We've all been there. You've found just the right fill-in-the-blank (light fixture? bag? end table?) you've been looking for online, and are ready to load up your cart and check out. Then that nagging suspicion hits that there might just be a better price out there.
It's a valid concern. Prices can vary, sometimes drastically, from site to site, promotion to promotion. So how can you be sure you're getting the very best price?
Here are a few tried and true ways to make sure you're not overpaying before you check out:
1. Scan for site promotions
Many sites will offer special deals, especially for first time customers. It's worth checking their homepage, or actually reading their pop-ups to see if they'll give you, say, 10 percent off as a new customer, or for signing up for their newsletter.
Also check their social sites—maybe they have a special they only announced on Instagram or Twitter. And while the coupon sites like RetailMeNot can be hit or miss, you should never bypass the field where you can add a promo code at check-out without first googling the site name and "promo code" for discounts you haven't yet unearthed. Sometimes you find a winner—I've come across codes that worked for as high as 40 percent off. There's also a browser extension called Honey that does the code-finding legwork for you, right from the checkout page.
2. Try comparison shopping (with an image search!)
Obviously you can just search for the item and google usually will turn up plenty of options. A sneakier way to do it—that also helps get past any results the search engine is favoring—is to do a reverse image search (this also helps if you're just trying to find an item you came across on Instagram or Pinterest!). Even if you don't find a lower price, per se, you could easily find the same item on another website that offers a promotion (see #1 above). In looking at a light fixture I recently bought, a few seconds on image search showed me the same price everywhere, but on the third site I went to an offer popped up for 16 percent off my first purchase.
3. Look for the small print on Amazon
I've long been a fan of Amazon deals. I've found everything from air conditioners to a Roomba at huge discounts from either Amazon warehouse deals or third party sellers. Often refurbished or otherwise returned, the items come with the same return policy as buying new, so it's pretty low-risk.
Here's the kicker: They don't make it easy to find. You have to scroll down the sidebar, past the big happy "Add to Cart" button, past "Add to List" and "Add to Your Dash" buttons before you get to a simple box headed up with "Other Sellers on Amazon." There will probably be several in a larger, bold font with those bright "Add to Cart" buttons, but below those, in small font, is often a plain text link that reads something like: "Used & new from [however much]." That's where you're going. Sometimes they come with Prime shipping, sometimes not. But when you can save a few hundred bucks, a few days or few dollars for shipping is totally worth it.
4. Get smart with price tracking
If you don't find a good (enough) deal with tip #3, or even if you just want to make sure it's the best deal, you've got to check the site CamelCamelCamel. I recently found this free Amazon price tracking site and it's been a game-changer. Plug in the URL of whatever you want to buy and it will show you a chart with the price history so right away you know if you're buying high or low. If you have time to wait, enter the price you're hoping for and if/when the price drops that low, they can email or Tweet you. Brilliant.
5. Abandon cart and let the deals pop up
This tip comes courtesy of Lars Perner, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing at University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. "Given how widely people are tracked, if you look at an item and don't buy it you may get served a coupon in a pop-up," he said. So maybe turn off that ad blocker for a minute! And not only that, but I've had second thoughts and left an item in a cart only to get a coupon emailed urging me to come back. So if you have time and want to take the gamble, that's another tactic worth trying.
6. Try a browser other than Google
Because of concerns about Google favoring their own products, Dr. Perner also suggests using other search engines when you're comparison shopping. I like DuckDuckGo because I won't be forever shown ads for that light fixture I was comparison shopping, but there's also Bing.
7. Don't forget Craigslist and discount sellers
And speaking of looking elsewhere, especially for bigger items—think furniture and appliances—remember to do a quick Craigslist (and Apartment Therapy Marketplace, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace) search, and set alerts to notify you if something you're looking for comes available. Also try searching for your item plus "discount" or "refurbished."
My all time best online deal came from searching for the fridge I was lusting after at Lowe's; searching for the model and "scratch and dent" led me to a brand new in the box model at Sears Outlet—at half the price of the big box stores. Granted, I had to pay for shipping, but it was still a massive savings.