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BROWSING FOR BARGAINS Researching products online before buying can help shoppers save lots of cash

Tired of cranky cashiers? Sick of ATM lines? Want to know where there are no lines?

Online -- at the Internet Mall, where you can join 115 million other shoppers this holiday season.

Shoppers use the Internet for much more than making purchases. According to the National Retail Federation, almost 89 percent of consumers research products online before buying them in a store.

"To shop online is convenient," said Michael Yack, founder of Fabu.com, an online coupon clearinghouse that offers consumers instant discounts. "Merchants are looking for new customers online, that's why they are offering incentives on almost everything."

Online shoppers are expected to spend $27 billion during the seasonal surge that continues through December, peaking next week. And although an increasing number of consumers are using the Internet to locate products and services, convenience isn't the only benefit of online shopping. After all, doesn't every shopper want to save money on their purchases?
If you're in doubt about the right gift for that certain someone -- visit www.charitynavigator.org for lists of charities and ratings. A donation in the name of another will bring smiles all around.

>Click, shop and save

There are two types of coupons in cyberland: those that provide instant discounts online and those meant to be printed and redeemed at a "bricks and mortar" shop -- the good old-fashioned way.

At Fabu.com, discounts are restricted to online purchasing. Customers who register at the two-month-old site will discover more than 300 retailers -- including Target, Macy's, Old Navy, Blue Nile, Circuit City -- offering discounts from 10 to 35 percent.

"There are no salespeople involved," said Yack, during a phone interview from his Toronto office. "Using online coupons streamlines costs because less manpower is required in the store."

Yack, who said he shops in Buffalo at least three times a month, negotiates the discount deals with marketing departments from stores throughout the country. Some stores, including Best Buy, allow shoppers to purchase online but pick up from a local store.

At Fabu.com, shoppers with discriminating tastes can also browse by brand, a feature that not only offers a description of the specialty brand -- like Polo or DKNY -- but also tells what retailers sell it.

Wow-coupons.com, meanwhile, offers coupons redeemable online and in-store. RetailMeNot.com gives coupon codes for online stores.

CouponMountain.com represents retailers like Brookstone, who offer free merchandise -- for example, LED flashlights -- when a shopper's order exceeds a specified threshold amount. Free shipping often goes with the package.

Through CouponMountain.com, Sharper Image offers discounts on specific merchandise -- like 50 percent off either a glass desk clock or five-piece knife set.

>Comparison shopping

Let's say you're searching for a home entertainment system. Instead of spending a morning visiting local shops in search of the best deal, imagine getting the information online in seconds. By visiting one comparison shopping Web site, customers are able to compare information about products, services, merchants and sellers -- and yes, they can even purchase the product they select.

Popular sites for online comparison shoppers are: Shopping.com, pricegrabber.com, bizrate.com, mysimon.com, monstermarketplace.com and pricescan.com.

BestWebBuys.com was founded by Steve Loyola in 1997. Unlike other sites, BestWebBuys focuses on a few product categories: books, bikes, electronics, music and video.

If you're searching for electronic gifts (and who isn't?), Loyola suggests first visiting cnet.com to determine what brand and model fit your needs before going to a comparison shopping site to find the best deal. Tech savvy consumers can even trade in their old iPod for the latest model by logging on to BestWebBuys.com and clicking on "iPod trade-in."

"You can really learn a lot online," Loyola said from his office outside Los Angeles. "Although there's no substitute for walking in a Best Buy and actually seeing how it feels in your hand."

Comparison shopping sites also provide star ratings for individual retailers. These ratings may be critical tools, but Loyola suggests taking a minute to study some of the customer comments. Problem recurrences -- like the cancellation of orders weeks after the order date because of product unavailability -- should raise red flags.

"Very rarely will you see a store with five stars," Loyola said. "A four-out-of-five star rating to me is really a good store. When you start getting down into the twos, I would really worry."

>Shopping tips

"There are still a lot of people who are relatively new to online shopping. You can't beat them over the head enough with warnings," said Loyola of BestWebBuys.com, who suggests these safety tips for online shoppers:

* Research the seller's reputation: Be careful of a seller who does not have an extensive history.

* Keep your private information private: Look for a retailer's privacy policy and do not provide your social security number, birth date or mother's maiden name.

* Compare each store's availability, estimated shipping time and return and cancellation policies before ordering. If you cancel your order, print the cancellation page or make sure you get a cancellation number.

* Make sure you are at a secure site before giving out your credit card information. To ensure your transaction is protected, look for "https" in the URL or for a key or closed padlock icon at the bottom of the browser window.

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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>Shopping with your cell phone

Remember when your fingers did the walking through the yellow pages? Now your cell phone can save you from too much walking.

By using the product search available for download at GPshopper's slifter.com, you can check the availability of more than 50 million products using your cell phone. Just enter the item you're looking for and your ZIP code to find the latest product availability, pricing, and store location, according to founder Alex Muller, who came up with the idea when shopping in Manhattan.

"I was walking around looking for a vacuum cleaner in the middle of a New York winter and I couldn't find one at a store near me, and I just kept going from store to store," recounted Muller. "On the Internet I could solve it quickly, but in the real world I had no tools to help me find the products I was looking for."

To obtain the service, log onto www.GPshopper.com and click on "Slifter product search." Then enter your phone number in the http://slifter.com homepage to receive a text message with instructions on downloading Slifter to your phone. Or text message the keyword "Slifter" to 75438 to get started. (For those who are wondering: The word "slifter" is a combination of savings and lifter.)

Here are some more ways to use your cell phone when shopping:

* Save your voice; text instead: Malls are loud. Use your cell to get your message across.

* Get directions: Some mobile carriers offer GPS services that can show you maps and even give you step-by-step directions.

* Keep the kids occupied: Download some reindeer games to your mobile phone. GameJump.com and getjar.com offer great games.

-- Jane Kwiatkowski

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