The One Online Shopping Trick That Could Save You Tons Of Cash

Online shopping can feel like a game, with subtle strategies resulting in big differences when it comes to the sticker price of your haul.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Part of this variance comes from a fundamental problem that has long plagued the retail world: How do you price products so that they are listed at the absolute maximum amount that a consumer would be willing to pay? The issue, of course, is that no two consumers have the same budget or place the same value on a product or service. Your bargain could be my unaffordable luxury, and we could have a willingness to pay dramatically different amounts for the same thing.

Part of the promise of the Internet is that online sellers can potentially tailor prices to each consumer. And while this occurs to some degree with cookies, online profiles, and other mechanisms for tracking your demographics and spending habits (especially when it comes to things like airlines, which are notorious for showing different consumers different prices for the same flight), the biggest mechanism for instituting variable pricing is decidedly old school: the lowly coupon.

Both online and off, coupons are seen as a way of changing dollar amounts based on the particular price sensitivities of a consumer. Coupons (and especially rebates) can take time and effort to accumulate use. Have you ever seen Extreme Couponing? You can get good deals with these things, but it takes a whole lot of work. In general, folks who aren’t particularly price sensitive won’t bother to track these down and go through the hassle; meaning retailers effectively charge non-couponers a premium.

The key to being a successful online shopper, then, is to signal to a site that you are a highly price-sensitive shopper, and to do it in such a way that takes up minimal time and effort on your part. Which brings me to my favorite trick for squeezing deals out of shopping site: The Shopping Cart Trick.

It’s really quite simple: Just add an item you’re interested in purchasing to your shopping cart, and then don’t complete the purchase. From a retailer’s perspective, these almost-done transactions are deals waiting to be sealed. You’re basically telling the site: “I’m interested in this purchase, but is that the best price you can do?” In my experience, leaving a product in a shopping cart for a day or so often results in a fantastic discount or coupon code arriving in my email, along with a message imploring me to complete the transaction. There are, of course, tons of websites aimed at distributing online coupons; but I’ve found some of my best deals via these last-ditch pleas for business.

Will this work for every online retailer? Of course not. But unless you can’t wait an extra day to get your product, it can’t hurt to try.