WASHINGTON If you're planning to do a lot of holiday shopping, think about making your first purchase a smart phone. Then, use it to download coupons and compare prices while you're shopping for everything else. It's going to be a big year for mobile and Internet deals.
For the best, lowest-price buys during the holiday spending season, here's a roundup of phone and Internet programs and how to use them:
-- Start with a list. There are too many variables to comparison shop if you don't know what you're buying. So plan ahead, at least to the point where you have selected a few big-ticket items by brand. If you know you're shopping for a Lego Ultimate Builder Set, Barbie Fashionista (no comment), a Wii Fit, or a digital Canon camera, you can make the most of comparison shopping programs.
-- Get gift cards, even if you just use them yourself. At GiftCards (www.giftcards.com), you can save roughly 5 percent or more on every gift card you buy. You can get deeper discounts buying gift cards on eBay, (www.ebay.com), but make sure you're buying from someone with lots of positive feedback to avoid getting scammed. At discounters like Costco (www.costco.com) and BJ's Warehouse (www.bjs.com), you can buy spa, restaurant and entertainment gift cards for roughly 80 cents on the dollar. Give them away, or use them yourself. For example, GiftCards is currently offering a $103.98 J.C. Penney card for $90.98, with free shipping. Use that to do your own holiday shopping at Penney's and you can layer it on top of whatever sales and coupons the store is already offering; you'll save 12.5 percent off the top.
-- Pre-shop online. Use price comparison sites like Pricegrabber (www.pricegrabber.com), Pronto (www.pronto.com) and Dealio (www.dealio.com) before you go to stores so you have a sense of what the best prices are for items you want to buy. You can use all three of those sites on your Web-enabled cell phone, too, but they aren't necessarily optimized for that. Use online coupon sites like RetailMeNot (www.retailmenot.com) and ShoppingBargains (www.shopping-bargains.com) to email coupons to you. You can either print them out or bring them to stores, or bring your email-loaded cell phone to the store to use the coupon's code at the register.
-- Bring the phone. Preload it with programs like CouponSherpa (www.couponsherpa.com) and Yowza!! (www.getyowza.com). They will download the latest deals to your phone, based on where you are shopping. Standing on line at The Gap? Show the cashier the CouponSherpa coupon on your phone and grab 20 percent off. Use your phone's Web browser to visit the site of the store (and the mall) you are in, and the product you are buying. Often there will be additional discounts at those sites.
-- Use a portal for your online shopping. You can sign up for an independent site like Ebates (http:www.ebates.com), or college-saving site Upromise (http:www.upromise.com), and get rebates for everything you buy online, simply by accessing the retailer's site through the portal you've signed up for.
-- Register your credit card for additional rebates. Most credit card issuers are offering shopping programs. Sign your credit card up and you get additional rebates whenever you use the card at participating stores, either online or in person. At Bank of America it's called the Add It Up program (additup.bankofamerica.com), Citi calls its program Thank You points (www.thankyou.com). There's no downside to registering all of your cards -- check the lists of participating stores and rebates before you decide which card to use.
-- Take your time. Inventories are tight this year, so if there's a must-have item on your list, buy it early to avoid crying scenes on Christmas morning. But you can afford to wait for everything else. Deals will only get better as the holidays approach, and you can use the time to research the best prices for the items you want. December 17 has been declared Free Shipping Day (www.freeshippingday.com), and hundreds of merchants will guarantee your purchases for Christmas, shipped for free. They'll be layering other discounts on top of that.
(editing by Gunna Dickson)