How to Master the Art of Comparison Shopping

woman comparing items in a clothing store

Making a purchase? You should always be able to answer one very important question: "What's the best price I can get?"

Comparison shopping is the art (yes, I said it) of casting a wide net and finding the store or retailer with the lowest possible price for the thing you want. It's especially beneficial when buying expensive items, items you purchase often, or items where the product quality or price varies greatly. Through the use of advertisements, catalogs, and online searches, comparison shopping is easy and can save you money. 

Here are some of the key tricks to make sure you're not paying too much.

Find the right tool

Price comparison 20 years ago required cutting ads, calling stores, and putting in some serious legwork. Today, we've got technology to do all the heavy lifting.

There are tons of websites and apps dedicated to price tracking and comparison. Some are pretty general, while others specialize in specific or even niche retail genres. Google Shopping is a good starting point, especially if you want to gauge what's available online. To make absolutely sure you're getting the best deal, it's a good idea to leverage a few different apps (like ShopSavvy) and browser extensions (like Honey). 

Track prices and bide your time

Today's best price may not be tomorrow's best price, no matter how many retailers you're looking at. Luckily, many comparison tools offer email alerts and price history features to help you pick the right time to pounce. If you can be patient, there's a good chance you'll strike gold eventually.

While camelcamelcamel only tracks prices at Amazon, it's a valuable tool that shows price fluctuations over time. If the thing you're looking for was $30 less back in October, that's a good indication that you should probably wait for now. 

Prioritize the features you care about the most

There’s more to compare than just the price. A $100 laptop and a $2,000 laptop probably differ is more than a few crucial ways. 

If you're not comparison shopping for a specific item, but rather a more general need (a new TV, a new car, a good streaming service, etc.), then it's important to understand the key features available and how those features impact the price. If you're looking for a winter coat, you should know what you what aspects (warmth, materials, style, color, etc.) are the most important to you and let that help guide your search.

Because sometimes the more expensive option is a better value if it has more of the features you want. A cheap coat you never wear isn't a good purchase, no matter how great a deal you got.

Review the unit price

For household goods and groceries, be sure to review the unit price (such as the cost per ounce, pound, or other unit of measurement that stores are required to post for every product).

Simply looking at the price can be misleading, especially when buying items that come in varied quantities. The unit price gives you a better sense of how much you're actually going to be spending (as compared to your other options).

Determine if bigger is better

Buying in large quantities can often save money, though not always. Buying a larger quantity will usually yield a lower unit, but that's only worth your whiel if you're going to use everything you're buying. Buying paper towels in bulk? If you've got the space and the price is good, that's probably a sound investment. Buying a gallon of yogurt, on the other hand, may be a bit riskier.

It can be a good idea to stock up on items you need when they are on sale. Again, just be sure you can use up what you buy before the expiration date arrives.

Embrace generic when it makes sense

Look for generic brands or store brands of items where it really doesn’t make a difference. For example, some products have the same taste and texture, regardless of whether it’s a name brand or the store brand. The difference in price, however, can amount to as much as a 50 percent.

Paper products, dairy products, and canned goods are also good examples of products that are practically identical, whether you buy generic or name brands.

Coupon wisely

If you use coupons, it's important to only use them for items you're actually going to use. Again, a great deal on something you don't want and won't use isn't much of a deal after all.

Also, make sure the coupon is actually saving you money over the other options. An impressively large coupon can sometimes trick you into assuming you're definitely saving money. You might be surprised to find out that the name brand product is still more expensive, even with the coupon. 

There's money to be saved out there! With a little work and a good amount of patience, you'll find the best deals on the things you want the most. Good luck! 

Tagged in Smart shopping, Reducing expenses, Psychology and money, Holidays

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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