Forum: Online bargain hunting

Like many men, I hate shopping. That high-pitched whine you hear outside your window on Saturday afternoon might just be us passing by as I’m dragged whining to the mall by the wife.

But strangely enough, I enjoy shopping online, including the same stuff I buy at department stores and shopping malls. The difference: The one is a chore; the other is a sport. Like snowboarding, skateboarding and parachuting, it’s an extreme sport called “Extreme Online Shopping” by those who participate in it. While not as physically demanding as sports, it takes practice, concentration and skill developed over time.

The goal is to buy what you need while paying as little as possible using the Internet. You start by visiting a Web site such as Fatwallet.com.

Fatwallet.com is an information clearinghouse for extreme shoppers to find the latest deals on everything from detergent to digital cameras and the strategies for the best deal. These strategies include using “pricematching” (where stores promise to match the price of an item sold at a competitor), rebates, coupon codes, and other tactics. People have been known to nab items FAR — “Free After Rebate” — or even better, make money purchasing the item. Of course YMMV — “Your Mileage May Vary” — meaning some store managers or phone customer service reps may not agree to the strategy and thereby kill your deal.

Take for example the recent sale on a Samsung laser printer. An office supply store listed the printer at $129.99 with an $80 rebate, bringing the price down to $49.99 plus tax. While $50 for a laser printer may strike many as a hot deal, most extreme shoppers viewed it as lukewarm at best.

Some shoppers noticed a competitor had the same model printer on sale at $79 without a rebate. They took the store ad to the office supply store and demanded the store match the competitor’s price. While many store managers refused to pricematch the item (the YMMV part of the deal), others did — matching the difference by the stated policy of 110 percent. After the pricematch and rebate, the extreme shoppers got a laser printer for the price of sales tax with $8 left over. A toasty deal.

As you would expect, extreme shopping is bad for business. In a 2004 Wall Street Journal article Brad Anderson, chief executive officer of BestBuy Co., labeled such extreme shoppers as “devils” and developed strategies to discourage such shoppers from shopping at BestBuy. Other stores have tightened their pricematching policies, for example including rebates in their calculations or refusing to pricematch stores they do not consider direct competitors.

In the example of the laser printer, the office supply store’s corporate office began to reject the rebates of those who successfully pricematched at the stores. While some had received confirmation that their rebates were accepted, it was unclear whether everyone who jumped on the deal would receive the rebate. To make matters more confusing, an advanced copy of a BestBuy’s July 31-Aug. 5 ad circulated showing the price of the printer would be $59. Since this was after the rebate had expired but within the 14-day low-price guarantee of the office supply chain, extreme shoppers then figured out a new approach. The potential payoff? A free laser printer plus $27 before tax. But as a poster on the site noted, this was a “big YMMV” and it wasn’t clear how ultimately successful.

For many that mileage has already run out. Some extreme shoppers have stopped publicizing their finds or strategies to prevent others from abusing them. Divisions have appeared between those who enjoy the hunt for a good bargain, and small merchants who use this knowledge to buy as much of an item as they can to sell for a profit, usually on eBay. As one FatWallet poster, “rctay,” complained “[Fatwallet] is a victim of its success. Unless you happen on a deal in the first few minutes it will probably be dead. There are so many resellers grabbing large volumes also. The sellers are adapting to bargain sites also.”

In the end, the merchants must adapt to survive, and extreme shopping will go the way of hunting bison and shooting passenger pigeons from trains. But in the meantime a bit of extreme shopping may be just what your pocketbook — and your mind — needs to beat the summer heat.

SCOTT KIRWIN

Wilmington, Del.

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