Last updated October 2023
Shop Like a Pro: How to Score the Best Prices and Avoid Common Problems
Whether you grin or grumble at shopping for clothing, appliances, or gifts, there are steps you can take to make the process easier. Whether your shopping entails scouring the internet or trekking to a mall or big box store, here are our best tips to save you money and bypass purchasing pitfalls.
Listen to our Consumerpedia podcast episode on the story below:
Beware of Fake Sales and Other Retailer Tricks
Retailers use an arsenal of sophisticated marketing tricks to convince consumers to spend now and spend more. Their most common ploy? Advertising false sale prices and discounts that aren’t real deals. Consumers’ Checkbook’s researchers spent 33 weeks tracking sale prices at 24 major retailers and found that most stores’ discount claims aren’t really discounts at all, but attempts to mislead. Nearly all retailers these days present their customers with crossed-out “list” or “regular” prices that they rarely, if ever, charge; these higher prices exist only so sellers can promote big discounts to convince people they’re getting a deal.
This shady sales practice keeps getting worse. Even if a retailer promises savings of 60 percent or more, it’s probably just a marketing gimmick, not a genuine discount—and likely not the lowest available price. Before buying, shop around to make sure you’re not overpaying. Here’s how to do that.
Do a quick internet search for the product you want, and you’ll usually get prices from several stores for it. Search engines spit out prices from multiple retailers—especially those that pay Google, et al., to be at the top of shoppers’ search results.
Also check prices offered among main competitors (for example, Lowe’s/Home Depot and Target/Walmart).
There are dozens of smartphone apps and websites that scour the internet for the best deals. Our favorites among them are PayPal Honey, PriceGrabber.com, ShopSavvy.com, and Yahoo! Shopping. Amazon’s price-checking tool is integrated into its mobile app. And CamelCamelCamel.com, which tracks price histories of items sold by Amazon for the past year, is often helpful for identifying how low an item’s price might go on that site.
Unfortunately, we find none of these search options work perfectly; we often get shown frustrating false leads. But spending a few minutes using these tools usually pays off.
Try Promo Codes
When buying merch online, you’ll often see spaces where you can enter a promotional or coupon code. These spaces may as well be labeled “Hey! Here’s free money!” Do an internet search for discount codes for whatever site you’re browsing (for example, “Lands’ End discount code”). There are several websites that track these deals; we most often check CouponCabin.com, RetailMeNot.com, and Slickdeals.net.
Though these resources often churn out expired deals or false leads, it’s still worth spending a few minutes checking them for potential savings. We recently scored a 35 percent discount at Old Navy, saved 40 percent on a photo order from Shutterfly, locked in 25 percent off sheets and towels at Brooklinen, trimmed 15 percent off the tab for a birthday bowling party, and snagged 15 percent off at Bonobos. And many sites will let you stack coupons for even greater savings and/or include free shipping with a minimum purchase.
Ask About Special Discounts
If you’re an older adult, military or veteran family, teacher, student, or first responder, check whether you qualify for a special discount. Some retailers allow these discounts only in-store, but others apply them to online orders after a verification process. For example, at the time of this writing, New Balance was offering a 15 percent discount to military servicemembers, first responders, nurses, teachers, college students, hospital employees, and government employees, and LOFT was offering 15 percent off to teachers. Older than 55? Check TheSeniorList.com for a roundup of discounts available to you.
Connect with retailers on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), TikTok, and Instagram and sign up for their promotional emails, which retailers use to share discount codes and other deals. Many stores offer one-time discounts of 10 to 25 percent when you sign up for their email lists. Have more than one email address? Sign up with another address the next time you’re ready to buy.
If the retailer has a frequent customer program, join it. You may qualify for special offers, like free shipping and birthday discounts. Following style bloggers and Instagram influencers can also pay off when retailers partner with them to offer their followers special deals.
Try Cash-Back Shopping Portals
Your kickback depends on which cash-back portal you use and where you shop. Before making a big purchase, check with CashbackMonitor.com, which aggregates offers for various rebate sites and reports the best current payouts.
For example, we recently found that BeFrugal.com was offering 12 percent cash-back at Adidas (CouponFollow was offering 4.5 percent). For Hotels.com purchases, BeFrugal was offering seven percent cash-back (Rakuten was offering just one percent). For Banana Republic, TopCashback gave eight percent cashback (Mr. Rebates was offering three percent). For a Hello Fresh meal delivery subscription, USAA’s MemberShop portal was offering a flat $35 cash-back (Rakuten was offering $10).
To get these rebates you must start with a cash-back portal’s website and use it to click through to the retailer’s website (or install the portal’s browser extension, which most of them offer, to connect automatically). Most portals let you simplify things—and remind you of available rebates—with extensions and mobile apps that tell you when there’s cash-back available as you visit websites.
One of our favorite features of the cash-back services we use is that they keep track of stores’ promo and coupon codes and automatically apply those discounts as we add items to our carts. This allows us to stack savings.
Keep an Eye on Your Snail Mail
It may seem passé, but many retailers still hit mailboxes with catalogs and coupons. The trick is to avoid temptation for things you don’t need and only keep the ones you know jibe with your shopping list. If there’s a coupon code, snap a pic with your phone and recycle the catalog to avoid a junk pile.
Don’t Snooze on Price Adjustments
Keep an eye on retailers’ sites for a few weeks after you’ve made a purchase to see if prices have dropped. Many stores will refund the difference, often by phone. Check policies on websites; some stores offer an adjustment within seven days of purchase, some 30 days or longer.
Ask for a Price Match
If you’re shopping in-store, and find a lower price elsewhere, ask a salesperson or cashier for a price match. Many stores will honor lower prices offered by their competitors, and we find most companies make this simple.
Protect Yourself by Paying with a Credit Card
When you pay with plastic you get strong consumer protections. If you’re a victim of fraud, get a defective item or service, or otherwise encounter problems that the seller won’t put right, you can dispute the charge and likely will get your money back.
Think Twice Before Signing Up for Buy Now, Pay Later Offers
Most retailers now push various Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL) plans as a convenient way to pay for purchases. The basic model for retail purchases is simple: Buy what you want and pay back the loan in equal installments, often without interest.
But, as we’ve reported, as BNPL programs continue to grow rapidly, so too do delinquency rates among consumers. While BNPL is marketed as a smarter, more consumer-friendly way to pay than using credit cards, these point-of-sale loans can lure you into buying things you can’t afford. Sellers offer BNPL because they’ve found these arrangements help them close deals, but most consumers who sign up don’t really understand how these plans work.
Not all BNPL offers are the same; check the terms and conditions before using one. Most BNPL loans have late fees, which in some cases, may be reported to the credit bureaus and damage your credit history. It’s important to find out how that company handles late payments before you sign up.
Very important: BNPL loans were designed to circumvent federal laws that govern credit institutions and loans. They lack the consumer protections that apply to credit cards. If you buy something worth more than $50 with a credit card, and it does not arrive, or the quality is unsatisfactory—and you’ve tried to resolve the issue with the seller—you can dispute the charge with the credit card company. You don’t get the same protections on BNPL transactions.
Using BNPL could make it more challenging to get help if you want to cancel a purchase or are not satisfied with the merchandise you received. There’s now a third party—the BNPL service—between you and the retailer.
Play Your Cards
You can usually get a big one-time discount for your first purchase made with a retailer-issued credit card and, with some, you continue to get smaller regular discounts or rebates every time you use their cards.
For example, at the time of this writing, Target’s RedCard was offering a $50 one-time welcome bonus; using the card at Target nets a five percent discount on most purchases, free two-day shipping on most items, early access to special events and promotions, and an extra 30 days to make returns. Cardholders also earn two percent cash-back on dining and gas purchases. Amazon’s Prime Visa earns five percent cash-back at Amazon, Amazon Fresh, and Whole Foods Market; two percent for gas and restaurant purchases; and one percent cash-back elsewhere. Credit cards offered by Gap companies (Gap, Athleta, Banana Republic, and Old Navy) give a 20 percent discount off your first purchase when you open an account, then rebates when you use its card at its stores; the MasterCard version also gives points toward rebates when shopping outside its brands.
But before signing up for a dozen retailer credit cards, know that each application will trigger an inquiry on your credit report, and might negatively affect your credit score. Even more important: Most store credit cards charge very high interest rates (routinely 20 percent APR or higher); avoid these high interest rates by paying the bill in full each month. And compare any rebate programs with those offered by other cards.
Skip Extended Warranties
Shop for a phone, TV, computer, tablet, sofa, appliance, vacuum, grill, or dozens of other types of products and you’ll likely get urged to shell out for a “protection plan” (also called an “extended warranty”). As we often report, these policies are fantastic sources of easy revenue for the retailers that hawk them and for the insurance companies that administer them and honor infrequent claims. But they are usually bad deals for consumers.
Supporting local merchants is a win-win: You’ll feel good about keeping your dollars in the community, and you’ll help local businesses succeed. In addition to brick-and-mortar shops and restaurants, check out craft fairs, holiday bazaars, farmers’ markets, and independently owned salons and spas for gift cards.
Gifting? Consider Gift Cards and Experiences
Most of us have too much stuff. You can avoid gifting potentially unwanted items—and eliminate the pressure of shopping during the crazy holiday season—by buying gift cards and experiential gifts (yoga passes, cooking classes, hotel or airline gift cards, massages, theater or concert tickets, museum memberships). Services you can provide also make wonderful presents (for example, a coupon for babysitting or a homemade meal). Want to make the gift feel extra special, even if it’s a certificate or card? Wrap it beautifully, and possibly include a small, practical item to go with it, such as tennis balls to go with a certificate for lessons.
Beware of Shady Sellers and Reviews
If prices seem too good to be true, they are. Scammers love to lure shoppers via text and email messages with offers on popular and tough-to-get items. Be very wary of third-party sellers on large sites like Amazon, Facebook, and Walmart; we sometimes find they make returns difficult, and we have heard complaints about products arriving late or not at all.
Spot a great deal? Make sure the seller has tons of positive reviews and check for complaints on file with the Better Business Bureau.
When consulting product reviews, be skeptical—many are fake. Beware of clusters of reviews posted around the same time, or those that include similar wording.
Consider trying Fakespot.com, which tracks fake reviews and scams. You can input a product’s URL into the site for an analysis (we found it easy to do), and there’s also a browser extension for those who want to scan reviews automatically as they shop online. Fakespot will generate an adjusted star rating based on how many bogus reviews it detects. When we asked Fakespot to analyze posted reviews on Amazon for a women’s wristwatch, it judged only 72.5 percent of them as reliable. Also helpful: The site categorizes reviews that describe certain features and provides examples of reviews flagged as fake.
Consider Secondhand Merchandise
In addition to saving big bucks, buying used keeps stuff out of landfills. Plus getting an already manufactured product saves resources and energy. There are dozens of ways to find and buy used goods (some of which are like-new): Local email groups, message boards, and listservs; websites and apps; friends and neighbors; yard and estate sales; thrift and consignment stores; even well-known mega retailers have entered the secondhand market. There are also many general online marketplaces hawking used goods, including Amazon Warehouse, Poshmark, Craigslist, eBay, Etsy, Facebook Marketplace, and OfferUp.
Check Return Policies and Keep Receipts
Many stores have restrictive return policies or make sending back online purchases a huge hassle. Some are now trying to discourage returns by making customers pay fees to ship back purchases. If you think you might need to return an item you’re purchasing, or you’re buying a gift, familiarize yourself with the return policy. Standard policies often flex or extend during the holiday shopping season to allow ample time for gift returns and exchanges.
To make the return process smoother (or to request a price adjustment), hang on to your receipt, or give a gift receipt to the recipient. Without a receipt or some other way to prove what you paid (confirmation email, online purchase history, etc.), you likely will receive the current selling price of the item—often less than what you paid. Many retailers offer print and email receipts. If you only choose one, make it email. That way, you’ll be able to easily access the receipt later, when paper receipts tend to be crumpled in a pocket or purse.