A few clicks can unearth online bargains

Cashback, vouchers, price comparison sites – there are many ways to find the best deals on the internet. Chiara Cavaglieri offers some tips
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The Independent Online

The January sales are long gone but saving money on your shopping is as crucial as ever. Many of us are wise to the potential savings online shopping can bring, but are there any other tips to cut costs further?

Compare prices

Many online shoppers are familiar with comparison sites for their car and home insurance, but the same method can be applied to retail shopping too. Standard shopping comparison sites such as Kelkoo.co.uk and Pricerunner.co.uk allow users to browse the prices for any number of items at various online retailers.

The problem with these sites is that they do not include every retailer and offer no guarantee that you'll always find the lowest online price. To combat this, use at least two comparison sites to increase your chances. It may also help to use more specific comparison sites such as Cheapperfumeexpert.com which compares only perfume and aftershave, or Find-cd.co.uk, for music.

To make life even easier, there is a relatively new tool on the market called InvisibleHand. This is a free browser plug-in which compares prices while you surf the net. It continually works away in the background and alerts you to the best online prices through a drop-down bar within the browser.

Robin Landy, the founder of InvisibleHand, says this has two benefits. "One is that it's completely automated. InvisibleHand tells you if you can find a product at a better price and you don't have to trawl through a comparison site to start the shopping process again," he says.

Also, whereas the old-fashioned comparison sites rely on feeds from the retailers, InvisibleHand will always find the current price of a particular product. With many retailers changing their prices on a daily basis, this is a big benefit.

"This is the only tool that works in real time, so consumers will always get the actual price," he says.

The same issue of not covering every retailer still applies, but with 115 retailers across three different countries the coverage of InvisibleHand is not bad. It is available from www.getinvisiblehand.com but is compatible only with Mozilla's Firefox browser.

Alerts to the best bargains

Amazon.co.uk has become a favourite of online shoppers, often coming out on top for the cheapest books, films, music and electrical items. But prices can fluctuate daily. Hoping to change this, affiliated website ZeeZaw.co.uk has launched a tool to complement Amazon and help its visitors to snap up the best bargains with little effort.

ZeeZaw works beside the standard Amazon wish lists, personalised lists of items you want to buy. The original idea was to enable friends and family to browse each other's lists and buy the perfect present. ZeeZaw has taken this a step further by allowing users to set a specific price for each of their wish list items, or indeed the wish list items of others. If those items drop to that specified price, ZeeZaw sends an alert via email.

"You could start thinking about this year's Christmas shopping now and take advantage of all the special offers and discounts that come up during the year. And, if you encourage others to make up a wish list, you're never going to buy a duff present again," says Peter McKay from ZeeZaw.

This tool works well for electronics which can come down in price considerably but often for just a short space of time. Electronic items are often used as loss leaders to get people on to a site. Similarly, when a company brings out the latest model, Amazon will try to shift the older stock, leading to impressive reductions.

Check for voucher codes

After hunting down the best bargains, the next step is to check for voucher codes to save more money. The number of voucher code websites has soared in recent years with retailers desperate to increase online sales.

Sites such as Myvouchercodes.co.uk, Vouchercloud.com and Everydaysale. co.uk gather relevant codes from various retailers. Once you've found what you're looking for, you add the relevant code at the checkout. Voucher code websites often boast exclusive offers but only for a short period so it may be worthwhile to link to your favourite voucher sites on Facebook or Twitter to get the latest deals first.

Vouchercloud has even a launched a free iPhone mobile application so that you can get special discounts and vouchers when you're out shopping. Instead of printable paper vouchers, the app delivers vouchers directly to your phone screen. So you can use GPS technology to pinpoint the best deals around, which is ideal for restaurant vouchers. Then just show the merchant the voucher on your screen.

The timing of your purchase can make a difference too. "We see a massive push, usually around the end of a quarter, when retailers want to hit their sales targets and are willing to take a hit on the margin, and this is when some of the biggest savings can be made," says Mark Pearson, the managing director of My Voucher Codes.

It's important to check that you're using the right voucher. For example, if you have a code offering free delivery and a code offering a 10 per cent discount on your total bill, work out which code is worth more.

Another tip is to place more than one order if you find a voucher code that offers a discount on a specified spend. If the offer is £5 off orders over £20, it may work out cheaper to place two separate orders if you're planning to spend over £40 anyway.

Get cashback

Sites such as Topcashback.co.uk and Quidco.com offer members the chance to earn cashback on retail products. The most generous offers tend to be on insurance and mobile phones, but some impressive cashback deals are available from hundreds of retailers on thousands of products. As with comparison sites, sign up to a couple of cashback sites to increase the number of retailers you can use.

You could even sign up to a charity cashback site. GiveorTake.com, for example, offers the option of either keeping the cash you accrue or donating it to one of its charity partners. If you opt to take the cash, you pay a £5 annual administration charge, but you do get to keep 100 per cent of the cashback from anything you buy. If you give the money away, there is no charge to you or the charity.

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