Last updated in November 2019
Savvy consumers can save significantly when shopping online by applying some elbow (actually mouse) grease. Before you load your cart with the latest fashions or that new kitchen gadget you’ve been lusting after, check out some of the favorite shopping strategies from Checkbook’s editors.
Don’t Assume a Sale Price Is a Good Price
A big spending mistake many consumers make is assuming steep advertised discounts mean such big savings that they fail to comparison shop for better prices. Even if the website is offering 40 percent off, it’s probably not a steal—or even the lowest available price. Checkbook’s undercover shoppers find that at many retailers the “sales” never, or almost never, end. In a 10-month-long investigation, Checkbook found that many stores use deceptive practices, especially by offering continuous, misleading sales campaigns. The only way to know whether you're paying a fair price is to compare prices at several retailers.
Use Shopping Bots and Barcode Scanners
There are dozens of smartphone apps that can help you compare prices, including ShopSavvy, BuyVia, and PriceGrabber. Amazon has integrated its price-checking tool right into its app. Use one of these apps to search for products you’re considering or to scan the barcode of a product at a local store to get prices offered by other retailers.
Know the Code
When making purchases 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!” Using a discount code is the equivalent of handing a printed coupon to a checkout clerk. Do an internet search for discount codes for the site (for example, search for “Lands’ End discount code”). Although you’ll encounter expired or otherwise invalid codes, your reward often is worth the searching and trial-and-error.
Three of our favorite coupon sites are RetailMeNot.com, CouponCabin.com, and SlickDeals.net, but there are many others worth checking. We recently found discount codes that saved 28 percent off a photo order from Shutterfly.com; cut 20 percent from a Foot Locker buy; lowered Hotwire’s already discounted rate for a rental car by 10 percent; and zipped up a 30 percent discount on a pair of boots from Shoes.com. Plus we almost never shell out for shipping because there are so many codes that offer it for free. And many sites will let you stack coupons for even greater savings and/or free shipping.
Connect with retailers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and sign up for their promotional emails, which many retailers use to announce exclusive discount codes and other deals. And many stores offer one-time discounts of 10 to 25 percent when you join 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, sign up. You may qualify for special offers, like free shipping and birthday discounts. Following style bloggers and Instagrammer influencers can also pay off when retailers partner with them to offer special deals to their followers.
Grab Easy Savings by Using Cash-Back Shopping Portals
As we discuss in our article on cash-back shopping portals, many online retailers pay referral commissions to businesses that send them customers. Online shopping portals, including BeFrugal.com, CouponCabin.com, MrRebates.com, and Rakuten.com give their customers a cut of those funds (anywhere from one percent to 40 percent of the shopper’s total purchase amount).
You have to shop via the portal’s website (i.e. to claim rebates from Gap.com, you have to visit, say, Rakuten.com and begin your spree by accessing Gap’s site through it). Most portals let you simplify things—and remind you of available rebates—by offering browser 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.
Sometimes one portal will offer a better rebate than others. Before making a big buy, we’ll check CashbackMonitor.com, which aggregates offers for various rebate sites and reports the best current payouts.
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, Target’s Redcard offers a five percent discount on all purchases, free two-day shipping on most items, early access to special events and promotions, and an extra 30 days for making returns. Amazon’s Prime Visa earns five percent cash back at Amazon and Whole Foods Market; two percent for dining, gas, and drugstore purchases; and one percent cash back elsewhere. Credit cards offered by Gap companies (Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta) give a 15-to-35 percent discount off your first purchase when you open a card account, then five percent rebates when you use its card at its stores. Customers who have the Visa versions of the company’s cards also get a one percent rebate on all purchases made elsewhere.
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 25 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. See our article on choosing a credit card to read our advice on picking credit cards and websites that help you choose the one best suited to your needs.
Subscribe & Save
Programs such as Amazon’s “Subscribe & Save offer big discounts on each order you place through them. With Amazon, you get five to 20 percent off each item in your order and free shipping if you subscribe.
The catch is that by doing this you agree to receive automatic periodic shipments of the products for which you’ve subscribed. For example, if you’ve subscribed to receive 200 diapers a month, you’ll get 200 diapers a month until you tell Amazon otherwise. On the other hand, Amazon makes it easy to cancel or suspend these subscriptions and sends subscribers reminder emails several days before their shipment dates so they have a chance to adjust their orders.
While Target and a few other retailers have begun to offer Subscribe & Save-type programs, Amazon’s remains the most visible—and we find it yields tremendous and reliable savings for items like paper goods, pet supplies, and diapers.
Another benefit to Subscribe & Save is free shipping, which bypasses the hordes at membership warehouse clubs and eliminates hauling 48 rolls of paper towels and anvil-heavy bags of pet food from store to car to home.
Student? Military or Veteran? Teacher? Check Whether You Qualify for a Special Discount
You may qualify for extra savings at stores such as J. Crew, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Bonobos, LOFT, and Staples. Some retailers only allow these discounts for in-store purchases, but others apply the discount to online orders after a verification process. New Balance, for example, offers a 10 percent discount to anyone using a military email address in the checkout process. A quick internet search will quickly yield lists of participating retailers.
When You Go Brick and Mortar, Ask for a Price Match
Checkbook often finds the best deals online. But if a salesperson at a local store provided valuable buying advice, you might want to reward him or her with the sale. Or you may not want to wait for delivery by an online seller. And if it's an expensive item, delivery services may require that you be home to sign for it. But at many stores, you can buy local and avoid paying more. Checkbook finds that retailers often will match lower prices offered by their competitors, even if the other seller is an online store. Just use your smartphone or take along a printout of your deal to ask for a match.
While this tactic seems like a hassle, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found it was quite easy to secure lower prices on most items simply by asking for a price match. One Checkbook shopper scored a $500 Kenneth Cole briefcase for $86 from a major department store by scanning the item with Amazon’s app and showing the current Amazon price to a manager.
It’s also worth checking a retailer’s website for deals before you head to the register. Many retailers will match their own online prices in store. One of our staffers recently saved 25 percent at DSW because its website was offering a sale that the brick-and-mortar store was not.