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Discount Hunters

Discount Hunters

CeCe Sweet finished much of her Christmas shopping when she bought six $25 gift certificates for different local eateries at Restaurant.com for $5 each with a coupon code.

She checked out separately for each certificate, landing a $10 eBags certificate for each of the six gifts she purchased.

Then, Sweet went to Ebags' clearance section and bought a slew of clutch purses to put the gift certificates in. Each bag cost just 97 cents after applying the eBags certificate. She nabbed herself a fancy lunch bag for $1.99 in the process.

Sweet, a Georgia mother of two, is more than simply thrifty. She's one of a new breed of shoppers who arm themselves with coupon codes and rebates, then find a way to layer deal upon deal until they score rock-bottom discounts.

This tactic, called "triple dipping," has allowed Sweet and many other online deal sharks to shave hundreds of dollars off many big-ticket items and get some less-expensive items for a few measly bucks.

Comparison sites are just the start

Eddie Ender's biggest online coup in recent months was a $999 Canon Rebel digital camera bought for $400. It was an elaborate transaction that involved price matching, buying during certain hours, a manufacturer rebate and a credit from American Express, which has a "Best Value Guarantee" program, after he saw a cheaper price in a photography magazine ad.

For Enders, there's only one reason to visit a mall: to look. While stores make nice showrooms, he said, the best deals can be found on the Web, where you can stack multiple discounts to slash the price of most products.

"I'll go out to a store to make sure something is what I want," said the 35-year-old Florida systems engineer. "But I usually buy online."

While shopping sites, such as MSN Shopping, and price-comparison search engines, and price-comparison search engines, such as Shopping.com and www.mysimon.com, can help shoppers get an idea of what a product is selling for, it shouldn't be where the research ends, bargain hunters say.

The best deals can often be had by frequenting discount sites and joining newsgroups that pass along hot deals and coupon codes -- some of which can be combined on a single purchase -- as well as rebate information and details on gifts with purchase that many of these engines don't list. It's also good to keep in mind that there are many online merchants that these engines don't track.

The secret is layering

Sites like Ben's Bargains, Deals of America, My Bargain Buddy and SlickDeals do some of the research for you.

The operators of these sites scan the Web for cheap sale or clearance items and pair them with coupon codes, rebates or other discounts so shoppers can get the best bottom-line deal. You'll find instructions like these:

(Retailer X) has the Kodak C330 4MP 3x Zoom Digital Camera + Epson CX4200 AIO Printer + 256MB SD Card + Photo protection kit + 5-Piece Business Set for $135.

1. Add camera for $135.

2. Add printer for $100.

3. Add SD card for $30.

4. Add photo kit for $48.

5. Add business set for $60.

6. Apply coupons 65386, 57164, 63771 and 17807 for $30 off, $30 off, $48 off and $60 off.

7. Submit the $50 and $20 easyrebates online at StaplesEasyRebates.

Final price is $373 - $160 coupons - $70 rebate = $135.

Lowest on Pricegrabber for the camera is $131.

Some of these "affiliates" are even given special coupons to pass along.

Always shopping, always dealing

Ben Chui, 25, who started his Ben's Bargains site six years ago as a college sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley, spends 12 hours each day looking for the best deals on the Web. He posts about 80 bargains a day, earning his money when consumers click through his site and purchase one of the deals he has put together. He claims to have sold $100 million in merchandise through his links since the site started.

One of his favorite recent deals was the $750-off coupon he posted for a Dell notebook computer of at least $1,499. The trick? You had to purchase the computer within a three-hour window.

A couple of weeks ago, he found his shoppers a Logitech Bluetooth-compatible headset that normally retails for $40 on sale for $30, with a $20 rebate.

But he admits some of his best deals have been a mistake. These deals take advantage of a glitch or omission on a retailer's Web site, like the $20 off and free shipping coupon for apparel retailer Bluefly he found recently that failed to mention a minimum purchase. In the two hours before the mistake was found, throngs of online shoppers, including Chui, had nabbed free T-shirts, polos and Ralph Lauren flip-flops.

"There's always a lot of people ready to pounce," he said.

Dealing for fun and profit

Some expect even more. They want to make money on what they buy.

Registering and clicking through such sites as FatWallet or Ebates to make a purchase earns you cash back, typically between 2% and 8%. Likewise, some credit cards also will pay you a certain percentage of your total bill, bringing the final tally down further -- if you pay your bill off on time, that is.

And recently, shoppers could make $75 on this season's must-have, ultra-thin phone, the Motorola RAZR V3, after two rebates and a sale at Amazon.com (Although the deal did require activation with T-Mobile.)

The key to finding a good deal is being opportunistic and following price trends, Chui said. LCD televisions, he says, "have been falling in price literally $100 a month."

You can get the best deal if you are flexible with brand. Enders, for example is looking for a new laptop and will consider a Dell, Compaq or Hewlett-Packard, depending upon which turns out to be the best value.

Karen Hoxmeier, the stay-at-home mother who created My Bargain Buddy, looks for gifts year-round, like the $3.59 margarita blender with chopper attachment that she scored in the clearance section of a home décor Web site, or the suede jacket she picked up at the end of a season for $12, rather than its original $120 price.

Hoxmeier keeps many of these purchases in a box in her garage. When one of her kids has a birthday party to go to, or she needs another Christmas present, out comes one of these under-$10 gems.

Ask yourself: Do I need this?

Deals like these are getting easier to find, said Patti Freeman-Evans, retail analyst with Jupiter Research, as online retailers look to court new customers and retain existing ones.

While the $80 billion in online sales forecast for 2005 is just 5% of the total retail pie, it is growing at a clip of about 15% a year, Evans said, making it much more important to retailers' overall well-being.

And just because people purchase their goods in a brick-and-mortar store doesn't mean the Internet hasn't played a part in the purchase. An estimated 25% of offline purchases result from online research, she said.

Indeed, with sites like ShopLocal and Cairo.com, you can even scan deals at stores in your area before getting in your car.

"The trick is to be shopping all the time," Chui said.

But beware, this kind of deal-hunting can quickly become an obsession, one that eats up hours of your time each day and runs up hundreds of dollars on your credit card.

Hoxmeier said she has scaled back her Internet buying significantly "At first I was going broke by saving money," she said. "UPS was here every day. Now, I shop vicariously through others."

Enders knew he had gone too far when he asked himself, "Did I really need a $35 laser pointer, even if it was only $5?"

Shop online like the pros do

Take a look at some of the advice from experienced "Deal Sharks."

    Don't wait until the last-minute to shop. Look for deals on the things you need or want to buy, daily, scanning discount sites, your favorite retailers and coupon sites like www.couponcabin.com to put together the best deal. Also, try and buy products off-season, when they can often be had for a pittance if you use coupon codes.

    Be flexible with brands. While you might have a preference for Sony or JVC stereos, a rebate of several hundred dollars might make another similar product hundreds of dollars more affordable.

    Expect free shipping (or at least flat-rate shipping.) It is quickly becoming a prerequisite for most merchants, analysts say.

    Subscribe to your favorite retailer's mailing lists. While you may get more e-mail than you'd like, you'll also get more discounts, many tailored to you buying habits and tastes. And ask retailers about their price-matching programs.

    Don't assume the price you find on a price-comparison search engine is the best deal. While they are a good place to start, experts say, they don't include all retailers and often don't include available coupons, frequent shopper discounts and other freebies like gifts with purchase.

If all else fails, ask for help finding a deal. Bargain sites like fatwallet.com and slickdeals.net have forums where you can post your plea for coupon codes, or ask for advice on how to get the best deal on the specific product you are searching for.

By Melinda Fulmer

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