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Smart, thrifty tips for online shoppers

 / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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More than half of U.S. households now regularly shop on the Internet.  And while today's online shoppers are more cyber-savvy than ever before, there are times you might be left wondering “Did I really get the best deal?” America Online Consumer adviser Regina Lewis shares what you need to know before you click "buy" on your next on-line purchase:

Shopping comparison sites
A new five-year forecast from Forrester Research says people who are the biggest online spenders are also the most likely to use Web sites that compare prices. Comparison sites will give you a great initial snapshot of what the product is going for online at present time. There are several worthy Web sites, including, , , and NexTag.com. Shopzilla.com draws on a database of 33 million products from more than 91,000 stores.

Comparison-shopping sites allow small Web sites to feature products next to major retailers; that's a plus. Those smaller retailers often have less overhead, so they may be willing to let an item go at a lower price.

Many people are left to wonder, do I really get the lowest price by using a price-comparison site? Not always. Comparison sites like Shopzilla.com should be used as one part of a two- or three-pronged bargain-hunting strategy. Remember, it pays to know what you're actually getting when you use these sites. Here are three important tips to keep in mind if you're using a comparison Web site:

Credit or debit? The best way to protect yourself against financial mayhem is to use a credit card rather than a check, money order, or debit card. With a credit card, you're only liable only for the first $50 in charges, and most card issuers waive liability altogether. 

Debit cards are another story. When you pay with one of these cards, you have fewer protections. Once the money has been removed from your account, you can contact your bank to see if it will handle the dispute. But it may decide not to take any action, which means you'll have to take on the merchant yourself. 

Don't forget about coupons Consider your total cost when shopping online. If you don't have a promotional code and want to save some cash, be sure to check out a coupon-code Web site. You can find online coupon codes on sites like ,  CouponCode.com, and CouponMountain.com. You can also try typing the site and the phrase “coupon codes” into any major search engine. The price may be higher on one site, but you've got a 10% off coupon, so it brings the price down, making it the overall best deal!

Do we all get the same deals? Something else to be aware of before you're ready to buy is e-tailers engaging in a practice called “dynamic pricing.” Dynamic pricing, also called price customization, has been used by hotel and travel sites for years. A number of factors go into it. When too many users act on a particularly hot deal, an online retailer may begin to sell out quickly, prompting the site to automatically up prices based on supply and demand. E-tailers build a profile about you.

Most sites these days ask you to register. How many of us really read the site's privacy policies? They collect information about your purchasing history, your browsing history, product preferences and financial resources and set prices accordingly. Their profile of you could suggest that you may be willing to pay more, or less, than others for a particular item. They may also use your profile to suggest certain products you might like or to target you with certain discount coupons or offers. Price customization is typically legal, as long as the site isn't delivering different prices based on race, religion or gender.

How do you make sure you're getting the best deal if you suspect there may be some price customization going on? Clear your cookies. Cookies are essentially electronic footprints that enable sites to recognize you and track your browsing habits. There are slightly different ways to delete cookies depending on which Internet browser you're using.

Timing is everything Some prices, particularly those on popular items, could be here today, gone tomorrow. If you're not in a rush to buy an item, try searching for the item over a course of a week or even weeks. You can find product ratings at these Web sites: Wize.com, ThisNext.com and Kaboodle.com. Watch to see if the price trends up or down during certain times of the week or day.

For more consumer tips and information, visit Reginalewis.com

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