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When you think great bargains, websites such as eBay and Overstock probably come to mind as well as the online alter egos of the giant discounters Walmart and Target. Then there’s Amazon which, as the mother of all discount sites, sells pretty much anything you could ever want to buy. The May 2011 issue of ShopSmart magazine, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, put those sites to the test to find out which one truly offers the best prices and scoured through the fine print to find the ‘gotchas’ consumers should avoid.
“Our goal was to expose the ins and outs of shopping at these discount sites in order to save shoppers time and money,” said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart. “We learned consumers should calculate shipping fees before settling on a retailer, read the return policy fine print before making purchases, and know whether returns can be made at walk-in stores.”
Who Sells It For Less?
To understand how the major discount sites stack up, ShopSmart chose a basket of seven common items, from big-ticket to small, and compared prices, standard shipping costs, return policies, and restocking fees, while noting any annoying surprises they encountered along the way. On eBay, ShopSmart chose brand-new items from the highest rated U.S.-based sellers available and picked the lowest priced “Buy It Now” listing (as opposed to auction prices). The results can be found below, starting with the low-price winner:
1. Ebay.com: eBay is no longer just for auctions. These days the site is less populated with random collectibles, instead its online inventory includes individually operated virtual stores. Many items have “Buy It Now” prices with no bidding required. After adding up the pretax totals (including shipping) for all of the items on our price-scan list, eBay came out the low-price winner.
- Gotchas: The lowest “Buy It Now” price isn’t necessarily the best deal after factoring in shipping costs, so it’s important to look at other listings and scan the fine print. Additionally, shipping times might be longer than on competing sites, depending on vendor and payment methods.
2. Amazon.com: Amazon has the best overall selection by far, especially if consumers are looking for books, electronics, baby gear, and specialty items. Ultimately, Amazon came in second for the lowest prices for the items on ShopSmart’s list.
- Gotchas: The Amazon Marketplace (where you can buy new and used items from individual sellers) and Amazon Merchants (where you buy items from various retailers) have their own shipping and return policies, so it’s important to read them carefully. Additionally, ShopSmart found some questionably high prices in previous price scans (for groceries in particular).
3. Walmart: Walmart has an excellent selection and good prices, especially for electronics, entertainment products, and appliances. Their website had some of the best prices available.
- Gotchas: It’s important to note that their return policy doesn’t apply to all of their products.
4. Overstock.com: Overstock offers great deals, often on last season’s merchandise, including home decor, bedding, and baby gear.
- Gotchas: As the name suggests, this site sells overstock, so if you’re obsessed with having the latest styles, you may want to shop elsewhere. A lot of items are not returnable, and for the things you can return, you are required to pay for shipping. Additionally, delivery of oversized purchases comes with lots of potential charges, including fees for “extra labor,” storage, and redelivery if you’re not home when the item arrives.
5. Target: Target is great if you’re looking for solid-wood furniture and stylish clothing at decent prices, in addition to tons of house wares, entertainment, and personal-care products. However, Target had the highest prices on four of the seven items on their varied price-scan shopping list.
- Gotchas: Target offers great prices on many everyday items. However, customers must be aware that it has a strict “no receipt, no return policy” and a 15 percent restocking fee for small electronics.
More Surprising Gotchas
If you want a rock-bottom price, you might have to give up on other things, like getting the exact color you want or putting up with tricky return policies. ShopSmart suggests watching out for these traps at some of the most popular types of discount sites:
1. Outlet Sites: At outlet sites, selection is often limited because you’re shopping the leftover bins. If you don’t snap up items fast, you’ll miss out on the best deals. But if you act too quickly, you might be stuck with something you don’t really want or need. Also, outlet sites may or may not accept returns, so be sure to read all the fine print before you buy.
2. Sample-Sale Sites: The best deals on these sites are snapped up quickly. Also, it might take a long time to get your purchased items since many sites don’t keep stock in-house, but instead have manufacturers ship directly to you. Shipping charges can add up, so look for options that let you shop several sales at once and ship items together. Finally, be aware that some sample-sale sites don’t accept returns.
3. Secondhand & Swap Sites: There are no warranties or returns at these sites, so it’s important to inspect photos closely and ask questions before you commit. Shop around to see what a good price is, especially if you’re bidding on an auction site, where it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and overpay for an item. Some sites have a built-in system to keep things honest, so check terms and conditions to see whether the site has any safeguards for making sure you’re satisfied.
Launched in Fall 2006 by Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, ShopSmart draws upon Consumer Reports’ celebrated tradition of accepting no advertisements and providing unbiased product reviews. The magazine features product reviews, shopping tips on how to get the most out of products and “best of the best” lists. ShopSmart is ideal for busy shoppers who place a premium on time. ShopSmart has a newsstand price of $4.99 and is available nationwide at major retailers including Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Borders, Kroger, Safeway and Publix. ShopSmart is available by subscription at www.ShopSmartmag.org.