11/18/2013 07:30 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Smart Holiday Spending: Empowering Shopping Through Internet Research

Whether waiting for Black Friday or choosing to start now, the Internet is a key research tool to gaining insight about the products available at local brick-and-mortar retailers. Buyers can also find out which items are hot and which ones are not--important knowledge for those who may not have the time to stay hip to this year's product trends.

Why brick-and-mortar stores? Choosing to shop at a physical store vs. online can potentially decrease overall holiday spending. A Market Track study indicates the best prices are found in physical retail stores themselves, not on websites. The study used televisions as the example, but also reports the same trend applies to numerous popular retail items. A key finding was when comparing the prices among 50 of the top brick-and-mortar retailers and e-retailer sites, the best prices were found in the physical store nearly 60 percent of the time.

To help we have created a short list of tips when using Internet research to help optimize holiday shopping.

Create a list. Make the list of family and friends planned for gift giving, and what they might like before beginning comparison-shopping. Dedicate an entire page to each member and have an idea of a potential gift for each target. Even if other gift ideas are uncovered down the road, one will have a starting point.

Know which gifts are hot. The 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger holiday movie, Jingle All the Way follows a man on a quest to get his son the most sought after toy of the season, the Turbo Man action figure. While it is funny to watch, it is a very true situation for most parents wanting to buy the right item, and preparing to do battle with the crowds to get it. According to CNN Money, Toys "R" Us has already released its hot toys for 2013. It is a good idea to shop early to beat the crowds, and help chances to secure the hottest items.

Check out the latest sales online. Visit each of your favorite retailer sites to view its latest sales, or save time buy going to sites like, where you can view all of the latest sales at stores in your area. We've all used the Sunday newspaper circular to uncover deals. Now circulars have joined the Internet age, found online and updated every day of the week.

Use reviews to research gifts. Consumer ratings are a great way to decide which items are worth the money and in many cases, with little effort, shoppers can find reviews online about the gifts they are interested in purchasing. For instance if a shopper has a history with a particular brand of tablet, maybe a different brand tablet is less expensive and has better ratings. In-store retail associates can also help with this info, but coming prepared with the knowledge based on Internet research ahead of time builds shopping confidence.

Use mobile devices to optimize the shopping experience. Using a mobile device while shopping to compare product prices and research availability just makes sense. These days many retail associates themselves carry tablets for in-store research and even point of sale processing, so why wouldn't consumers themselves come armed with this mobile shopping power. A simple email signup can open up shoppers to being alerted to new deals in their area via their mobile device. The mobile tech influence on shopping has emerged, and can be used when purchasing presents for all of the gift-giving holidays: birthdays, Valentines Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, etc..

It's time to get started
According to the Wall Street Journal, early forecasts for the 2013 holiday season are dire, predicting a less successful holiday shopping season for retailers when compared to last year. Because of the anticipated decrease in consumer spending this season, many retailers are increasing discounts and starting their advertising campaigns early.

• Macys, Inc. intends to boost it marketing efforts in an attempt to pull shoppers back in.
• Toys "R" Us has extended its typical 90-day return policy in hopes that consumers will buy early this holiday season. This new holiday policy allows shoppers to return items through Jan. 25.
• And both of these retail leaders, and others as well, are opening their doors earlier this year than last for the Black Friday shopping holiday. In fact both have bled into Thanksgiving, opening that evening, and in the case of Kmart the morning of Thanksgiving.

This means that consumers who start shopping early may find some of the best deals this season. The consumers who are empowered the most through prior research and shopping trend information have a leg up on those simply "winging it". We all want to save time and money, a little Internet research can bring this year's shopper both.

Grace Chan is vice president of product management for Wanderful Media, a startup reimagining the digital circular with Find&Save. Her product development experience includes leadership roles at MerchantCircle, Yahoo! and Intel.