NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article
Shopping Tips for Internet Shopaholics
By Steve Bass, Pasadena IBM Users Group, April 2002
(click to email author)

Last month I described my experience spending over $150 to save about $4 on vitamins I bought on the Internet. This column takes care of the other side of the story: Tips on tackling the problems of Internet buying.

Fighting the Free Syndrome
How much do you make an hour? If you're clocking more than, say, $5 an hour, don't waste your time hunting for discounts that come and go. The worst ones to try finding are free shipping or $10 off with your first order. A better strategy? If you bump into an offer from Half.com, say, and you're in the market for a bunch of used books, it's a slam-dunk. Otherwise, don't bother tracking them down.

Factor in Shipping
Paying attention to shipping costs may seem obvious, but there are variables to consider. You might think you'll save on shipping by choosing a site that charges a flat fee for shipping no matter how many items you purchase. That's likely true unless the site's products are inflated to cover the shipping costs. With some items--vitamins, for instance--that's not such a big deal as most sites charge a flat $4.95 for standard shipping. (One exception, though, is AdvanceRX; they charge a flat fee of $3 for the entire order, and the product pricing is lower than other drug sites.)

Listen to Users
The wealth of opinions on the Net is overwhelming and you need to tap into it before making any major purchase. There are two spots I listen in on, are useful in its own way. First try the newsgroups and do it using the Google.com search engine. When I was interested in a camcorder, I typed "Panasonic Camcorder" into the Google search field and clicked on Groups. Goggle will provide a list of groups that contain the two words. It's a little daunting from here because you'll face at least 10 groups. Choose the one that's closest to your search. For instance, "Humanities" (Fine art, literature, philosophy) and "Misc" (Employment, health) won't fit while "Comp" (Hardware, software, consumer info) sure will.

You'll then see a dozen or more sub-groups belonging to Comp, each with a green bar showing the likely hits in the groups. Type "Panasonic Camcorder" into the field again and choose "Search only in comp."

The dilemma, as you'll soon find out, is there's a lot to sort through in order to find the recommendations and discussion you're looking to read.

The other spot I really like is Epinions.com. It's filled with people like us providing their observations and experiences with products. Don't be put off by thinking these are just willy-nilly opinions. Granted, some are, but most people are careful and thorough in their reports, few seem to have an ulterior motive, and those that do are easy to spot.

Try Epionions by typing, "Choosing an Air Conditioner" into the search field. Scroll down to "Member Advice" and you'll get a sense of what Epionions offers. Better, search for an item you're very familiar with and see what others have to say.

Make those Comparisons
You're crazy if you shop on the Internet without using a price comparison site. There are many available, and here's a sampling:

  • Mysimon.com
  • Dealtime.com
  • Pricingcentral.com
  • Bizrate.com
  • Smartshop.com
  • BuyBuddy.com

If you're wondering which sites I use regularly, take a gander at some of my favorites:

  • Pricescan.com: A neat site with an assortment of ways to search for products and spots to purchase the item. The site does an exemplary job at digging up pricing for a myriad of products including for books, computers, office equipment, home and garden, and other categories.

  • DestinationRX.com: Does a remarkable job at neatly displaying a grid with product, vendor, price, estimated shipping, and total cost. Great: Sorting by column-cost or price-is easy, and getting details about the vendor is a click away. Not so hot: "Total Cost field" doesn't take into account price per unit, so comparing a bottle of 100 60milligram vitamins with the same bottle of 100mg vitamins isn't accurate.

  • Canada.rx: A member of another user group told me about Canada.rx. She said, "I thought you might be interested in this solution for prescription drugs. A friend is diabetic and has who knows what else. His doctor faxes his prescriptions and he receives a package a few days later with no hassle from the post office. (His only real difficulty lay in convincing his doctor to send the fax and that only had to be done once.) His credit card is charged approximately one-third the price he'd pay locally. I asked him for the URL and this is his response:

    'It's CanadaRx. No www, no .com, nothing but CanadaRx. They keep changing the entry screens, making it sometimes difficult to find the screen one wants. But it's all there. All that's needed in patience. Persistence helps some too.'"

    I checked and the prices really are substantial lower than most discount pharmacies.

  • Pricewatch.com: This site has been around the longest and provides a fast, convenient way to find the best prices on computing hardware.

  • Addall.com: Think Amazon has the best prices in town? Nope. Half.com, BooksAMillion.com, and others often beat Amazon. The saving are enough that it makes using Addall.com a must every time you shop for books.

  • PCworld.pricegrabber.com: I'm a little biased here, so pardon my conflict-of-interest for a minute, and try PCWorld's Product Finder. Primarily hardware, software, and electronics, it gives you a way to find products, and check and compare their prices. Three things I like better here than the other sites: I can easily track a product, watching for price changes, just by supplying my e-mail address. Next, if the product's been reviewed by PC World, one click gets me to the article. Finally, the site gives me access to the full spec sheet of the product, something I find invaluable.

  • Cnet's shopper.cnet.com: Does a decent job with hardware and software but only so-so for consumer electronics. It's sometimes difficult separating ads from product reviews.

    Steve Bass is a Contributing Editor with PC World and runs the Pasadena IBM Users Group. He's also a founding member of APCUG Write to him at Steve_bass@pcworld.com. Check PCW's current edition at http://www.pcworld.com/resource/toc/index.asp and sign up for the Steve Bass online newsletter at http://www.pcworld.com/bass_letter.

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