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Want to get the most for your online shopping dollars? Do your homework.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/8/2006 9:30:34 AM ET 2006-12-08T14:30:34

Attention Web shoppers: Even with less than three weeks to go until Christmas, holiday bargains can still found online.

In fact, for online shoppers, the peak of the holiday shoppping season is coming up over the next several days.

Mid-December is "about the time the standard shipping offers guaranteeing Christmas delivery end,” explains Ellen Davis, senior director at the National Retail Federation.

Last year's busiest online shopping day was Dec. 12. And with 83 percent of retailers offering free shipping promotions this year, according to Davis, it makes the mid-December cutoff even more noteworthy for shoppers.

Regardless of when 2006 online shopping peaks, it should break records.

The New York-based market research firm, JupiterResearch is forecasting 2006 online holiday sales will increase 18 percent, reaching $32 billion this year with 114 million shoppers going online.

The early word from MasterCard is that shoppers could be charging up to the forecast.

“This year's Cyber Monday was 14 percent higher (in terms of MasterCard transaction volume) than last year's,” says Larry Flanagan, MasterCard’s chief marketing officer, of the company’s first sales numbers for the online shopping season.  

Web's bargain bonanza
As for the retailers, they hope to keep shoppers’ hands on their keyboards throughout the season with enticing promotions.  With stores like The Gap and Circuit City promoting online-only pricing and daily specials being e-mailed by Neiman Marcus among others, paying ‘retail’ may lose its meaning online — cyberspace could come to mean ‘bargain’ as much as ‘convenience’ for shoppers.

With prices in flux across the holiday gift universe, keeping track of offers let alone determining which are the best after accounting for shipping and taxes requires a little extra help. Enter the cyber-elves.

This year, Santa’s most valuable little helpers may be the shopping comparison Web sites. These sites scour the universe of product offerings either locating the item of choice at the best price or finding coupons and discount codes for the purchaser to redeem. All it takes is a couple of money-saving clicks to get them on the case.

Many, including Microsoft's MSN Shopping and Shopzilla, will factor any applicable taxes and shipping fees into the comparisons and provide links to product reviews and retailer reviews.  The latter comes in handy if an unfamiliar retailer pops up on the search.  At NexTag, in addition to the price comparisons, an item’s price history is provided.  A new entry to the space, mpire.com will go one better and check for auctions and classified ads to produce a list of sellers of used gear.

(MSNBC.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)

Because each site uses a slightly different universe, it makes checking a few of them before committing to a retailer prudent.  And after finding the best deal, it is equally prudent to verify the retailer’s return policies before checking out.

While the shopping search engines work well with consumer electronics or specific products, for shoppers who are browsing or trying to decide among retailers, there is another way to access cost-saving promotions.

NRF’s affiliate, Shop.org, has assembled a list of 400 retailers and their online holiday promotions at CyberMonday.org. There are also a number of coupon sites, which offer discount codes for thousands of online merchants.  These sites, which include Rather-be-ShoppingCouponCabin, and FatWallet continuously comb the Internet and monitor email promotions, picking up the special codes cybershoppers can use to reduce their totals before checking out.

Knowing the codes and the best prices before buying from a retailer is a money saver, but accessing the selected retailer through a rebate Web site can add an extra layer of savings, as can paying using a rebate or reward-linked credit card.

Dion Williams, a certified financial planner and vice president of financial services at Local Government Federal Credit Union in Raleigh, North Carolina, likes the idea of programs like BondRewards.com and Upromise which automatically collect rebates from participating merchants and deposit them into actual savings products — BondRewards rebates accrue in U.S. Savings Bonds and Upromise can direct rebates into specified 529 college savings plans. 

However, Williams cautions against letting rebates or any other promotion lead to overspending. But with the help of the online shopping elves, shoppers may have more control over what they spend this year than ever before.

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