As the holiday-shopping silly season approaches, we share ways savvy consumers can save significantly with these shopping strategies from the editors at Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook and Checkbook.org.
Keep in mind that these are broad tips for getting deals. Checkbook, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices, finds the biggest spending mistake most consumers make is failing to comparison-shop for the best prices. To find the lowest-price stores and other money-saving advice for buying specific types of products and services, see Checkbook's articles and ratings. Through special arrangement with the Inquirer, you can access all of Checkbook's ratings of local services for quality and price free of charge until Dec. 18 by using this link: www.checkbook.org/Inquirer/Save.
Even if the price tag says "60% 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 tracked sale prices at 19 major retailers and 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 stores.
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 bar code of a product at a local store to get prices offered by other retailers.
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 might 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 lower-priced match. One Checkbook shopper recently 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 selling price to a manager.
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!" Do an internet search for discount codes for the site (for example, search for "Land's End discount code."). Although you'll encounter expired codes, your reward often is worth the searching and trial-and-error. Two of our favorite coupon sites are RetailMeNot.com and CouponCabin.com, but there are many others worth checking. We recently found discount codes that shaved 28 percent off a photo-printing order from Shutterfly.com, cut 20 percent from a Foot Locker purchase, 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 free. And many sites will let you stack coupons for even greater savings and/or free shipping.
Follow 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.
You may qualify for extra savings at stores such as JCrew, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Bonobos, LOFT, and Office Depot/Office Max. Some retailers allow these discounts only for in-store purchases, but others apply the discount to online orders after you've completed 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 yield lists of participating retailers.
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 5 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 5 percent cash back at Amazon and Whole Foods Market, 2 percent for dining, gas, and drugstore purchases, and 1 percent cash back elsewhere. Credit cards offered by Gap companies (Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Athleta) offer a discount off your first purchase when you open a card account, then 5 percent rebates when you use its card at its stores. Customers who have the Visa versions of the company's cards also get a 1 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.