How to Spot a Good Deal

Finding online deals is as simple as navigating to a retailer's website. But how can you be sure the sale you're interested in will truly save you money?

Here at Tom's Guide, we have a list of steps we take before we post a new deal for our readers. Below, we've shared a few of our favorite tricks to help you shop like a pro this holiday season.  

1. Use comparison engines to cross-check prices

One of the easiest ways to separate deals from duds is with the help of a price comparison engine. Price comparison engines collect product and price information from a variety of retailers and display the results on a single page where shoppers can sort and compare prices. Google Shopping is the most popular price engine, but other sites such as ShopSavvy and PriceGrabber also provide similar information, making it easy to compare and contrast prices among retailers. (Full disclosure: ShopSavvy is owned by Purch, our parent company.)

Many of these sites, such as ShopSavvy, have add-on tools that install straight into your browser, so price checking is as easy as clicking an icon in your browser’s toolbar. If you're on the go, check out mobile deal and price comparison apps like ShopSavvy, BuyVia and Scan Life.

However, there are some caveats to keep in mind. First, no price comparison engine is capable of crawling every retailer. Google Shopping, for instance, traditionally doesn't provide Amazon prices. So your best bet is to use these search engines in conjunction with one another. You'll also want to check the manufacturer's direct website in the off chance that they have a better price.

MORE: Best Tech Deals Right Now

2. Research the price history 

Not every deal you come across will save you money. To find out if a product is truly on sale use sites like CamelCamelCamel, a website that displays the price history of any item sold on Amazon. If you don’t feel like browsing to a new page, you can install The Camelizer, a browser add-on for Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, that lets you glance at price charts directly from your browser.

Keepa is a similar Amazon-only price tracker for Firefox and Chrome that embeds price tracking charts right into the Amazon product page. This past summer Honey also started tracking and displaying Amazon prices online. It even informs you when a third-party seller has a lower price on any give item. The browser extension can even inform you when an item you mark drops in price.

For stores outside of Amazon, Slice Watch is an extension for Chrome that tracks prices at a variety of stores such as Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg, Walmart, and Target. While it doesn’t display the price history of products like Camelizer, it can inform you of price drops on the products you’re most interested in.

3. Watch out for bogus price drops

Nothing catches a shopper’s attention like the words "50 percent off." It’s an age-old retail strategy that’s especially misused during the holidays. But how can you tell whether that 50 percent off is legit or not?

The first thing you should do is verify the original price at the manufacturer’s website. Apple, Dell, Lenovo, Samsung, and others have online shops where they list the full retail prices of their products. Alternatively, you can check the competition’s price. For instance, if you’re unsure of Amazon's price, navigate to Best Buy or Walmart and see what price they're offering. Retailers have a bad habit of inflating prices and then offering "discounts," but with a little bit of research, it should be clear whether the price in question is truly a good deal.

4. Check user ratings and beware of fake reviews

The battle against fake online reviews has been long and arduous. Although both Amazon and the Federal Trade Commission are fighting to curtail bogus reviews, it's impossible to know for certain if any individual user review or comment is legit. Even so-called “verified” reviews could be counterfeit, making it difficult for shoppers to find a trusting voice online.

Fortunately, sites like Fakespot analyze reviews on Amazon and provide consumers with a grade based on the reviews’ authenticity. The site looks at the language and profile of each reviewer and relies on various algorithms before making its final analysis. Likewise, consumers should be wary of any reviews that seem overly enthusiastic or negative. Reviews that repeat the full product name may also be be trying to game Google and rank well in search.

Look for specific details rather than broad statements. “This is the best laptop ever” is more likely to be a fake review than a sentence that details why this is the best laptop ever.  

5. Compare devices with similar specs for the money

Now that you've price-checked your deal and scanned for fake reviews, you may want to make some side-by-side comparisons. Taking this step ensures that whatever product you're buying isn't offered by a competing manufacturer for less money. For instance, if you've found a deal on a Dell notebook, you'll want to check that similarly configured notebooks from Lenovo aren't selling for less. It's not always an apples-to-apples comparison, but in some cases you may find lower prices on a rival product.

Alternatively, you can type the name of the product you want to buy with the letters "vs" in Google search to see what Google thinks is its competitor. For instance, typing "Dell XPS 13 vs" provides you with a few XPS 13 competitors like the Asus ZenBook, MacBook Pro 13, and HP Spectre 13. You would then check the prices for those systems before opting for the XPS 13 deal you originally wanted.

6. Deals on older tech can be good or bad

One of the easiest ways to save money on electronics is by purchasing older gadgets. Whether it's a previous-gen laptop or smartphone you can expect to save upwards of $100 when you opt for older tech. Naturally, you'll want to avoid tech that's too old, but going one generation behind is usually a safe bet. 

However, in other instances, buying older tech may not make much sense. For instance, Windows laptops are so inexpensive that buying a Windows laptop that's more than two years old would be a bad investment. As a general rule of thumb, you'll want to steer clear of tech that's two or more years old.

7. Research the store and seller

Just like you wouldn't buy a new HDTV from a stranger in Best Buy's parking lot, you shouldn't make any purchases from unknown Internet stores or sellers. Sites like Reseller Ratings and the Better Business Bureau act as consumer watchdogs and warn shoppers of potentially questionable retailers.

Keep in mind that there will be times when you’ll have to use your best judgement. For instance, Amazon, which most of us know and trust, has a B+ score by the BBB, but a 90 percent negative rating by customers. Yet in spite of the abnormally high level of consumer complaints, chances are most of us would still feel comfortable shopping at Amazon.

Just as we recommend screening retailers, you should also research individual sellers. Sites like Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart double as marketplaces and allow third-party sellers to offer their products via their sites. However, before you buy from a third-party seller, it's worth doing a little research to see what other buyers have said about him/her. Read as many reviews of the seller as you can, take note of the dates they were written (the more current, the better), and see if the seller replies to customer grievances. Dealing with a responsive seller is far better than corresponding with one who is difficult to reach or doesn’t respond to customer complaints.

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