MONEY: START YOUR BROWSERS!

It's a little early for holiday shopping, but it's a great time for plotting your strategy. This year you're going to need one, because Web-based retailers are busy rolling out more features than ever before. Companies like Gap and Best Buy have been spending millions to beef up their Web presence, and price-comparison sites like shopping.com and pricegrabber.com have been adding search options, products and speed--some studies now show they can help consumers save more than 20 cents on the dollar. (They're also attracting corporate buyers of their own: eBay just bought Shopping.com.) Here's how to make the most of online shopping, circa 2005.

Figure out what you want.

Don't expect to find the best research and the best prices at the same sites. Read professional reviews at consumersearch.com and personal reviews at epinions.com and amazon.com. Sure, it's possible that some ("This is the best toaster ever!!!") are plants. But you can check a reviewer's other reports, and pick up good information about items that have lots of reviews. Bargains require hunting. Go to several comparison-shopping sites for each item, because not every price-comparison site features every product or store or feature. Some of the biggest and most full featured, like Shopping and PriceGrabber, get their info from the merchants that supply them. Others, like froogle.com and newcomer fatlens.com, search the Web on their own to uncover deals. Both kinds can find great prices. Make sure you're comparing like products (some retailers hide key phrases like "factory reconditioned" or "attachment kit separate" so they won't get picked up by the search software. And some manufacturers make several different models of the same item, with each one having slightly different features.) Compare prices that include the cost of shipping to your ZIP code. Get protection. Remember, it's not all about the benjamins. What good is the best price if the seller doesn't actually have the Xbox 360 to ship when you need it? Look at sites like shopzilla.com and shopping .com, which certify sellers they know have good records of shipping honestly and quickly and handling returns well. One site, buysafeshopping.com, buys insurance so it can guarantee all purchases against fraud.

Play with the bells and whistles.

New features and sites are promising more, so take 'em for a spin. Smarter.com will text-message you the lowest price for the thing you just gotta have. PriceGrabber puts coupons and rebates on its site, along with prices. Dealio.com downloads to your computer and hunts for bargains while you work.

Ice the cake.

Before you click "buy," do one last check at payback sites like ebates.com, upromise.com and butterflymall.com. They offer rebates if you click through to your chosen retailer through them. It doesn't always work out. Sometimes the rebates simply steer you to higher-priced items. But if you can find the best product at the cheapest price at a store that will kick back an additional 3 percent into your kid's college fund, that's a sign that it's time to click, buy and move on with your life. After all, there's still the wrapping to consider.

MONEY: START YOUR BROWSERS! | News