Online Bargain Hunting: 6 Secrets to Saving Big

A little research goes a long way to saving you money this holiday shopping season.

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You probably already know a few ways to save money while shopping online. Maybe you check several stores for the best price on a single item. Maybe you wait for a sale or use coupons whenever you can. Easy, right? It’s shopping, not rocket science. Did you know that you can still do better? A little research goes a long way if you know where to look. These six shopping secrets can help you save even more on your online purchases.

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1. Check your favorite store’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Stores love social media. Really, they do. It’s a cheap and efficient way for them to connect with their customers. That’s great news for you, because social media makes it easier than ever to find out about online promotions, as long as you don’t mind them showing up in your news feed. “Like” your favorite store on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, and you’ll be among the first to learn about the latest offers. You may even be eligible for special discounts. Best Buy is offering their Facebook fans 8 Days of Movies–one free movie each day starting November 29. Don’t want a company tracking you online? Just bookmark their social media page and check it regularly. You can often view offers without signing in, and you may still be eligible for most of them.

2. Ditch your shipping fees. Many online stores offer free shipping on your purchase when you spend a minimum amount. Some stores like Zappos and L.L. Bean offer free shipping for every purchase. Before you shop, check FreeShipping.org to learn which retailers offer free shipping. This excellent site lets you search by store or item, then lists how much you have to spend to qualify, and other restrictions like expiration dates. If you can wait until December 16, you can take advantage of the holiday they helped create: Free Shipping Day. More than 1,400 retailers are participating this year, and it’s a great excuse to make those online purchases you’ve been putting off. Visit the website to learn more.

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If your favorite store doesn’t offer free or discounted shipping, you may want to consider joining a free shipping club. For a flat monthly or yearly fee, you’ll get all the free two-day shipping your heart desires. Use Amazon Prime if you’re a major Amazon.com customer, or ShopRunner.com if you shop everywhere. Both services cost $79 a year, but if you do a ton of online shopping, they can save you a bundle. You won’t have to worry about unexpected shipping costs on your purchases, and you won’t have to wait long for them to arrive on your doorstep.

3. Always check a coupon database. If you don’t already have a coupon code, who cares? Go find one at an online coupon or deals database like RetailMeNot.com or Fatwallet.com. RetailMeNot lets you search for coupon codes by store, and since anyone can add to the database, you’ll often see unique or hard-to-find codes. They aren’t guaranteed to work, but RetailMeNot.com site members vote on each coupon code’s effectiveness, and you’ll always see the results next to it. Codes with more positive votes are more likely to work at checkout. FatWallet.com is a coupon and discount news forum with a twist. In addition to learning about the latest deals, you’ll also get extra cash back when you shop at major retailers through their site, 1 percent to 40 percent depending on the store.

4. Use daily deal sites wisely. Daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial are great for trying new restaurants or saving money at a store. Sites that focus on merchandise, like Woot, are great for snagging a sweet deal on a new computer or MP3 player. The most important thing to remember: Buy deals that you will use, not just ones you might use. How do you tell the difference? Pick local businesses and make time to use your deals. You’re more likely to try a restaurant near home or work than one three towns over, for example. You’re also more likely to stay at a hotel or attend an event when you block out a weekend for it in advance.

Daily deals are so popular now that you can find them everywhere. If Groupon and LivingSocial don’t provide deals to fit your lifestyle, consider signing up for a deal site that specializes in one of your niche interests (maternity, eco-friendly products, etc.). You can search for deals from multiple providers by category at sites like The Deal Map.

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5. Buy directly from artists. We’ve got nothing against expensive boutiques, but if you like handmade and vintage things as much as we do, you’ll save a ton of money by shopping through a site like Etsy or ArtFire. Both sites let you search for awesome handmade things like scarves, bags, jewelry, stuffed animals, you name it, made by talented artists from all over the world. You’ll buy your product from the artist directly, so there’s no middleman commission fees. And since you can search for items by price, it’s easy to locate a good deal on whatever item you’re looking for. Etsy even lets you narrow your search to artists in your city or state. Buying local saves you money on shipping costs and support the economy.

6. Shop at your credit card mall. Your what? This money-saving strategy doesn’t get nearly as much press as it should. If you have a major rewards credit card, you’re eligible to make purchases and redeem reward points at your card provider’s online mall. These malls feature hundreds of major retailers you already know and love, like Apple, Target, and Macy’s, just to name a few.

Credit card malls allow you to redeem your reward points or airline miles to pay for online purchases, or you can just pay with your credit card. To thank you for shopping through the mall, your credit card provider will issue you additional rewards, too, anywhere from 2 percent to 30 percent back (or more) depending on the store. If you’re got multiple credit cards, you’re in the best position for saving money at a credit card mall. NerdWallet’s discount tool lets your search by store or product to see which credit card mall gives you the best discount. Use one of the best rewards credit cards to make your purchase, and you’re well on your way to maximizing your savings.

Tim Chen is the CEO of NerdWallet, a personal finance and credit card website that helps you get the best rewards this holiday season.