Hypothetically, the online shopping mega-holiday Cyber Monday is a bonanza of once-a-year sales, can't-miss savings and that-must-be-a-typo discounts on the world's most envied retail items.
In reality, however: How do you know you are actually paying the lowest possible price for an item? Is the price you are paying really a great deal just because a website tells you it is?
On many e-storefronts -- especially those of the goliath big-box retailers -- Cyber Monday sales do contain solid bargains. But it's smart practice to do a little research first to make sure you aren't being told you're getting a great deal when in reality you're paying more than you would on some other site, or on some other day.
I've collected a few websites, utilities and browser tools that, when used together, can help ensure that your Cyber Monday "bargain" really is just that.
SHOPPING SEARCH ENGINES
The first, and most obvious, action to take before you pull the trigger on a Cyber Monday purchase is to execute a simple web search of your product to make sure that another store isn't selling it for less.
Reuters' Beth Pinkser Gladstone points out three solid options -- Google Shopping, Nextag and PriceGrabber -- all of which perform the same basic function: You type the name of your product into the search bar and then click on the link of the corresponding product in the search results. This will bring up a list of different online outlets selling the product, and how much you can expect to pay at each. Google Shopping includes tax and shipping costs in its final price, so you get a definite number on the final price you'll be paying. Bing Shopping, from Microsoft, is another trusty option.
If you're thinking about a product that you wouldn't mind buying used -- a book, perhaps, or the kind of headphones that you don't stick in the waxy inner recesses of your ear -- check out your ol' reliable user marketplaces like Amazon and eBay to make sure your bargain isn't still a markup over a perfectly good secondhand item.
GET (BROWSER) EXTENSIONS
If you're a regular reader of my Captain Gadget columns, you know I'm a big fan of little utilities called browser extensions, which you can download as free applications for your web browser and which run on every website you visit, popping up only when you need them to. They're like little worker bees, always droning about just below the surface, delivering sweet honey at just the right time.
Browser extensions can definitely come in handy when you're online shopping. One of the best is Invisible Hand, which runs on Firefox, Google Chrome and Safari. Whenever you land on a product page, or search for a product on Google or Yahoo, Invisible Hand scans the Internet for a cheaper price at competing outlets. If it finds a discount, a yellow bar will appear across the top of the webpage with the pricing information and a link to that page; if it can't find something better, it'll congratulate you on a job well done.
(NOTE: Don't put too much faith in the Invisible Hand. You should still plug your desired product into Google Shopping or another aforementioned search engine to make sure the Invisible Hand wasn't a bit too invisible, missing a discount elsewhere).
Another popular option is PriceBlink, which does just about the same thing as Invisible Hand, and which is available for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome and Safari.
THOSE WHO DO NOT LEARN FROM PRICE HISTORY
For popular online retailers like Amazon and Newegg, there are several tools to check the advertised price against historical prices on the site, which can help you verify whether the one-time Cyber Monday sale will really seem like a good deal in a couple months.
Again, there is a browser extension for this: The Amazon Price Tracker from Keepa.com for Firefox and Chrome displays a line graph charting past prices of your product right on the Amazon page, automatically, and without adding much load time to the page. This can show you what prices Amazon was offering one day, one month and one year ago for a certain item, as well as what third-party sellers were asking for. Obviously, if you see a lower price than what's being offered as part of a Cyber Monday sale, you might want to hold off your purchase.
You can try Keepa.com here. CamelCamelCamel is another comprehensive price-tracking option for Firefox and Chrome that follows Best Buy, Amazon and Newegg.
REMEMBER COUPONS? YOU SHOULD!
Most of you probably used to (or still do!) have a drawer in your home filled with current and expired coupons cut from newspapers, flyers, paper diner mats and those booklets you get from the front of Chinese restaurants.
You might have thought that coupons are only good at brick-and-mortar stores where you can, you know, actually hand one to a cashier. But coupons abound on the Internet, too, and there are a few helpful websites that dutifully collect these digital coupons in a searchable format for online shoppers.
Before you checkout, run a quick search on RetailMeNot or CouponCodes4U to see if your retailer is offering a promotion via e-coupon. You just might get an extra bundle of savings you didn't even know you had coming, all without cutting your fingers on the funny pages.