok outlet site we checked offered 15 percent off our next purchase for signing up to receive e-mail. And the Facebook feed for the Liz Claiborne New York outlet gave us a link to a coupon for 20 percent off all dresses.
If you're springing for a pricey elliptical, treadmill, or exercise bike for someone, you should let him or her know your plans so you can make the best choice.
Look for a machine that will fit in the space where it will be used. Elliptical exercisers and nonfolding treadmills are about the size of a small couch; most stationary bikes are only a bit smaller. Folding treadmills are generally shorter than nonfolding models, and they can be stored upright to save space. For ellipticals, also consider the ceiling height where it will be used.
The optimal treadmill deck for most runners is about 60 inches long by 20 inches wide. Less-expensive folding treadmills can have shorter decks, which should be fine for walkers. Pay attention to ergonomics when choosing an elliptical or stationary bike. If possible, have the person who will be using it try it out. He or she shouldn't feel discomfort in the knee or hip joints, and knees shouldn't bump the frame or handgrips. Bike seats should be comfortable.
A good display will have easy-to-use controls and show your heart rate, calories burned, speed, resistance levels, and details such as time and distance. Look for machines with programs that allow users to adjust routines based on their fitness levels.
Buying some bling this season? Make sure the jeweler writes on the sales receipt any information that's relevant to the item's value, such as a gemstone's weight or size.
If an item is just marked "gold," it's probably 24 karats (24K). Because gold is soft, it's usually mixed with other metals to increase its hardness and durability. For example, 18-karat jewelry is 75 percent gold mixed with a base metal like nickel or zinc. Although most gold jewelry is marked with its karat quality, marking is not required by law. Near the karat mark you might also see a company name or the trademark of a company that essentially guarantees it.
Jewelry labeled silver or sterling silver, however, must be 92.5 percent silver and bear a company name or trademark. If a gold or silver piece is not marked, assume that it's plated, which means it has a thin layer of the precious metal bonded to a base metal. The plating will eventually wear away. How soon will depend on its thickness and how often the piece is handled or worn.
If you're thinking about buying gold-plated jewelry to save some money, consider vermeil. It must contain 2.5 micrometers of gold, usually bonded to a silver base. Those metals are less likely to wear or to react to the ingredients in skin creams and sunscreens, says Helena Krodel, a spokeswoman for Jewelers of America, an industry trade group.
Ask if a gemstone is natural. The real McCoy can be rare and very valuable. Laboratory-made stones, also called synthetic, have the same chemical, physical, and visual properties as natural gemstones, so you're not likely to be able to tell the difference—but in most cases they should cost less. Least expensive are imitation stones, which look a lot like natural ones but might be glass, plastic, or cheaper stones.
Find out if gemstones or pearls have been treated. For example, some black, bronze, gold, purple, blue, and orange pearls occur that way in nature; others, however, are dyed or irradiated to enhance the color. Gemstone imperfections can be filled, heat-treated, or oiled to improve their appearance. If a jeweler doesn't disclose that an item is synthetic, imitation, or treated until you ask, that's your cue to bargain down the price.
Treated jewelry might need special care. For example, a gemstone that has been heat-treated or oiled should not be cleaned in an ultrasonic cleaner. Make sure you pass on any special-care needs to the jewelry's new owner.
If electronics sales fall short of retailers' goals, prices might plummet in the final weeks of the year, as they have in past years. So if you buy early, check the retailer's return and price-matching policies.
The best online retailers outscored the best walk-in stores in Consumer Reports' annual surveys of the best places to buy electronics and computers, in many cases because they were standouts for both price and selection. But you might want to do some advance research in stores. The hottest products include relatively new and unfamiliar categories (tablets, smart phones, e-book readers) and technologies (3D, touch screens) that you may want to try before you buy, preferably with some expert guidance.
These are sites where you can check prices at hundreds of retailers. You can sort the listings by price and check reader reviews of products and retailers. Sites to consider include BizRate (and its affiliate, Shopzilla), Google Shopping, MySimon, PriceGrabber, Shopping.com (and affiliate DealTime), and Yahoo Shopping. Some bots will send you e-mail alerts when they find retailers selling the model you want in your target price range.
Some digital picture frames, for example, require only the ability to plug in a memory card. With others, you might have to scroll through confusing menus or install a complicated wireless setup that can befuddle the not-so-tech-savvy. Kodak digital cameras usually emphasize simple design and ease of use; Samsung cameras feature high styling and multimedia functions. If you'll be buying an MP3 player, make sure it will be compatible with your recipient's computer. Older Windows or Macintosh systems might need an upgrade, which can cost more than the player.
We based this advice on our experience testing a large variety of kitchen standards, including coffeemakers, microwaves, mixers, and toasters, along with appliances used around the house, like air conditioners, humidifiers, and vacuums.
While they might boost profits for stores, extended warranties are generally a bad deal for consumers because most products (including those in other categories we test, like electronics) don't break within the three years most service plans cover. Repairs often cost about the same as the warranty, so you're better off taking your chances.
In a 2009 survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, subscribers gave Amazon.com and Costco the highest marks for prices on small appliances for the second year in a row. But if you need help making a selection, you might want to stick with an independent local retailer; that group received top marks for staff expertise and service.
You don't need to spend a lot of money to get a good bottle of wine. We've taste-tested varietals, blends, and vintage wines, and found some excellent bottles for less than $20 and some very good ones for as little as $8.
If you don't have a specific wine in mind, check out www.winezap.com. You key in a type of wine and price range, and up pops a list of suggested wines. For each label, the site displays food pairings, reviews, and vendors. It also shows the best prices, including shipping and tax. If you already know which wine you want, enter its name at www.wine-searcher.com, which lists wines by price and vendor. The site culls its information from more than 19,000 wine stores, wineries, and wine auctions. Just one warning: Whether you can buy wine from out-of-state sellers depends on where you live. Wine sites will tell you if you can place orders. Or go to www.wineinstitute.org for a brief rundown of state laws.
For example, when you see "reserve" on a bottle from Italy or Spain, where use of the term is regulated, it means the wine has spent extra time aging at a winery, in the bottle, or both. Wherever the term is not regulated, as is the case in the U.S., it might be nothing more than a marketing tool.
If you'll be buying wine for many people on your list this holiday, look for retailers and wineries offering case discounts, some as much as 10 percent. If you order online, buying in bulk is also likely to get you a break on shipping costs.
Only one in seven buyers of major electronics (and one in eight of those buying computers) said they tried to negotiate the price of their purchase, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. But more than half of those who haggled were successful; computer buyers saved an average of $105. Only 2 percent of online buyers tried haggling, but those who did were just as successful as the in-store negotiators.
In a separate survey, we found that almost 10 percent of people shopping for small appliances at walk-in retail stores haggled. Of those, about 70 percent scored a discount to the tune of around $50.
Here are some haggling dos and don'ts.
Check out prices and store policies so you can prove there are better deals than the one a retailer is offering you. Bring printouts from websites or flyers and newspaper ads if you're buying at a walk-in store. Or have Web pages with better deals open on your computer so you can share the address with online retailers.
No one wants to bargain with a grouch. If you're waiting to talk with a manager in a store, don't glare at your watch or tap on a counter. If you're on the phone, ask politely if the rep can offer you a better deal.
Late in the month, when salespeople are trying to meet their quotas, can be a good time to bargain for big-ticket items.
Haggle out of earshot of other customers. Sales clerks don't want everyone in the store asking for a deal, too.
Look over in-store items for minor imperfections you can easily repair.
This article appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.