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comparison shopping onlineIt used to mean collecting local newspapers, or going from store to store - still wondering if you really got the best deal in town.

Thankfully, the Internet has changed all that.

Today you can compare prices, check out what other shoppers have to say about the customer service and reliability all at the same time.

Comparison shopping sites can help you find a real deal, but as always it's best to read the fine print.

Comparison shopping tips

Smart online shopping means keeping shipping costs and delivery time in mind.

Also take into consideration the quality of the product and its durability -- its no bargain if you have replace the same item a few months from now. So check for a warranty, return policy, and READ ONLINE REVIEWS if available, before you buy.

Finally, in the age of online shopping, it's all about the coupons. But resist the impulse to take the discount and run to checkout. They may be offering a 'deal' just to lure you into making a purchase. Shop around. Keep searching to see if the product you're looking for is even cheaper compared to the brand offering a coupon.

At the supermarket

Generic vs. big name brand? For certain items, there's practically no difference ... but the cost. That goes for canned vegetables, milk and juices, cereals and grains (like rice and oatmeal) plus peanut butter, cookies and crackers, sweets and candy.

For other items, compare ingredients and labels. If they appear to be the same, you're probably paying too much.

Finally, don't be duped by big brand items at twice the price. Case in point: buying 'scented' kitty litter, when you can simply add a cheap box of baking soda to the less-expensive store brand.

In store: read ingredientrs and check labels to make sure you're getting your money's worth.

Unit pricing

Unit price? Whether you're shopping online or at the mall, it's still shop-savvy to do a price comparison between sizes of packaged goods. Do the math, and you may find that buying several regular sizes may actually be cheaper compared to the possibly over-priced "buy in bulk" special.

When shopping in Costco or Sam's Club, also take into account storage space beforehand. Will there be room to store all that fresh produce and food items when you get them home? If not, it's almost guaranteed that it will spoil before you use it, negating any cost savings you thought you'd be getting.

Timing is everything

Meanwhile, it's the smart shopper who will also keep tabs on the best months to buy merchandise.

The best time to buy gardening equipment? Try September, rather than April, when prices are at their highest. The same goes for new cars in December as dealers try to move last year's models off the showroom floor.

And, it almost goes without saying that the best time to buy holiday decorations and greeting cards is just before or (ideally) AFTER the big day to store it all away for next year.

Lastly, a word about overseas outlets

While the quality of merchandise available at overseas outlets (as in China) has almost become a meme by now, there are some bargains to be had if you're careful,

Opt for cheap plastic trinkets or doo-dads in bulk if you're in the market, but avoid clothing items or household decor if you don't want to be disappointed by sizing and quality. Double check return and refund policies, and remember that a mere picture of an item is not always worth a thousand words. Buyer beware.

Top comparison shopping sites

When comparison shopping here's a good place to start, here at some of the top comparision shopping sites online:

Google Shopping - Don't be confused by how much this looks like your favorite Google search engine -- because it is -- helping you compare the cheapest prices across the Internet. - Here's an easy to use site, searchable by keyword or in dozens of categories to merchandise rated by product rating, popularity, availability and release date.
BizRate Shopping - Check out an easily navigable and huge selection from thousands of online stores selling everything from lawn mowers to discount clothes - together with seasonal merchandise, store coupons, special rebates and incentives, and user reviews. camelcamelcamel - Amazon price tracker that lets you know the perfect time to hit the 'buy' button in your Amazon shopping cart. This handy tool also lists top Amazon products by popularity, and major price drops on products you may want to buy.

More about comparison shopping around the Web:

Seems that anytime of year is the time to shop around ... so what are you waiting for? Start saving on all your purchases with help from these web resources offering more expert advice.

Comparison Shopping: How to Find the Best Deals - Check out the Ent Credit Union with some sage advice on choosing generic, unit pricing, buying in bulk when appropriate, and links to related shopping comparison and coupon sites.

Comparison Shopping - LoveToKnow - Here's another good place to start for some great tips on using comparision shopping apps and sites, together with a unit pricing chart, and related secrets to getting the most for your money. .

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