Hot Sites for Online Shopping

WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- Suckers wait until Cyber Monday to start their holiday shopping. Savvy, bargain-seeking consumers are already using their keyboards and touchscreens to winnow away wish lists.

Roughly 35% of holiday shoppers will spend at least a portion of the holiday season shopping online, according to the NPD Group. While that number is down from the 37% that went online last year, the National Retail Federation's Holiday Spending Survey suggests it's an underestimate and that the real number is closer to 44%. While many of those shoppers will hit mainstream mainstays such as AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft's Bing and Google to search for their holiday gifts, the pros head to such sites as PriceGrabber.com for the deepest discounts.

Jody Rohlena, senior editor for Consumer Reports' Shop Smart magazine, and her staff recently decided to go shopping at the Top 25 price-comparison search engines. They were looking for the lowest price on eight items: An Avatar DVD, New Balance cross-training sneakers, Samsung's NP-150 netbook, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the Graco Quattro Tour Sport stroller (before the recent Graco recall), a Wacoal Awareness bra, a Kenneth Cole Reaction wallet and a four-figure pair of Swarovski binoculars.

Which site had the lowest prices every time? PriceGrabber, with automatic tax and shipping calculations based on ZIP code, apps for Apple's iPad and iPhone and Google Android products, and a partnership with Retrevo.com that includes electronics reviews and backup copies of gadget instruction manuals.

"You can save about $22 on a pair of sneakers, look up some fancy binoculars ... savings could be up to $400," Rohlena says. "If you're not starting your shopping there, you're wasting time and wasting money."

More importantly, though, Rohlena and company discovered that it's worth a consumer's time to poke around online even if they plan to shop locally. Sites such as CouponMap and Restaurant.com provide not only a list of retailers and eateries grouped by ZIP code, but coupons for clothing, office supplies, travel and dinners out. TheFind.com, meanwhile, offers coupons while grouping local clothing and home retailers by location, store, brand, color and price range. "Local" big box stores are easier to find online as well, as price aggregator Milo.com checks inventory at local Barnes & Nobles, Targets, Best Buys, Nordstroms and other major retailers and also partners with PriceGrabber to help shoppers on that site find items available locally.

"Sometimes you don't want to shop online, you want to go shopping locally," Rohlena says. "That's a good way to support the local economy, but you don't really want to drive all over town and waste your time and miss out on a deal."

Looking out for the little guy applies online as well. Several of the price-comparison search engines point customers to smaller outfits such as bibliophile boutique Alibris.com, which -- along with Oregon-based Powell's Books' site Powells.com -- has been the bookworm's undercover source for new and used books and videos for more than a decade. Clothing retailer Like.com also gets the nod for letting customers search by shape, color or pattern.

"One of the advantages we've found if you are using one of those search engines is that you may come upon a site you've never heard of," Rohlena says. "You can go to the bigger sites, but you can also check out these smaller sites and find some useful information."

More often than not, the data online consumers seek resides in a product review section. According to a survey of 27,000 online Internet conducted by Nielsen earlier this year in 55 markets around the world, 57% of online shoppers consult reviews before making purchases. Of those, 40% would not even consider buying electronics without consulting someone else's review first. They're not afraid to advise, either, as 41% say they wouldn't hesitate to share a negative product experience online.

Amazon, Wal-Mart and just about every other online retailer is well aware of the review's might, but some of the small-timers have started using it more effectively in mobile apps. Price-comparison site NexTag, for example, uses Apple iOS, Research in Motion BlackBerry and Google Android apps to help consumers access product reviews while they shop. GoodGuide, meanwhile, allows iPhone users to scan a product's bar code and access reviews of the product's safety, health and environmental records.

"We like the ones that really help you in the store," Rohlena says. "You've got the phone with you, let's face it, so you might as well be using it to your full advantage."

Even if the reviews that matter most come from friends and family, there's an app/site for that as well. Shoppers comfortable with both their friends and their credit card statements can post recent purchases on Blippy.com for the scrutiny of their inner circle. Less confident consumers can take the JustBought.It route and offer up purchases to Twitter and Facebook followers for approval before buying or passing, based on the responses.

"You used to think of shopping as a very social activity: You'd grab a friend and go to the mall," Rohlena says. "Now you're shopping online and that's a solitary activity ... except when it isn't."

Online shopping might be hotter than ever, but so is online product research. Check out this MainStreet article to learn why.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

 

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