Last year, more than 96 million people clicked their way through their holiday shopping lists on Cyber Monday, a somewhat new tradition in the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas spending frenzy. But, how do you find the best bargain online? Celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch — who wrote The Shopping Diet: Spend Less & Get More, on bookshelves now — offers up some of his best tricks of the trade for navigating the e-sales bins without emptying your wallet.
1. Do Some Recon
Just because you plan to do a bulk of your shopping online doesn't mean you shouldn't go to the old-school brick-and-mortar stores you'll be buying from several days in advance. "Look and see what's around," Bloch says, adding that it's a good excuse to check out the quality of the product — the material and the craftsmanship — and notice details you couldn't on a computer screen. "And know what things cost regularly so you aren't caught up in some faux bargain."
2. Avoid Buying Clothes or Shoes Online
"I find clothes and shoes highly personal," Bloch says of his tendency to avoid making those purchases online. "But everybody's different." One rule: Don't buy jeans online. The fit is too particular to get just right without trying them on first. Another rule: More generic pieces that aren't all about fit, like sweaters or cute PJs, are easier to get right, as are accessories and purses.
3. Know Your Measurements
If you do decide to buy clothes online, know the exact measurements of the person you are shopping for — not just sizes, but the inches around your waist, hips, and bust. "And know what size you usually take in that brand or designer," the stylist explains. "For instance, Donna Karan's size 4 is really a 6."
4. Triple Check the Return Policy
"Stores are really cracking down on returns during this holiday season — even with a receipt — so you want to make sure you know what their real return policy is in advance," Bloch says, noting that you should make extra certain that their online return policy is the same as their in-store one. "Get confirmation of the return policy in writing, if you can. You want a paper trail." While you're at it, Bloch advises, find out your credit card's policy for protecting you against fraudulent charges. "They often provide good protection," he says.
5. Negotiate Shipping Costs
When it comes to shopping over the internet, "be aware of inevitable shipping and handling charges," Bloch says. "Often items will be shipped separately and you will incur each individual charge." And that adds up. Bloch's advice? Try to buy from places that only give one overall shipping charge, like Overstock.com. Otherwise, he says, "Feel free to negotiate alternative shipping solutions."
6. Remember a Sale Isn't Always a Bargain
"Don't lose your head," Bloch says, noting that just because it's marked down 75 percent doesn't mean it was worth buying in the first place. Often, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. "When you see a pair of Prada shoes online for only $399, double check that they aren't actually three seasons old and would be that price anyway."
7. Know What Your Time Is Worth
The blessing and curse of online shopping is that you can do it 24/7. "Know what your time is worth, and calculate that into what you are spending," he says. "Set a time limit for yourself and literally set a timer or alarm clock next to your computer. Otherwise you can get lost in cyberland." And the best way to maximize time is to do that preliminary in-store research in advance. "Five minutes then can save you five hours later," he says.
8. Ask Questions
Just because you can't ask a question to a salesperson in, well, person, doesn't mean you have to be confused about your purchases. Call a store or look for a customer service page on an e-commerce site. "All the sites you'll be shopping on have phone numbers," the stylist says.
9. Subscribe to Great Shopping Sites
"Don't forget to check the sites for department stores, which often offer specific promotions for online shoppers as well as different inventory than what you would find on the retail floor," Bloch says. You should also subscribe to savvy e-commerce sites — and just because it's an online-only store, doesn't mean you can't get luxury goods. He recommends ShopItToMe.com, Gilt Groupe, Bluefly, RueLaLa.com, and Net-A-Porter. Bonus: "Internet-only stores don't charge sales tax."
10. Go to Reputable Sites You Know
If you haven't heard of the site, you probably don't want to give them your credit card information. "Stick with retailers you've heard of and that have a good reputation," Bloch says. And read customer reviews to see how well they deal with problems, shipping charges, and especially returns.
11. Be Wary of Email Scams
If you get an email from an e-commerce site or store offering a deal if you "click here," proceed with extreme caution. According to David Perry, the global director of education for Trend Micro, a leader in antivirus software and internet security, it may be a virus or money-making scam. "Never click on a link like this from your email," he says. "Always go to the site directly."
12. Don't Just Shop for Christmas Gifts
"Make a list of everyone you are shopping for in advance, and make a list of all the other occasions throughout the year that you'll be celebrating," Bloch says, like birthdays, graduations, and weddings. You can save both time and money by taking care of all of those purchases at once. His bargain of choice is the Marc Jacobs holiday item. "He has those great little gifts, like $9 wallets or fingerless gloves for $4," he says. "Buy 10 pairs and give them out throughout the year."