6 Tips for savvier shopping

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By the Book: This section is an excerpt from Rule the Web, by Mark Frauenfelder (2007; reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press).

I made my first online purchase—a pound of coffee beans—almost 20 years ago, on a now-defunct online service called Prodigy. Since then, I’ve bought tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of products online. The Web is a marvelous place to shop, especially if you know what you’re looking for and stay alert for scammers.

1. How can I shop online without having to use my credit card number?

If you’re a Citi, Bank of America, or Discover cardholder, you can shop online and never give out your real credit card number. These three card companies let you use what are called “virtual credit card numbers” to make online purchases.

Bank of America cardholders who log in at the bank’s Web site, for example, can click on the ShopSafe link and enter a spending limit and an expiration date into an online form. Bank of America then generates a unique and temporary 16-digit number that looks and works exactly like a regular credit card number, with one important difference: it can be used for a transaction only up to the limit specified. If a hacker steals the number and tries to use it to make a purchase over that limit, the credit card company will reject the transaction.

2. How big is the product I am buying online?

When I’m shopping online for a new camera or another box-shaped item, I have trouble visualizing its size. For example, the Exilim EX-Z70 digital camera is 95.2mm by 60.6mm by 19.8mm. That doesn’t mean much to me. A site called sizeasy lets you enter the dimensions of the gadget you’re interested in and compare it to other common objects (a deck of cards, a box of matches, a CD case, and so on), so you can see how large or small it really is.

3. What’s the best price-comparison service?

My two favorites are Shopzilla and Google Products.

Shopzilla’s search functionality is excellent. For instance, if you enter

, Shopzilla displays a list of categories to narrow your search down to PDAs, home lighting (think palm-tree lamps), bedding, outdoor furniture, skin-care products, candles, sporting equipment, or gloves and mittens. When you drill down to the product you’re interested in, Shopzilla displays the prices from a list of online retailers, highlighting one as the Smart Choice—generally the lowest-priced item from a highly rated merchant. Best of all, you can see the shipping charges up front: Enter your zip code, and Shopzilla will include sales tax, shipping, and handling costs in the price comparisons.

Google Products is not as easy to use as Shopzilla, but if you’re willing to dig around, you can find some great deals. For instance, I was interested in a portable DVD player for my kids. The best deal on Shopzilla (including tax and shipping) was $112.91. Google Products found a store selling the same item for $54.99. But after I filled in my address information and selected my method of payment, it tacked on a shipping charge of $29.99. I quickly backed out and looked at what else Google Products had turned up. Best Buy had the player for $69.99, and shipping was about $10, making the total amount $5 less than the first store’s.

4. How can I find out whether an online retailer is reputable?

Most price-comparison services have merchant ratings on their sites, but it doesn’t hurt to also check an online store’s report at ResellerRatings. You’ll not only see the store’s scores (from 1 to 10) for prices, shipping and packaging, customer service, and returns, but also be able to read firsthand reports from customers who’ve made purchases from that online merchant.

Other sites you can check include BizRate, BBBOnline, and Ripoff Report.

5. How can I get promo codes when I shop online?

You have probably seen that field marked Promo Code or Coupon Code in shopping-site checkout sections. Usually, you get one of these numbers from an online retailer who wants you to shop at its store. Another way to get them is by going to CurrentCodes.com and searching for the name of the merchant. You can also browse for coupons by product category.

6. How can I use a mobile phone to check prices when I’m in a store?

The next time you’re out shopping and are about to buy a big-ticket item like a TV set or a camcorder, pull out your Web-enabled cell phone and do a little online comparison shopping. Download the Scanbuy Shopper application onto your phone by entering your phone carrier, e-mail address, and phone number at scanbuyshopper.com. The application will be sent to your phone. Once you install it, click on Check Price and enter the bar-code number of the product you are thinking of buying. You’ll see the best available price (for both new and used products), links to reviews, and product information. If you have the nerve, you can show the results to the salesperson at the store and ask him or her to match the price.

[ Mark Frauenfelder is the founding editor of Boing Boing and the editor in chief of Make magazine .]

Shopping Comparisons: Google Products and Shopzilla are my favorite shopping comparison sites. Google (left) often finds better deals, but Shopzilla (right) is easier to use.
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