Who in the world would spend two hours comparing the prices of sunblock and multivitamins on the Internet just to save a lousy three bucks? That unapologetic shopaholic would be me.
Sure, there are great prices on the Web, but not all the e-bargains are easy to find. If not for the great tools and tricks I use in search of Web deals, I’d be better off pushing a cart down the aisles of my local discount store than shopping from my home office.
Here’s a recent example of my online shopping approach: When it was time for a new barbecue at Bass Manor – a major purchase at $500 – the first online resource I tapped was the Web’s wealth of user opinions. I started with a scattergun approach, checking newsgroups to get a feel for what barbecue brands and features people liked, and what their gripes were.
At Google.com, choose the Groups tab and type what you’re looking for into the Search field. Another site I relied on was Epinions.com. It’s filled with practical advice and product reviews. Search for an item you’re familiar with first to see if the site’s opinions jibe with yours.
When I was ready to compare barbecues, I stuck everything on a spreadsheet. It’s the best tool for a couple of reasons: I can list products with dozens of variables for each, and it helps me stay organized and maintain my sanity. When I shop online, I keep no more than two browser windows open. I drag and drop the pertinent product data into the spreadsheet, and then I move on to the next Web site.
The true beauty of a shopping-list spreadsheet is the matrix of options and criteria that you can create. For instance, the Bass barbecue needed to have a cast-iron grill, an adjustable coal grate, and a large cooking area. I compared a dozen products, assigning weights to each criterion, and included the price, shipping costs, and sales tax. The spreadsheet told me which item best fit my needs.
Two of my computing buddies created nifty spreadsheet templates for me – one for simple product tracking, and another for weighted decision-making. They’re free and come with basic instructions; go to find.pcworld.com/30665 to get them.
You’re crazy if you shop on the Internet without using a price-comparison site. I’m an inveterate used-book buyer, and I rely on a couple of sites, AddAll.com and AllBookstores.com, to ferret out the best buys. One big caveat to all you emptors out there: Prices and available titles tend to change quickly, so some search results you see at these sites may not be valid.
For prescription and over-the-counter drugs, nothing beats DestinationRx.com. The site displays an easy-to-read grid showing product names, vendors, prices, estimated shipping costs, and total cost. You can sort by total cost, price, or other criterion, and vendor info is a click away.
Looking for a digital camera? Digital Photography Review (DPReview.com) has a handy way to compare the features of several cameras in a table, and its digital-camera timeline is ideal for determining the age of a used camera you’re thinking of bidding for on eBay or elsewhere.
PC World’s own Product Finder is a great tool for comparing computers and electronics. It helps me keep tabs on a product by sending me an e-mail when the price drops. Its quick access to the product’s full spec sheet is invaluable. For digging up prices on computer peripherals, I also use PriceWatch.com. It’s fast, and it can filter keyword search results.
If you bump into a special deal offering free shipping or a huge first-time buyer discount, it’s a slam-dunk – grab it. But if you make more than minimum wage, don’t work yourself into a frenzy hunting for virtual coupons or promotions. Your time may be better spent looking for reasonably low but gimmick-free prices.
It bugs me when Web sites don’t show shipping charges until you start to check out. You have to consider shipping costs to make an accurate price comparison.
I’d love to tell you more, but the top sirloins are just about ready.
Bass runs the Pasadena IBM Users Group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and sign up for his online newsletter at PC World’s Free Newsletters.