Sure, you could click through all your favorite e-commerce sites looking for the best price. But who has time for that? A few services do the legwork for you, instantly searching for your chosen item across a wide variety of retail sites. Two of the best are Google Shopping and PriceGrabber.
Google (GOOG) performs well in head-to-head tests between the two. Its interface is clean and intuitive, and -- as you might expect from Google -- the search tool is a bit better. For instance, when I searched for "season 2" of a TV show on PriceGrabber, it didn't find what I sought until I changed that part of the search string to "season two." Google Shopping had no such issues.
But Google has one big disadvantage: Due to its new policy of making merchants pay to have their wares listed in the search results, it doesn't list items from Amazon (which declined to pay up). It's hard to recommend Google's price-comparison tool when it excludes the biggest e-commerce site.
So both services have their advantages and disadvantages. For now, we suggest running your search on both sites.
Price-comparison sites are great if you're doing research on a computer before you make your purchase. But if you're in a store and something on the shelf catches your eye, your best bet may be to use a barcode-scanning app on your smartphone to make the relevant price comparisons.
As I noted in my roundup of the best showrooming apps, both Google and Amazon (AMZN) offer good barcode scanners, and Google in particular wins points for its ability to recognize books and DVDs by their covers alone. But the exclusion of Amazon hurts Google here as well, and Amazon's apps are, of course, limited to its own offerings. As such, our favorite is one of the original players in the barcode game: RedLaser, offered by eBay (EBAY).
It's also worth noting: Some retailers are trying to confound such apps by sticking their own barcodes over the originals or by offering "exclusives" that are just the same product with a slightly different model number. In such cases, manually search for the name of the product ... and then take your money to a business that doesn't try to trick you into overpaying.
FreePriceAlerts is a free browser extension that heroically dives in at the last minute to save you from overpaying.
Consider it a fail-safe of sorts: Maybe you forgot to use a price-comparison site, or maybe you simply didn't have time to do a bunch of research. In either case, FreePriceAlerts does the work for you. When you navigate to a product page on a compatible e-commerce site, you'll get a pop-up in the corner of the screen letting you know there's a better price on the same product elsewhere (or a check mark, which signifies that you've found the lowest price). When I went to check out a video game on Amazon, it told me I should instead go to Buy.com, where I would pay $26.71 instead of $31.50, a savings of 15%.
One caveat: It doesn't take tax and shipping into account when it makes its recommendations, so you'll occasionally be directed to a site where the final cost is actually higher. As such, your best bet is to do your research first on Google or PriceGrabber, which will show you the bottom-line price. But it's still a great tool to save you from spending too much on an impulse buy.
Most e-commerce sites now have a "discount code" field on the checkout page, but finding a code to use there can be a bit of crapshoot. For a while your best bet was to run a Google search for "[retailer name] coupon codes," or check out a dedicated couponing site like RetailMeNot.
But now a couple of browser extensions are taking some of the guesswork out of this process. Install the Chrome extension Honey and a prominent orange button will be displayed on the checkout page of more than a hundred participating retailers. Click the button, and it will automatically test out several coupon codes and apply the one that provides the biggest savings. With Coupons at Checkout (offered by CouponFollow), you just click inside the coupon code field and you'll get a drop-down menu of possible codes, showing both the percentage-off and the success rate of other users who tried that code. Honey is available only for Chrome, while Coupons at Checkout works with all major browsers.
Even if you don't find a code that works, it's still nice to get some reassurance that you didn't miss out on a potential for savings.
What happens when you use the available tools to find the best possible price, and it still isn't low enough? Well, then you'll have to play the waiting game.
Given enough time, most products will eventually come down in price. But waiting until an item falls into your price range can be time-consuming and frustrating -- nobody wants to run a search on PriceGrabber every week just to see if that video game has dropped below $30. And a weekly search might not even be enough, as a price drop or sale sometimes only lasts for a day or a few hours.
Fortunately, there are services to help. ShopAdvisor lets you set up email alerts on specific products that let you know when they drop in price. It also has a free mobile app that lets you scan barcodes of items you find in stores to add them to your watchlist. FreePriceAlerts, in addition to alerting you when you're about to spend too much on an item, also has email alerts and a free mobile app. In both cases, you get a heads-up when what you want to buy is finally cheap enough for you to pull the trigger.
ShopAdvisor and FreePriceAlerts both help you out by letting you know when a product has dropped in price. But sometimes you want to know about a price drop before it happens. Here's why: Even if the item is already in your price range, you still want to make sure you're not buying it right before a big price drop. You're going to get a nasty case of buyer's remorse if you see it for $50 off a week later.
While there's no way to absolutely guarantee that won't happen, Decide.com is a great way to avoid this fate. The service analyzes past price trends and future offerings to determine just how likely it is that a given product will rise or fall in price in the immediate future, and gives each product a score on a 100-point scale to let you know whether or not you should buy. And paid members ($30 a year or $4.99 a month) get a price guarantee: If Decide says a price will stay stable and then it drops within two weeks after you make your purchase, it will refund you the difference.
Even if you've done everything right -- shopped around, checked for coupon codes and analyzed whether a price drop is imminent -- you can still get burned by a price drop or sale that takes place right after your purchase. But some credit cards now offer automatic protection against post-purchase price drops.
The most prominent of these services is Price Rewind, which is offered on Citi (C) credit cards. If you make a purchase with your Citi card and then a lower price turns up within 30 days, Citi will pay you the difference. The new price must be at least $25 lower, so in all likelihood this will mainly be used on bigger-ticket items like electronics. What makes the program particularly notable is that Citi will check for lower prices on your behalf and send you the discount automatically if it finds a better offer. It stops short of guaranteeing that it will find a better price, though, so we'd suggest setting up a price alert and making a claim if you find a deal that Citi doesn't.
There are a few other cards that offer this sort of purchase protection -- the Chase Sapphire Preferred offers a 90-day guarantee, though the Chase (JPM) card has a $95 annual fee after the first year. As far as we can tell, Citi is the only major issuer offering price protection on its full line of consumer cards, which means you can get this service on a card with no annual fee.