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The Secrets to Online Shopping

Learn what the pros know when it comes to getting the best deals on the Web

You're probably familiar with the giddy satisfaction of online shopping: Add something to your cart, check out and in a few days you'll have your purchase delivered right to your door. It's almost too easy, right? While online shopping may seem pretty simple, there are actually loads of industry secrets and insider tips that can make navigating virtual shopping malls much more productive. We talked to online shopping experts to learn what the pros know about finding the very best inventory at the lowest prices. Read on to learn how to start surfing your way to some great finds.

Time It Right

One of the lures of Internet shopping is that the World Wide Web is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. But when it comes to finding great deals online, knowing when to log on is the key to clicking your way to a bargain.

• According to RetailMeNot.com, a site that provides coupon codes and printable coupons for 65,000 stores, most coupons are posted by retailers at the beginning (around the 2nd) and end (around the 27th or 28th) of each month. Logging on at those times will ensure that you nab the best coupons.

Amazon.com is known for its vast selection of goods at great prices, but there are plenty of even bigger ways to save, as long as you know when and where to look. According to Amazon.com spokeswoman Anya Waring, Amazon.com/GoldBox is where you can find all of the best deals on the site. You'll find Lightning Deals, which are offered every day during limited time windows, as well as the Deal of the Day, which is an item available at a discount for one day only. Quick Picks feature a set of items selected specifically for you (based on your previous purchases and searches) along with an additional savings coupon. ...Read More

• "Wednesday, Thursday and Friday tend to be the most popular days for online retailers to put items on sale," says Charlie Graham, founder of ShopItToMe.com, an online personal shopper site. "Our theory is that brick-and-mortar stores traditionally put items on sale on Friday in preparation for the weekend, so online retailers pushed their sales up a few days to compete."

• According to Graham's research, Thursdays are the best day for handbag discounts (the average discount is 36 percent off), Sundays are the prime time to score swimwear deals (ShopItToMe found that bathing suits were 52 percent off then, compared with 40 percent off during the rest of the week) and the best day to find shoe sales is on Wednesday.

• Michelle Madhok, CEO of SheFinds.com and MomFinds.com, which both feature online fashion deals, found that many of Banana Republic's online sales start on Wednesdays and LOFT credit card holders can score 10 percent off their purchases the first Tuesday of every month. She recommends noting when yearly sales happen: Underwear goes on sale in February and swimwear in June. Victoria's Secret has its semiannual sale (which starts online before it does in stores) in December and May, and Nordstrom's (and Nordstrom.com's) anniversary sale is always at the end of summer.

Narrow Your Search

Now that Google is so popular that it's become a verb it seems that the mammoth search engine has the power to turn up results for just about anything. This may be true, but oftentimes there's too much virtual clutter to uncover the results that you're actually looking for. The best way to locate what you're after is to carefully craft your search.

• "If you're looking for clothing or jewelry and do a Google search, you'll get a huge amount of results but won't necessarily find the actual item," says Madhok. She recommends searching with ShopStyle.com, which only searches retailer sites. "The other cool thing that it does, unlike Google, is that it will tell you all the stores that carry the item you want as well as send you an alert if the price drops."

• According to Alexi Suvacioglu and Christopher Couhault, founders of OohILove.com, all search terms are not created equal. "The more specific you are with your search terms, the better results you'll turn up." So instead of searching for "Gap pants," search for "black Gap cuffed trousers size 8 style # 123."

• One way to filter out all of the excess is to register with a site that acts as your personal shopper. ShopItToMe.com records your favorite brands, items of clothing, sizes, etc., and will email you with deals on your favorite pieces. So instead of surfing from site to site only to find the perfect dress on sale in the wrong size, just check your email for ShopItToMe.com's personalized selection.

Be Aware of Deals

There are plenty of great deals on the Web, but in addition to knowing how to find them, you need to know how to let them find you. Here's how to put yourself out there when it comes to online shopping.

• When you purchase something online, don't skip the "Register Now" step. Registering later might seem like it will save you time now, but in the long run being registered with a site will provide lots of benefits. "If a site is having a sale, they'll often email coupons to people who've shopped with them before," says Graham. Plus, registering is useful when you need to track a package or make returns.

• "The best way to get coupons is to sign up for newsletters," says Madhok. "Many will reward you for signing up. For example, SteveMadden.com will give you a 10-percent-off coupon when you join their email list, KateSpade.com will give you 15 percent off, and JCrew.com email subscribers will get first notice of sales."

• Madhok also advocates jumping on the social networking bandwagon to score deals. "'Liking' a store's Facebook page or following them on Twitter is a great way to be in the know—you'll get first notice of sales or new inventory, and sometimes coupons and shipping deals."

• "Always sign up for price alerts," says Madhok. Even if you've already purchased the item, receiving notification of a price drop can put some cash back in your wallet. "I just bought something from CrateandBarrel.com, and when it went on sale two weeks later I emailed them and they gave me a credit for the difference. It always pays to ask."

Ship Smart

One of the obvious benefits of Web shopping is that you can avoid busy shopping malls and long lines. But what about actually getting the goods? If you know what you're doing, it doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg to lay hands on your purchases.

• In addition to percentage-off coupons, RetailMeNot.com also lists a vast stock of free shipping codes. And FreeShipping.org keeps track of free shipping offers for over 2,400 stores.

• If you're a frequent shopper at Amazon.com, consider signing up for Amazon Prime. For a yearly membership fee of $79 you'll get free two-day shipping on in-stock products, upgrades to overnight shipping for $3.99 per item and same-day shipping for $5.99. There's also the Free Super Saver Shipping option, which provides free standard shipping on eligible orders over $25.

• It sometimes pays to comparison-shop online, because some sites offer better deals than others. Overstock.com ships everything for $2.95, whether it's a couch or a pair of shoes, and Zappos.com offers free shipping and returns. "But be sure to do your research," says Madhok. "If a site with free shipping has raised the price of your item it won't be such a deal after all."

Get Help and Feedback

What do you do if you're window-shopping online at midnight and need a little assistance? It's not like there's a friendly salesperson to assist you. But there are other ways to get a virtual helping hand.

• Many websites offer a Live Chat or Live Help option, which lets you instant-message with a customer service expert. Says Madhok: "If you have questions about returns or different products, it's their job to take care of things for you. Plus, it's much easier and faster than calling customer service." It's also worth going on Live Help to ask for a 10 percent discount or free shipping—oftentimes they'll be happy to give it to you if you make a purchase with them that same day.

• A good way to get feedback about a particular item is to read the reviews. Other users' feedback about sizing, material and overall quality can be extremely useful when making your own purchase. "Look for products that have more than just one or two reviews to get a well-rounded appraisal of the item," says Graham.

Be Savvy

With new discount sites popping up every day, it can be easy to get excited about all the money you can save. But be smart about online bargain hunting—not every deal is as good as it may seem. Here's what to watch out for.

• Online sample sale sites, which sell designer overstock at rock-bottom prices, are cropping up all over the Web, and in order to meet shoppers' demands, some designers have started to create targeted collections for these sites. It's a great way to score an inexpensive item from your favorite high-end designer, but if you're after the real deal, be on the lookout for key phrases like "capsule collection" or "special collection designed for," says Madhok. Those will indicate that the products on offer aren't designer excess, but instead items specifically made to sell on sample sale sites.

• Many discount sites operate on a limited-time-only basis. "Try not to get caught up in the sample sale, ticking-clock frenzy," says Graham. "With all of that urgency you might lose sight of the fact that you don't really need certain things. We've also found a number of items on discount sites that are available on the retailer's site for even less. So take the time to do your research."

• While registering for newsletters can keep you abreast of the newest deals and sales, if they clog your inbox at inconvenient times, you may be tempted to just delete them. ShopItToMe.com lets you decide how often and what day of the week you'd like to get e-mail notifications so that you can choose a time when you'll actually take a look at — and take advantage of — the info they provide.

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  • Have fun ... but spend wisely!

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The Secrets to Online Shopping
Learn what the pros know when it comes to getting the best deals on the Web
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