A lot of people do their holiday shopping online, but it's still useful to visit stores in person so you can examine the items for yourself and actually hold them in your hand before making the purchase. If you have a smartphone with a data plan, comparison shopping is easy. You can quickly compare prices online for the item you're holding and then buy from whichever retailer offers the best price.
A few techniques work really well for this kind of comparison shopping, and the best tool of all is price matching. Here's the trick: Most major brick-and-mortar stores offer some sort of price-matching policy. If you can find a (non-Black Friday) price for an item from another retailer, they'll match it, with some restrictions.
For example, Target matches prices from a relatively short list of retailers, including target.com, amazon.com, walmart.com and a few others. Target also allows you to take your item and receipt back within seven days if you've found a lower price elsewhere, and it will refund the difference.
Best Buy, on the other hand, offers price matches from a much longer line of retailers, including amazon.com, apple.com, newegg.com and many others, but you must be able to show the price within the store.
Notice, both of those stores have one retailer they'll both match: amazon.com. Many other stores will match Amazon prices, too.
So, in case you don't have a smartphone to look up prices on the spot (no one blames you for not wanting to spend a significant chunk of change on that data plan), or your cellphone battery won't last a daylong trip to the mall, here's a smartphone-free way to save yourself some money when you're out shopping.
Step 1: Make sure the stores you're shopping at allow price matches from Amazon. This isn't a strict requirement, but it does give you more options when you're out shopping. If you shop at a store that does not price match Amazon, and you discover Amazon's price is lower, you'll have to return home to make the purchase.
Step 2: Use Amazon to figure out what item you might want to give someone as a gift. If you're completely confident there's no better deal out there, you can just order it from Amazon at that point. However, you never know what bargain you might find, so print out a copy of the item page and stick it in your wallet or purse.
You can, of course, use other online stores for this type of matching, but Amazon is ubiquitous when it comes to retailers offering price matches.
Step 3: Head out on your holiday shopping excursion. When you find the item you're looking for, compare it to Amazon's price. If Amazon is higher, then you know you have a bargain. If Amazon is lower, then you have a choice: You can either just buy the item from Amazon, or you can request a price match at the store.
Remember, getting the discount from Amazon isn't always the best option. For example, you might be shopping at a store that offers a discount if you spend a certain amount, so you'll want to calculate that store's discount when comparing it to the Amazon price.
Step 4: At most stores, the actual price match occurs at the customer service desk. Each national retailer has its own price-match policies, though it often seems like individual stores execute that policy differently. Some stores just glance at your print-outs or phone screen and then punch in the discount – taking a minute at most. At other stores, several people might be called over to verify the discount – taking 20 minutes. (This is where knowing the store's policy before your shopping excursion can help, as you'll avoid standing in line for a price match that it doesn't offer.)
A smartphone makes this entire process easier, of course, but a smartphone isn't necessary. All you really need is a printer and some patience, and you can end up shaving quite a bit of money off your holiday spending through the combination of comparison shopping and price matching.
Trent Hamm is the founder of the personal finance website thesimpledollar.com, which provides consumers with resources and tools to make informed financial decisions.