Before you buy: Everything you need to know about online shopping

Alex Sheehan
Alex Sheehan
Oct 17, 2019

With fall in full swing, the holidays are just around the corner. That means it’s time to go shopping — and everyone knows the best place to shop is online.

(Let’s be honest, anytime is a good time to go shopping on the internet.)

In this guide, we’ll give you pro tips on how to shop online, find the best deals and keep your information secure.

How to find the best deals online

While the jury’s still out on whether you can find better deals online or in-store, it’s certainly easier to dig around and research online for the best deals. Also, brick-and-mortar retailers have a lot more overhead than online stores; they have to pay for a physical storefront, which comes with the financial burden of rent, utilities, staff, etc. So, online retailers probably have more wiggle room to lower prices.

So, where are those online deals hiding? Here are some tricks of the trade:

Use cash back sites and apps

Cash back tools give you money back after you’ve done the shopping. So it’s not about finding the best deal upfront, which can make for a stressful shopping experience. Instead, you upload purchase information and receipts to the platform, and they’ll reward you with cash or another form of currency, like gift cards.

Some cash-back sites and apps to check out:

Look for coupon codes and discounts

While you can use cash back tools post-purchase, there are also tricks to find the best deals upfront with promo codes. Do a Google search for the website or product plus “promo code” or “coupon code” in the query.

You can also check the sites and apps that will do the hard work of searching for you:

Check deal sites

There are lots of deals and coupon sites where you can buy products at steep discounts. Be careful with these, as sometimes there are imitation products, especially for high-priced and luxury items. It’s also wise to check shipping and return policies upfront.

Some great deal sites to check out:

Compare prices

When shopping online, you have the luxury of price comparison at your fingertips instead of driving from store to store, taking notes and finally returning to the one with the best deal.

Start with a Google Shopping search. This will give you a good idea on the price range, as well as the ability to compare prices right there on

There are also price comparison websites to browse:

Some stores even have a price-match guarantee. Do a Google search as follows: “price match” — this will do a full search on that specific website for any content about price matching.

Clear your cache for the best deals

Some websites use cookies to track user behavior. They use these to understand how people engage with their website, including frequency, pages visited and time spent. With this technology, website owners can determine if a user is a new visitor to their site or if they’ve been there before. Websites can display one version of a page to new visitors and a different version to returning visitors.

So, why does this matter?

Many brands will offer the most attractive deals to first-time customers only. They’re willing to take a cut to get a new customer in the door. It’s easier to sell to returning customers than to new ones, so brands don’t need to make such offers to those who’ve visited before.

Luckily, you can keep your “identity” hidden from the websites. Clear your cache, cookies and browser history before you do any online shopping. (You might have also heard this tip before about getting the best deals on flights.)

Join the customer loyalty program and email list

As long as the loyalty program is free and doesn’t require you to apply for a credit card, it’s typically a good idea to sign up. This can get you access to discount codes, exclusive sales and other freebies. Many online stores will also send exclusive promotions to their email list or offer a discount in exchange for signing up.

Pro tip: If your inbox gets flooded with marketing emails, check out Unroll.Me to roll them up into a single email.

Abandon your cart

Ever get an email from a brand trying to convince you to buy something you left in your virtual shopping cart? Those are called abandoned cart emails, and many brands will offer discounts to give shoppers the final push to click the “Buy” button.

Before you purchase an item, add it to your cart and go through the entire checkout process — EXCEPT for payment. Then bail. You might receive an abandoned cart email trying to sweeten the deal.

Some brands only send one of these emails, while others have a series scheduled over a few days if you continue to refuse to buy. Give it no more than a week — if you still haven’t received one, you probably won’t.

Forget paying for shipping

Online shipping costs can be pricey, but there are lots of stores that offer free shipping in an attempt to keep up with Amazon Prime. Look for stores that offer free shipping or scan for free shipping promotions, via coupon code or order minimums.

Pro tip: Check the return policy in regards to shipping costs. While you might be able to receive the product for free, you might have to pay for shipping costs to return it.

Go used

Depending on the product, you might not need brand new. As more brands and consumers focus on sustainability, there are more places than ever before to get previously-used items. You no longer need to drive through the neighborhood or scan the classifieds for local garage sales.

To find great deals for used goods online, check out:

Note that some of these require purchases to be made in-person — you can’t buy anything “on” Craigslist, for example.

How to shop online safely

It’s always important to be safe while you’re online. But it’s even more imperative when credit card, address and other personal data is on the line. Here are some crucial secure shopping tips to keep in mind:

Choose strong passwords

First things first: If you need a password, make it strong. No “password123” or generic options here. If you need to share your password, do it with a password manager like LastPass.

Check website safety

When you visit a site, especially an unfamiliar one, ask yourself: Is this website safe?

There are two visual indicators that all secure websites should have: https in the URL and a lock icon. If either are missing, or the lock is a broken key indicating something’s broken, you’ll need to do some more digging.

Validate the company’s legitimacy

For new brands in particular, it’s up to you to investigate whether it’s a legitimate business or they have a bad reputation. There are specific things to look for on the website:

  • Clearly stated and explained return policy
  • Fully disclosed shipping costs
  • Privacy policy
  • Terms and conditions
  • Physical address
  • Contact information, including phone number and/or email address

See if they have a Better Business Bureau (BBB) profile and what people have said about them there. You should also do a Google search for reviews of the brand and products — reviews NOT published on their own website.

Another good idea? Google the website name and the word “scam” to see if there’s a trend there.

Even if it’s legit, look for reviews — not only of the brand/website but also of their products across the board. Is the quality good? What about customer service? Do you see recurring complaints or praises? This will give you insight into what your experience will be like as a customer.

Know the red flags

There are also some instant indicators that a website could be sketchy. Lack of any of the above information could be a concern, as well as the following:

  • Lots of pop-up ads, especially ones that go to other websites (they’re annoying but also sometimes indicative of scammy sites)
  • Inability to opt out of email marketing campaigns
  • Requests for highly sensitive information, like your social security number

Use a credit card with fraud protection

Many credit cards offer some level of fraud protection for cardholders. Should someone steal or get ahold of your credit card information, this will come in handy.

It’s also important to use a credit card instead of a debit card because debit cards give fraudsters access to your cash. Credit cards, on the other hand, work on a line of credit — so you don’t actually lose any money. Just remember to check your statement and report any suspicious activity as soon as you see it.

Another good reason to check your statement is to make sure you’re not paying any recurring fees to websites you’ve shopped with online. For example, I once purchased an item from an athleisure wear brand and didn’t notice in the fine print that I was actually joining their monthly membership program for $30/mo. Had I not looked at my credit card statement, I would’ve kept paying for something I never even wanted or knew I had in the first place.

Use known websites

Whenever possible, buy from websites and brands you’re familiar with and have shopped with before — or at least know someone who has. This is especially true if you can’t get a better deal somewhere else and if you’re buying electronics or high-ticket items.

Protect your data and devices

When shopping online, always do so on a secure, virtual private network (VPN). If possible, use your home network or another password-protected network (if you’re at work or at a friend’s house, for example). If you’re on a public network, always use a VPN, regardless of whether you’re shopping or not.

It’s not just your personal information that’s at stake, your devices need protection too. Install strong anti-virus software so you’re not susceptible to digital threats.

Exercise caution if meeting in person

If you’re using a tool like Facebook Marketplace or Nextdoor to search online for used goods, it’s important to practice safety for the actual meetup.

  • Meet during the day at a busy, public location
  • Tell someone else where you’ll be and check in with them after
  • Better yet, bring someone with you
  • Share your geographic location with another person
  • Pay with Venmo or PayPal whenever possible and try to avoid in-person meetings altogether

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