Smart Spending: Online help for holiday shopping

AP News
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Posted: Nov 19, 2009 1:30 PM

Shoppers face a dizzying array of offers of help in the form of new Web sites, services and mobile phone applications as they set out for their holiday shopping this year.

To make the most of new services, experts advise employing them often and early, even before the season kicks off with Black Friday next week.

Here are four ways to track down holiday bargains and a look at whether each could work for you:

1. GET SOCIAL. Many consumers are following their favorite brands and retailers to networking Web sites like Facebook and Twitter, where the companies are posting deals not seen in stores.

"I don't think it's going to be all about the Black Friday or Cyber Monday," said Michelle Madhok, CEO and editor in chief of shopping sites Shefinds.com and Momfinds.com. "I think those deals are going to go on and on."

This year's best deals will be online, she said. It's easier for retailers to launch and retract deals online, where matching inventory with customers is less of a challenge than in stores.

_ IS IT FOR YOU? If you're a regular on Twitter or Facebook, social networks are good places to start shopping. But if you're new to social networking, it may take time before you can efficiently find deals. And there are other ways to find bargains online (see No. 3).

2. GET ORGANIZED. Other new services include budget applications for mobile phones; they can help you stay within your limits even though they're intended to help coax shoppers into spending.

JPMorgan Chase's "GiftPlanner" lets users list recipients and how much they want to spend and then track their total budget. Both GiftPlanner and AOL's "Holiday Plan" are free for the iPhone, and the latter enables users to click through to sponsor Walmart.com to start shopping.

_ IS IT FOR YOU? You may not have to calculate your budget yourself with an online budget manager, but you have to enter a lot of information to use these programs. And if you slip up, it's easy to go over budget. For the diligent shopper, they're a safe bet.

3. GET ONLINE COUPONS. As coupons have proliferated during the recession, so have Web sites like Retailmenot.com that let users rate how well a coupon works so you don't waste time with bad ones. Also check whether your credit card company or bank offers cash back on purchases in partnership with retailers online. Sometimes you can recoup up to 20 percent of what you spend by clicking through your financial institution's site instead of going directly to a retailer.

And, whenever you buy something expensive, sign up for a price alert service like http://www.pricespider.com/. It will tell you if the price drops, and many retailers will refund the difference.

_ IS IT FOR YOU? If you have the time or inclination to look for deals, online coupons will work. If you're a last-minute shopper or don't know what you want to buy, you may find these sites steer you toward purchases you don't intend.

So read on.

4. GET IT ON YOUR SMARTPHONE. Coupon Sherpa shows iPhone users, wherever they happen to be, discounts at nearby stores and provides coupons accordingly. All you have to do is show your phone to the cashier at check out.

Also helpful for shoppers who don't plan ahead are smartphone applications that compare prices even when they're inside a store, like RedLaser and ShopSavvy. If you scan a barcode with your phone's camera, the applications will show you reviews and prices at other retailers.

"We're all being a lot more careful, a little less impulsive and still want to make that purchase," said Dan Shust, director of emerging media at digital marketing agency Resource Interactive, noting the Web is bursting with applications like this. "It's a validation tool."

_ IS IT FOR YOU? If you've got a smartphone _ which most consumers don't yet _ and you're buying things that don't vary from one store to the next, it's an invaluable shopping accessory.

If you just have a regular cell phone, stick to the other new services and just wait a bit because, within a year or two, you're likely to join the smartphone crowd. Research firm Nielsen Co. says most mobile phones sold in 2011 will be smartphones.