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Image: Amazon Windowshop
Amazon
Amazon Windowshop, out in a test version in time for the holidays, lets shoppers sample movie trailers, music and audio book reviews.
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msnbc.com
updated 11/17/2008 8:33:58 AM ET 2008-11-17T13:33:58

Online retailers are offering a mix of specials and sales this holiday season that may leave Web shoppers mixed up as to where, when and how to buy.

More than ever, shoppers need to pay attention to the fine print on the screen, and stay alert for deals that are changing daily and sometimes hourly. There may be great offers available because of the struggling economy, but if you blink — or don’t click — in time, you could miss out.

“I think retailers will be playing the price game sooner than in the past,” said Kurt Peters, editor-in-chief of Internet Retailer, a trade publication.

Indeed, that seems to be the case, despite the fact that Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, are considered the traditional starting points for holiday shopping. Many retailers’ Web sites have been filled with specials for several weeks now.

And, there’s already a fair amount of texting, Twittering and e-mails going on by retailers and shoppers about sales and bargains.

Social networking — be it through sites like Twitter or Facebook — is magnifying the season’s gift-a-thon more than ever before.

Guidance, a company that creates e-commerce sites, surveyed 1,000 online shoppers and found that nearly 30 percent of them cited “some form of ‘social action’ as the best way to find out about deals or discounts online.”

“Two years ago, social media wasn’t even considered a source of traffic by merchants,” said Jon Provisor of Guidance, in a statement.

Phone alerts abound
You don’t have to be sitting in front of the computer to shop, either. Traditional merchandisers will find you, or help you find them.

At JCPenney’s Web site, for example, you can sign up for a wake-up call for the day after Thanksgiving, as well as get “helpful shopping tips” texted to your phone throughout the season. You may want to consider putting your phone on “vibrate” at work.

Sears is launching “Sears2go,” for cell phone users, who want to text in their orders, do product searches or find special offers.

“Say you want to get a Craftsman tool set for your friend, You text in the order and Sears will text you back when your item is ready for pickup at the store you want,” said Tom Aiello, division vice president for Sears Holdings Corp. “This creates a very easy way for people to use their mobile phone to shop.”

Amazon.com, among others, is also happy to send you a text alert for its “daily deals,” if you’re not already getting bombarded with e-mails from the Internet giant, as well as other retailers.

The company has also started a test version of Amazon Windowshop, a kind of 3-D experience where shoppers can sample movie trailers, music and audio book reviews.

Image: Partial Sears Web page
Sears
Sears.com is among many retailers trying to entice customers to shop online by offering different deals on different days.
In addition to a myriad of online shopping comparison sites, such as dealnews.com, pricespider.com and fatwallet.com, to help consumers, there’s even one that was recently released for the iPhone. It’s called “TheFind: Where to Shop.”

No matter where or how you wind up shopping, expect prices and offers to change as frequently as the Dow industrials.

Sears, for example, which also owns Kmart, plans to have various deals at various times during the season, said Aiello. For example, Sears’ recent offer of free shipping on items $99 or more just ended on certain items, “but those types of deals will continue to come up and rotate through the season,” as will the free shipping on many items that are $99 and up, he said.

Shipping offers vary
Free shipping has been one of the big lures for online shoppers, but this year, it may not be as widespread among retailers as last year. Higher transportation costs is the major reason.

“Retailers are examining their shipping costs very closely, probably on a week-by-week basis, if not more than that,” said Peters of Internet Retailer.

“Every year it becomes a showdown between retailers and consumers as to who will blink first about shipping costs. Consumers never want to pay it, and retailers always want to charge it.

“Given the economy this year, retailers will be under a great deal of pressure to modify their shipping costs,” he said. “Retailers will probably put conditions on free shipping, such as a purchase of $25, or whatever the amount will be. But that’s something consumers should look out for.”

Some retailers will reduce free shipping
Peters’ comments are reinforced by a survey done for Shop.org, a division of the National Retail Federation. This season, 78 percent of retailers said they plan to offer “free shipping with conditions,” meaning consumers will need to buy specific items or spend various minimums in order to qualify.

One in five retailers say they will require a higher purchase amount by customers this year than last to be eligible for free shipping, and one in 10 said they will be cutting back on the use of free shipping with no conditions.

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Online retailers 1-800-Flowers and SmartBargains.com are offering free shipping if customers pay for the orders using PayPal.

PayPal itself is offering cash-back incentives to shoppers who buy from certain retailers, such as Overstock, Blue Nile and eToys.

Target encourages customers to read the fine print on its Target.com site regarding free shipping and products that qualify for it.

“Free shipping applies to select items at Target.com as indicated on the product description page. Look for the ‘free shipping’ logo on qualifying items … Free shipping offers expire on date listed below or while supplies last,” the company says on its site.

You can see how tricky things can get, in terms of what to watch for, and how shopping for the best deal online could easily turn into a full-time job.

“I think there will be good specials online up until the last minute. The question is, will the merchandise be available?” said Peters of Internet Retailer. “Retailers have been very cautious about stocking merchandise. So, some may be offering aggressive pricing up front, but consumers who wait too long may find themselves out of luck.”

Gift cards and returns
Gift cards or certificates purchased online are one of the most popular gifts, according to Forrester Research, which says that two-thirds of consumers plan to purchase them as a holiday present this year.

But with some companies folding, and many in trouble, make sure you’re as comfortable as you can be with the retailer you’re buying from. Otherwise, you could find yourself with an unredeemable present.

“Make sure you’re buying the card from a financially sound retailer,” said Peters. “If you buy a card from a retailer who makes it through the holidays, and then goes bankrupt after the first of the year, the gift card becomes valueless.”

Return policies, too, vary from online merchandiser to merchandiser.

“One of the first things a consumer should do when they’re thinking about buying from a particular site is check what the site’s return policy is,” said Peters.

“I haven’t seen a lot of retailers making changes to their return policy this year, but there are still punitive return policies out there, and the consumer should know what they are before shopping at a particular site.”

Tougher return policies include those where restocking fees are required when an item is returned, where there are “tight” time limits on returns, and the requirement to call the retailer to get a return authorization code before sending an item back, he said.

Retailers, aware that consumers are hurting financially, are also offering plenty of bargain and value gift ideas online.

Dollar General, for example, is featuring “50 toys under $10” at its Web site, as well as 500 items that are searchable by price and category. Kmart.com has “an online tool that we haven’t had before to help our consumers take advantage of layaway,” said Aiello.

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