The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

It may be expensive to live on earth, but it includes an annual free trip around the sun. This guide came into existence chiefly from anecdotal evidence.

Through unplanned conversations with friends, family, and strangers, I noticed numerous folks have no idea how to actually shop online. Most shoppers will do a quick internet search for their desired item or forego the online experience and walk into a store hoping for the best. Shoppers usually have good intentions of finding the item they are looking for and attaining a deal, but more often than not, fall short of their aspirations. 

After a purchase shoppers will rationalize their action based on a cliché sales pitch from an in-store associate (salesman promoting a “built in sauce rack” on a grill) or a mediocre marketing ploy in an attractively placed ad on Facebook (“space age technology” when selling a shovel). For years shoppers have been told what the best widget is based on what company pays the highest commission to a sales force or produces the largest profit margin for a business. 

The days of “Salesman Bob” sweet talking consumers is over. Massive profit margins for companies at the expense of the unknowing shopper is finished. 

However, in the end, businesses have to make a profit to keep their doors open, or in the case of online shopping stores, their warehouses. It is the goal of this guide to inform and empower shoppers, consumers, patrons, clients, customers, and whoever else is searching for a particular widget. There is a difference between keeping the doors open and lining the doors with gold.

How to find the item you want

Let’s say a shopper knows the general item he or she is looking for. For the rest of this guide we will name this shopper, or in this case, a couple: Shane and Susie Shopper, because characters are always more fun! For learning shopping techniques within this guide, a hypothetical shopping situation and my own personal recommendations will be utilized. 

The details for the hypothetical situation are as follows: Shane and Susie Shopper are on the hunt for their first coffee french press (a french press is an item used to make a cup of coffee). The hunt will usually begin with a Google search that produces a plethora of results with multiple price points. For example, an internet search for french press might look something like figure 1.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

The couple’s search result for french press shows five french presses. The results are even more convoluted when the shopping tab shown in figure 1 is chosen. The shopping tab results will look like figure 2.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

The internet search results lead Shane and Susie on a long search process, researching multiple items, and forcing them to use the filter provided on the left-hand side of the google shopping results in figure 2 to narrow their results. 

The typical shopper will not know the minute differences of each french press, nor why there are multiple price points (this hypothetical situation uses a french press, but the specific item is not as important as the process. Feel free to imagine any widget other than a french press if it is desired).

Here is a quote from Google: “Search results on Google Shopping are built on Product Listing Ads. Shoppers can discover, compare and purchase products directly from your store.” This quote can be found at https://www.google.com/ads/shopping/ . What this quote from Google means is the shopping search results are biased towards stores that pay to have their products display when Mr. and Mrs. Shopper search for french press.

What if there was a far superior way to find the ideal french press? What if there was a simple way to track where other online shoppers are spending their dollars when it comes to a french press? 

Not only could this simpler method show you where consumers’ hard-earned dollar bills are going, but also show hundreds of reviews, photos of the items in use in customers’ homes, tips and tricks, and the best technique to use the product? 

What if the Shoppers knew they weren’t looking at paid ads while searching for a french press? Sounds too good to be true? It’s not. My personal work-life has led me into the field of investment management. There is no shortage of opinions on the level of health of the economy – where it has been, where it is now, and where it is headed in the future. 

The one item that is never debated, however, is how important the United States consumer is to economic growth. The consumer in the United States accounts for roughly seventy percent of all economic activity in the country on a yearly basis. 

One item within this arena that is constantly discussed is the smarter consumer. Consumers nowadays do not have the pre 2008 financial crisis spending habits of days past. The average consumer has four credit cards, down from eight, according to Mastercard. The point is consumers are less willing to make spontaneous purchases and Shane and Susie should be too!

Refuse to buy the first french press that comes onto a screen in an internet search. All this information brings me back to a simple way to find the desired french press and become the smarter consumer that you are destined to be!

The days of word-of-mouth product research are over. Talking to a neighbor about that great french press he/she found on the clearance rack at the discount mart down the road may be a friendly conversation, but comparing it to hundreds of other consumer reviews on similar products leaves the neighborly product review in the dust.

The easiest, simplest, high-five your grandma approach to find the french press that other shoppers are buying is with the help of Amazon.com. 

Now is about the time a reader is thinking, I know about Amazon, but how does that help me find the precise french press that is best for me? It is in a scenario like this where Amazon Best Sellers data can change a shopper’s method of finding a widget.

Changing the internet search from “french press” to “amazon best selling french press” will change the results from figure 1. See figure 3 for the new results.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

Clicking on the first search result in figure 3, “Amazon Best Sellers: Best Coffee Presses – Amazon.com” will take Shane and Susie to the page they want. See figure 4 for the result.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

Figure 4 reflects the best-selling french presses on Amazon. These french presses represent where shoppers are putting real dollars. I don’t know about Shane and Susie, but I prefer to know where the masses are putting their money. 

SARCASM ON: Feel free to continue a standard internet search that presents companies that are willing to pay for product placement on search results.

Amazon Best Sellers are updated on an hourly basis to show the most recent consumer spending trends. Again, going back to my investment management career I cannot help but to think how much a local retailer, or any chain of stores, would pay for consumer purchasing trends like this. 

It is amazing what technology can show Shane and Susie. The spending trends of consumers around the world are a mouse-click away. This is truly an unprecedented time for any (smarter) consumer thanks to Amazon aggregating this data and making it available to every Shane and Susie clicking away online.

Amazon makes it easy to dodge the advertisers and truly find the hottest, best- selling consumer items. Are you thinking about canceling your Consumer Reports subscription yet?

To belittle the neighborly review referenced earlier, even more, we can dig into bonus information that Amazon makes available to shoppers. At the time of this writing there are four thousand seven hundred and twenty three reviews for the french press that shoppers on Amazon have been buying the most in the last hour (see figure 5). 

This makes it easy to see what the best- selling french press currently is and get great reviews at the same time. Not only does Amazon offer typical reviews, it offers frequently asked questions from shoppers that have yet to buy the respective french press. 

Amazon-reviews also offer recent reviews, shown in figure 6, usually within the last few hours, and video reviews, shown in figure 5, from customers (not commercials from the company) that have already purchased the product. One of my personal favorite sections is the “Customers who bought this item also bought” section shown in figure 7.

It always provides a great idea for a product that I want that I usually didn’t know it existed. This sometimes leads me on a new Best-Selling search. For example, people who buy a french press also buy a coffee grinder. 

Well, I wonder what coffee grinder consumers are buying the most right now, which leads me to my next Best-Selling search and inevitably leaves me loving and hating Amazon at the same time. Keep in mind, this is still product research. This is not research that implies purchasing on Amazon is the right course of action.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

Over time I have found growing uses for the Amazon Best Sellers page.

I have noticed how useful it is around the holidays and birthdays. Like everyone else, every holiday season I have no idea what to get for a select few people.

They already own every good idea I can imagine or would not desire something I might think is enjoyable. This leads to grabbing a boring gift card from somewhere I hope they will use and not lose. A better option for gift ideas is to browse the Best-Selling categories. See Figure 8 for the list of categories in Amazon’s Best Sellers. Within the categories shown in figure 8 are other sub-categories. The categories for Best-Sellers are seemingly endless. 

It will blow Shane and Susie’s minds that there are items they can’t believe they didn’t come up with and other items that they didn’t know existed while browsing.

My wife used to love hounding me about my procrastination around the holidays about getting gifts for those on my list. In the past, it was for good reason as I assumed I would magically think of great gifts at the last second and swing down from the heavens to pick up gifts and be the hero of the day – until everyone gets a gift card from the local pharmacy store down the road the day before gifts are needed.

The most recent holiday season was dominated by Amazon Best Sellers. All-be-it I didn’t get to do my normal price checking, everyone received great gifts while I simmered in compliments on the great ideas that I was able to produce! Little do they know, at least until I wrote this, that I had spent about thirty minutes browsing through top-sellers in a few categories on Amazon.

Maybe the greatest convenience of Best Sellers is the confidence in knowing items will be of quality and complete the desired task, such as pressing coffee.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

This is the convenient and rest assured approach to finding a product. I cannot emphasize enough the high level of value Amazon is giving to consumers. A subscription to Consumer Reports will run you $6.95 per month for access to research on roughly 7,000 items. New technology disrupts long-standing businesses. 

In this case, Consumer Reports must see the writing on the wall. Reviews (on much greater than 7,000 items) and information about where consumers are spending their dollars is a free service, thanks to Amazon Price Points.

For most products, there are two price points, a lower price point and a higher price point. Realizing this difference in price points can come in handy when the level of knowledge about a product is low. Take the best-selling french presses on Amazon shown in figure 9.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

The first four french presses are between roughly $18 and $30. French press number five on the list jumps to $47. Why is there such a large increase in price if they all do the same thing? This is where Shane and Susie have to do some research to find out why number five on the list is a higher price. If it is for good reason, is it reason enough to spend the extra money? 

In the case of french press number five it is because it is a double wall french press, which helps insulate heat. If coffee is made via a french press the hot water will begin to cool down because of the approximate five minute wait time for the coffee to simmer in a non-insulated press. 

During this wait time, the hot water can cool down considerably. If you are someone who has to have piping hot coffee (like most coffee drinkers) you will be more than willing to spend the extra money to have consistently hot coffee.

If this price point research is not completed the typical route will consist of buying the number one best-seller, which is still a good product, finding out that coffee made with it is hot, but not steaming hot. Then, eventually finding there are double-walled french presses that make piping hot coffee. 

Shane and Susie then end up with two french presses. Therefore, always do your price point research!

Never overpay for your item

Shane and Susie have done their research and they decide to go with the best-selling french press from Amazon. But wait, what if there is a lower price somewhere else. What if a company just had a really big sale and the french press was 25% off a mere week ago? What about an upcoming sale that is not yet announced? 

Sometimes Shane or Susie will need an item as soon as possible and have to place an order regardless of the price. However, the majority of times Shane and Susie are not in any particular rush to have a product.

The first search Shane and Susie should begin with when they know the exact product they want is a basic internet search for the item. In this instance, Google Shopping will work for aggregating the french press from different sellers into a filterable search. 

Shane and Susie should be sure to filter the search results by price, low to high. Figure 10 is an example of the search with price-sorted low to high.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

The internet search method in figure 10 provides a quick price check vs. Amazon. Sometimes the results can be misleading. Many times the lowest price that is shown is from an eBay listing that has already ended and thus not a viable price. However, this time the low price was an eBay seller that is selling a brand new french press for 29.94, roughly $11 higher than Amazon. See figure 11.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

However, there can be downfalls to shopping on eBay. eBay is usually consumer-to-consumer selling, thus the buyer has to succumb to the wants and needs of the seller. 

This means the Shoppers are not guaranteed a shipping date and there is usually a flimsy return policy at best. The Shoppers must make sure they do research if buying with eBay because every seller has a different shipping and return policy. Sometimes paying a few extra bucks is worth it to deal with a business like Amazon that offers consistency, decent return policies, and customer service – that’s worth something, right?

Flash back to earlier when the Shoppers should worry about where the price was, is, and going. Where the price is was researched with a Google Shopping internet search in figure 10. Moving to where the price was there is a website that tracks past deals: Slickdeals.net. Slickdeals is a great website that is mostly user driven. 

Users are able to post deals in forums and site moderators determine the best deals and put them on the front page of the website. The site also offers a search function on the top left hand of the front page, which is used to track where the price of products has been.

The number one best-selling french press in figure 9 is only sold by Amazon, a few eBay users, and sporadic no-name websites. This is what I refer to as a closed-end product, or a product that is only sold through a small number of outlets. It is hard to perform price research for closed-end products.

However, the number two best-selling french press, the Bodum Brazil 8-cup, is sold in more locations. Therefore there are more opportunities for sellers to have sales to unload some unwanted inventory. When the Shoppers use the search bar on the front page of Slickdeals and search for the Bodum Brazil french press (figure 12) they will get a decent amount of results as shown in figure 13.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

Listed in figure 13 are the sales posted on the Slickdeals website from newest to oldest for “bodum brazil french press.” The first result shows the french press for a price of $12.59 and a sale date of 03-07-2015. 

At the end of the post it says , free shipping w/Kohl’s Card. This makes it easy to know it was a deal from Kohl’s. Don’t forget to always put savings in percent form. If $12.59 is available from Kohl’s instead of the $18.69 charged by Amazon it is a savings of roughly 33%. It’s not a large dollar amount, but what if it was for a thousand dollar television, then the equivalent percent savings is very enjoyable.

Another great tool for price tracking is also from Slickdeals. The tool is their Price Tracker Bookmarklet. This tool can be utilized by going to slickdeals.net/pricetracker. From the website click and drag the highlighted Price Tracker Bookmarklet link up to the internet favorite bar in a browser. 

This should create a new icon that can be clicked on when an item is being viewed in a web browser. For example, Susie is looking for an iPad and is viewing the item on Wal-Mart’s website. To see where the historical pricing has been on the website she clicks the Slickdeals Price Tracker icon on her favorites bar. The pop-up will show her where the price of the iPad has been on a graph over time.

The price graph she will see is shown in figure 14. Susie can now make an informed decision. She can purchase the iPad for $450 now or wait until there is another sale for around $424.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

For where prices are going I like to use one of my favorite tricks. This technique can require patience and even forgetting that a certain product is needed. We will again use Slickdeals. This requires setting up a username and password on the site. 

After the account setup process, there is a deal alerts tab on the left side of the user profile page. With this deal alert, Shane and Susie can set up custom alerts for any keywords, such as, you guessed it, french press.

It is possible to edit these alerts to receive an email, a private message on Slickdeals, or even an alert to a mobile device. Following is an example of an alert that I set up for ancestry.com because I thought it would be a good holiday present to get my parents a genealogy report. I set up an alert with a keyword of ancestry shown in figure 15.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

It is possible to further edit alerts to any liking. Criteria such as popularity, certain stores, brands, and other special features. The possibilities for alerts are endless. Mobile alerts can alleviate any concern that a user will forget to check his/her email and miss a deal opportunity.

When the Shoppers ultimately find the location to buy their product there is another step that assures they are getting the best price possible. The Shoppers must check Retailmenot.com for a coupon code they might be able to use. 

Coupon codes can typically be used to unlock sales promotions and are typed into a text box during checkout. Most of the time a deal alert will show up due to a certain coupon code. 

If a deal alert gives the Shoppers a coupon code there is no need to check for another coupon code. However, in our example, that shows a lower-priced french press from Kohl’s it would be worthwhile to check Retailmenot for any Kohl’s coupon codes. 

See the coupon codes available for Kohl’s at the time of this writing in figure 16.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

In our examples we use a french press. As stated earlier this method of shopping online can be used for any product search.

Beware the tax man!

A few years back online shopping was a convenient way to dodge sales tax, especially on big ticket items. This was always nice until a shopper had to report the purchases on his/her state tax return, which we all do. Anyways, according to Amazon at the time of this writing figure 17 shows the states that are charged sales tax on items bought through Amazon. This new online tax policy affected a recent purchase for me because I am an Ohio resident. 

I was going to buy the item on Amazon, however after doing my price check I found the item for slightly less on eBay, without tax. I would usually pull the trigger on Amazon if the purchase price is very similar, but the tax savings from eBay were enough for me to make the switch. Amazon lost a customer due to this new tax policy (I understand the decision is out of Amazon’s hands). 

This same downfall exists for any online store that has a physical presence in your state of residence. eBay has to be happy with the move to tax more online retailers. Although, even on eBay, the Shoppers will run into sales tax every now and then when a seller is in the same state that they reside.

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

The forever sales-tax-free island

Death and taxes right? Except on this island. The last price check location the Shoppers must check is Craigslist. Conventional wisdom is most items a shopper is searching for would not be on Craigslist. 

However, it is surprising to see the high level of inventory on Craigslist. Yes, Craigslist is known for bigger items such as cars, televisions, furniture, etc. Shane and Susie might not get lucky 100% of the time on Craigslist, but the potential savings to be had if someone is selling a sought after item always makes it worth checking.

If readers of this guide are saying, Craigslist is terrible, I can never find the items I want and if I do it is a hassle reaching out to sellers and getting a response. The quick fix for this is what I refer to in Craigslist Land as “Flippin’ the Switch.” Instead of reaching out to sellers and continually searching for an item “Flip the Switch” and make sellers reach out to you. 

My greatest Craigslist experience came from using this technique. I had been searching for a pair of adjustable exercise dumbbells with a stand, Bowflex brand to be specific. The dumbbells stand retail for $940.00 plus tax. After posting an ad on Craigslist I had someone reach out to me and say they wanted to sell them. 

We met at a gas station between our locations beside the highway where I was able to pick them up for $325.00, without tax. I interpret my Craigslist posting is essentially stating, “Who wants to save me around $700.00?” And then one day someone sent me a text that read, “Hey, I want to save you $700.00. 

When can we meet up for this?” As an example figure 18 is an unelaborate posting of when I was on the hunt to buy an iPad:

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

For the iPad example I posted the price I was willing to pay. At the time, $300.00 for an iPad would have been a really good deal. I was more than willing to let sellers know what I was willing to pay.

Craigslist is also great for general items such as a television. When I was looking for a TV my posting was vaguer without a price point. This posting is shown in figure 19:

The Ultimate Online Shopping Guide

Utilizing Craigslist this way is great for shopping. There is no searching for an item through seller postings. Sit back, forget about shopping and let the offers come to you. Most of the time when a seller reaches out to a wanted- posting it is because they want to sell the item quickly. 

This gives the buyer an advantage because the seller doesn’t have the time to wait for offers, giving the buyer an even greater opportunity for a superb deal.

Beware the power of this short tutorial for shopping online. Guard it close and don’t let others be aware of its strategies. These shopping methods will only be advantageous as long as the large majority of the shopping community continues their inferior methods.

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