Online Shopping Primer

Friday, 20 July 2012 | Tags: , , ,

As savvy shoppers, we do our fair share of research online. In fact, it's usually where we start! You can also get some pretty good deals online too if you keep a keen eye on your favourite stores. Here are our tips for shopping online.

Watch our appearance on the Marilyn Denis Show (Jan. 13, 2012) where she interviews us about our online shopping tips.

Safe Shopping Online

It pays to be careful with your financial information, whether you shop online or in person. If you are wary of shopping online because of security worries, here are a few tips to help you shop with more peace of mind:

  • Sign up for a PayPal account and use it as your main method of paying for purchases instead of giving stores your credit card information directly. Most stores now do offer PayPal as a checkout option. PayPal helps keep your financial information safe by not sharing it with the store you’re shopping at. Since online shopping security is PayPal’s main business, you can bet they have the most advanced systems in place to keep your financial information safe.

  • Only use a credit card with a small credit limit, like $500 or less. This way you minimize the amount of money that could potentially be lost if a store’s online security became compromised.

  • Keep an eye on your credit card statement, whether you shop online or not. Check it at least weekly by phone or online. This way, if your card information does become compromised, you’ll be able to catch any fraudulent charges quickly.

  • Use a prepaid credit card, like a Visa gift card or MasterCard prepaid card, to shop online. These one-time-use cards have a unique number that is not connected to your personal finances. You also don’t need a credit check to get one because they’re just like cash. If a retailer’s security becomes compromised, you won’t need to worry since the card information was only temporary and it’s not connected to any of your personal banking information.

    • Note: Treat these cards like cash. If you lose it, you’ve lost whatever balance it held. 

Where to Find the Best Deals

As many people know, the internet is the best way to do your research on products before you buy. It’s also turning into a real deal-finder’s treasure trove.

Research online
  • Start by looking at the big box stores online, as well as local independent stores. E.g. for electronics: Future Shop, Best Buy, The Source, Sears, etc. Do your comparison shopping on these sites and make a note of the price ranges.

  • If you have time to shop around and wait for sales, sign up for e-newsletters from your favourite stores. Also be sure to join their Facebook/Google+ pages and follow them on Twitter.

    • Watch for emails and social posts about discounts and sales, and also watch for special coupon codes for discounts or free shipping.

    • Some companies will give you an incentive or discount for signing up for their newsletters. 

    • Free shipping is a pretty good deal to take advantage of if you normally would be paying a lot, even if you’re not getting something on sale.

    • Often you can find deals online that aren’t advertised in store.

Comparison Shopping Search Engines

Online tools abound when it comes to looking for deals. There are some websites dedicated to amalgamating store offerings. These are a great way to comparison shop online, however it’s always good to check local stores in your area as well. Sites to try include:

Deal Finder Sites

There are also many websites that amalgamate deals for you, and you can join in the community and share deals you find too. Some Canadian deal-finder sites include:

  • Redflagdeals.com: Be sure to check the forums on this site, not only for deals, but also for product reviews.

  • MotherofaDeal.com: A very well-organized site with more of a family focus.

  • SimplyFrugal.ca: This site’s focus is more on really saving money. Lots of great tips for people who want to learn how to get the most out of using coupons.

  • Smartcanucks.ca: This site is similar to above and also has a local deals section (as do a couple of others) where you can search by province/city. Good for those who are trying to shop local.

One of our other favourite sites to check is RetailMeNot.com. It’s an American site though so they may not have all of your Canadian retailers available, but if you do cross-border shopping, it’s a must-check.

Retail Websites

Also be sure to check the retail store websites themselves, and even the manufacturer/brand website. These sites often have newsletters you can sign up for to receive alerts of special deals/coupons. The deal-finder sites listed above will usually have the inside info from larger retailers and brands, but smaller ones may not always be on their radar.

Don’t forget to check Amazon.ca. In the last couple of years they’ve expanded their offerings beyond books to electronics, home & garden products, kitchen, and just recently watches, among other things. The advantage of shopping at Amazon is that you can often take advantage of their free shipping, which is for orders $25 or over.

Deal Tip: Amazon.ca often puts many of our A&K Top Picks on sale, so keep an eye out for those deals. We’ve seen the KitchenAid 12-cup Food Processor and also the KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer both discounted up to 50% (or more) on Amazon.ca.

Note: Amazon.ca also allows 3rd party stores to sell through their site, and often these stores’ products aren’t eligible for the free shipping offer, so it’s important to note whether you’re purchasing a product directly from Amazon or from a partner retailer.

Cross-Border Shopping (for Canadians)

If finding what you want at a Canadian retailer online isn’t as easy as you thought it would be, you’re not alone. While many Canadian retailers do have online shopping, some of the big ones like The Bay (online shopping just launched in 2011), Canadian Tire, Home Hardware, etc. still haven’t answered the online call from customers. In that case, you may want to look south of the border to see if your order can be filled.

A good place to start looking for potential stores to shop at is Canada Post’s shopper section. While the comparison shopping tool is somewhat limited, if you search a product, you’ll find a list of Canadian retailers that sell online, as well as US retailers that will ship to Canada.

Money Note: If you purchase from a US retailer, remember that you have to take into account duty, currency exchange, and tax (which may not be charged to you by the retailer), as well as credit card fees for the exchange. It adds up and may not be as great a deal in the end as it appears to be at first.

Flash Sales: Are they a good deal?

Flash sales are typically one-day sales offered by retailers who usually are looking to get rid of stock. Yes they are a good deal if you are in the market for the items that go on sale.

Some retailers require you to be a member to participate in their flash sales. We like:

Stores that offer flash sales often have daily or weekly email newsletters you can sign up for, or they post the deals on their Facebook/Twitter/Google+ pages.

Mind over money note: Flash sales can be bad for impulse buyers (people who can’t stop themselves from buying something because it’s such a good deal, even if they don’t need it.) That’s when being signed up for all these emails and alerts can backfire on you. If you are on a tight budget but have a tendency to splurge, we don’t recommend signing up for flash sale alerts.

“Secret” Savings: Always use Promo Codes

The great thing about shopping online, especially in the last year or two, is that retailers have all clued into the tremendous advantages of offering promo codes to online customers. Promo codes are limited time offers for discounts or free shipping (or both!) that you apply to your order when checking out in order to access special savings. These savings aren’t often offered to in-person shoppers, but sometimes they are extended to in-store purchases. 

The sites we mentioned above under the Deal Finder section often list promo codes you can use during checkout for a variety of stores. Also be sure to check the store/brand Facebook/Twitter/Google+ pages for deal posts. You may have to scroll few a few days of posts, but it will be worth it if you find something that’s still valid.

Social Media Shopping Deals

As mentioned above, take advantage of deals on Facebook/Twitter/Google+. It’s definitely a good idea to LIKE (become a fan of) a brand or business page that has products you’re searching for.

The problem with social media is that you may not necessarily see the post about the deal unless you’re checking the site every day. If you’re actively looking for deals, you should log on everyday or a couple of times a day to check.

The Fine Print

If the deal sounds too good to be true, look for that fine print. You might not be getting the most up-to-date item, or the item could be refurbished. E.g. a deeply discounted Android tablet may running a really old version of the Android software, which means you’ll have to update it, if it’s even possible with that tablet’s hardware configuration. 

If you participate in group deals at sites like Groupon, Living Social, TheDailySteal, etc., it’s important to read the fine print because these offers usually come with expiry dates, limitations, and they also may have other stipulations. E.g. [big print] “Save 50% on product at Product City!” [small print] “…when you spend a minimum of $1000”

How do you know you are getting the best deal?

You can’t always be on top of the best deals. Do your best to comparison shop online. If you do find a better deal somewhere, but would prefer to shop at a store closer to home, ask your preferred store if they’ll match the price of the competitor. Sometimes they’ll even beat the competitor’s price.

After you buy something (especially big-ticket items), keep an eye out for sales at other stores within the following two weeks or so. Often you can go back to the store where you purchased the item and ask them to price match. Many stores have price matching policies you can check out on their websites. If the store won’t price match, and the savings is enough to be worth your time and energy, return the item to the original store (if you’re still within the return policy’s time period) and go re-purchase the item at the new store.

Best time of day to online shop

Anytime! That’s the beauty of online shopping.

It’s important to note that if a store is having a huge sale (e.g. Boxing Day, Black Friday), a huge surge of web traffic as soon as the sale starts may slow the site servers down or crash them completely.

Mind Over Money

While online shopping is the ultimate in convenience, there are some warning signs to be aware of, especially for impulse shoppers.

Curb impulse buying

1. All these great ways to stay up-to-date on deals can also be your downfall. They are addictive, and they can make you spend money you don’t have and buy things you don’t need just because it’s a great deal. They can make you think you need something when you really don’t. You know that old saying “Ignorance is bliss”? Well in this case, it’s true. What you don’t know won’t hurt your bank account. Always ask yourself before you buy: “If I didn’t know about this product, or know it was on sale, would I still want to buy it?” We find that question to be a good way to give yourself a reality check.

2. Credit is so easy to use online, even if your credit card is frozen in a block of ice in the freezer. All you need is to know the number, expiry, and 3 digit code – all easy enough to remember. Plus, if you save your credit card info at some sites, you don’t even need to remember.

Watch those shipping costs/extra fees

With online shopping often comes shipping fees. If you’re unable to get a free shipping or shipping discount, you may end up paying a lot for shipping. Shipping can be a deal killer, especially if you’re buying from the US, which also means duties, handling fees, etc.

On top of paying initial shipping fees, if you have to return something, it can cost you quite a bit more ship it back. Sometimes it’s not even worth returning something. Look for stores that offer free return shipping if you’re not sure about the item in the first place.

Many US retailers who regularly ship to Canada will collect duty and taxes during the checkout process. This is good for letting you know exactly how much your item will cost all totalled (at least in US dollars). If you have to return an item to one of these retailers, the duty and taxes should automatically be refunded to you along with the product price.

If you have to return something to a US retailer that didn’t charge you tax/duty during checkout, and your taxes/duty was charged to you by the shipper (e.g. Canada Post or a courier) on behalf of Canada Customs, you can submit a refund claim for the fees through Canada Customs. More info is on their website.


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