Site for sore eyes

Hit the web and avoid the high-street scrum
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The Independent Online

There's no excuse this year to shirk your shopping. You can't move around the jungle of online retailers without bumping into gift lists, with every seller worth its salt compiling seasonal suggestions. Some 30 million British shoppers are expected to buy their gifts online this year, and specialist sites have the goods to satisfy the most picky of customers. Of course, once you've investigated the price-comparison tools, you'll never pay over the odds again. Deals are to be had on delivery, too, if you're organised.

Caught like a rabbit in the headlights in the face of so much choice? Websites such as giftgen.co.uk offer a touch of inspiration. Simply enter the age, sex and interests of a tricky friend or relative and it will scour the net for ideas. Some are spot-on, others entirely inappropriate – it suggested a car washing kit and DIY manual for a work-shy husband, for example.

Many sites source the obscure or focus on a particular sector. Abebooks.co.uk allows you to search and shop from the stocks of 13,500 booksellers worldwide. Used books in good conditions are on sale sometimes for as little as 59p, plus postage and packing, and the site offers collectors' items and signed copies.

Play.com, which boasts a huge range of entertainment products, has some bargains on DVDs and CDs and offers free UK delivery – allow two to seven days over Christmas. You can also sign up to PlayTrade to sell used items to other customers. Firebox.com sells "gadgets, gifts and boys' toys". With a well-laid out website and good selection of cheapish goods, browsing is child's play. Don't miss the imaginative line-up of new products; number one is currently a pole-dancing aerobics kit. Try the retro section for classics such as View Finder or Etch-A-Sketch. Standard delivery is £3.95 and takes one to three working days.

Websites offering green and ethical goods abound and all the major charities have online shops. One retailer which stands out is ethicalsuperstore.com, with a vast and appealing array of products for consumers with a conscience. To qualify, products must either be Fair Trade, organic, eco-friendly, promote health and wellbeing or build education and awareness – and the website specifies each item's ethical credentials. Or try the excellent henandhammock.co.uk, a small operation which offers beautifully designed, environmentally friendly gifts – this year a make-your-own-scarecrow kit is flying off the shelves. Founder Andrew Jones donates 10 percent of its profits to selected charities.

Fashion bargains abound this year – discount site koodos.com offers a range of designer gear across the board, with hefty discounts on its clearance rail. Delivery is £5.99 usually within one to two working days. Asos.com/red also offers discounted women's clothes among hundreds of brands from Billabong to Versace. Hunt hard for true bargains from lastseason.com which is just what is says; with lower prices on slightly older stock from clothes labels including Marc Jacobs and Jean Paul Gaultier, under the slogan "quality never dates".

As a general all-rounder, Amazon.co.uk still dominates. This internet giant has been mostly associated with books in the past but is carving a reputation as a one-stop shop for Christmas shopping. While some individual goods may be slightly cheaper elsewhere, the vast majority are competitively priced. It's worth noting that options for free delivery – items costing more than £5 are eligible for super saver delivery, even if you are sending to different UK addresses – make sure you select this as an option at checkout – last orders for this are 18 December. Allow three to five days for dispatch. If you're a last-minute shopper you can pay for first-class or express delivery.

And if you're really tardy Amazon offers an evening delivery – last orders by 8.30am on Christmas Eve.

Prices on eBay.co.uk, the country's best-known trading portal, are on average 25 per cent cheaper than those on the high street, according to independent research. Its original auction formula is still going strong since the UK site was founded in 1999 and it is the destination for many unwanted Christmas presents. But now eBay estimates that nearly half the goods are available to buy immediately if you want to avoid a bidding frenzy, and some 25 per cent on offer are new. The online retailer also estimates that the average British household is sitting on a sobering £450 worth of unwanted gifts. Research by the site suggests the average spend per present this year will drop 18 per cent to £23 and we'll buy for fewer people.

However the good news is that the price of some goods such as electronics including games consoles, televisions, phones and cameras have fallen substantially this past year. If you want to take advantage of competitive online pricing, take a look at a choice of price comparison sites. Pricerunner.co.uk, Google product search, kelkoo.co.uk and booksprice.co.uk all offer user-friendly means to find the cheapest option. For discounts, head to myvouchercodes.co.uk for promotional codes that give money off at online retailers.

Madaboutbargains.co.uk lists sales and offers across the web and offeroftheday.co.uk has a tempting line-up of deals offered by retailers. Shopsafe.co.uk is an excellent web directory listing more than 4,000 vetted secure online shopping sites, and can email vouchers to registered users and compare prices. However, before you buy, check the site offers a tracking service, and security, returns and complaints procedures.

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