The Thrifty Shopper

For my November 2017 Blog Post I wanted to share my tips and tricks for being a thrifty shopper in-store and online because at the end of November is one of the largest shopping weekends of the year – Black Friday through Cyber Monday.

During this weekend, millions of store locations and online merchants will be offering a variety of sales so customers can find the best prices / deals for items that will most likely become their holiday gifts in December.

Not only am I an online merchant but I am also a customer / buyer of goods as well and I too look for and await the best sales / deals of the year to make my purchases.

I also want my purchases to be hassle-free so I can have the best experience while shopping anywhere.

The tips / tricks I am going to share below have not only allowed me to avoid any hassles with my purchases but also, made my Black Friday / Cyber Monday shopping stress-free!

In-store VS Online

In-store Shopping – simply stated, I truly hate shopping in stores. I dislike finding parking, the crowds, waiting in lines, etc. I do most of my shopping online for these reasons.

However, sometimes the items I need are only found at a brick-and-mortar store. In which case, my first in-store shopping tip is – make a list!

Having a list of exactly what you need and the locations where those items need to be purchased will make your in-store shopping experience must easier and faster.

Having a list will also make it easier for you to ask for assistance if you cannot locate an item in-store. When this occurs, I go directly to the customer service desk of a store and ask about the items on my list that I cannot find. Generally, store employees in this area are happy to direct me to the correct area of the store so I can find my item – some will even guide you to the item!

My second in-store shopping tip is – call ahead! If you are unsure if a certain item on your list will be available at a store, the best way to save yourself time is to call the store before you arrive to have them verify they have an item in-stock, especially if you only need one item from one store.

My third in-store shopping tip is to shop when no one else will be there, such as in the morning OR between 2pm and 4pm.

Most people will shop at stores during lunch OR after work hours. This means you can avoid crowds and lengthy check-out lines by shopping in the morning OR between lunch / after work hours.

Online Shopping – I LUV LUV LUV online shopping! Not only has the Internet made online shopping more convenient for buyers, but in many cases, you can find a larger variety of products online than you can in-store.

However, not all online merchants are “good shops” and buyers often do not know which online merchants can be trusted to fulfill their orders. After all, if you need a hat, there are a MILLION hat shops / options to purchase online but which merchant do you choose / trust?

Therefore, my first online shopping tip is – GOOGLE! Start by using Google Shopping to search for the items you need. Items found within Google Shopping are paid advertisements by online merchants / shopping platforms, which means that those merchants are actively promoting their products and, in most cases, they want to sell items and fulfill orders successfully.

My second online shopping tip is – read policies! The worst side effect of shopping online is becoming an “impulsive buyer.” While online shopping has made it more convenient for customers to obtain products, it has also made people too quick to purchase without first reading an online merchant's policies.

Also, it’s nice to know ahead of time how an online merchant will handle certain situations if you don’t like something you bought from them, if your item arrives damaged, etc.

Reading a merchant’s online policies, especially their Returns / Exchange / Shipping Policies, is very important because if you don’t agree with these specific policies, you will know right away that you need not shop with them.

For returns / exchanges, look to see if the online merchant allows this for ALL their items and if any are limited. Sometimes, for sanitary purposes, certain items are limited from returns / exchanges, such as undergarments.

For shipping, look to see what the online merchant’s processing period is for shipping orders AND the carrier they use to ship / what shipping options they offer.  

My third online shopping tip is – read reviews! Many online merchants, even big brand names, will allow customers to review their purchased products.

If I agree with a merchant’s policies, next, I look at their overall review score, if available. If they have mostly positive feedback and very few negative reviews, I will read the 3 most recent positive reviews first. Afterwards, I will read the 3 most recent negative reviews.

I read the 3 most recent positive reviews first because if a customer made the extra effort to come back to the online merchant and write a positive review – it will usually be because that customer was genuinely satisfied with the item / their experience with that merchant and will review that item / experience honestly.

I read the 3 most recent negative reviews last because: 

  1. old negative reviews are a reflection of the past and the merchant may have improved / addressed those issues since that old review was last posted, and…
  2. people who post negative reviews online are usually looking for the merchant to respond to them personally and remedy a very specific situation that might not apply to other orders they fulfill in general.

I also look for “re-occurring topics” within both positive and negative reviews. For example, if there are many positive reviews stating that the product arrived quickly and was packaged well, I can assume that the online merchant fulfills orders quickly and packages their items carefully for safe shipment.

If I read several negative reviews that all state the wrong item was shipped, I can only assume that the online merchant has trouble fulfilling orders correctly. 

Big Brands VS Small Shops

Big Brands – I am a big supporter of Small Businesses and try to purchase from these types of online merchants as often as possible, especially if I am looking for a gift / unique item.

The reason why I normally stay away from “Big Brands” is because most of their items are produced in a factory at an extremely discounted price so their price mark-ups can be reasonable for the customer while still allowing their profit margins for the company to be extremely high.  

Simply stated, "Big Brands" usually produce / sell cheaply made items at a higher cost to the consumer.

This is why “Big Brands” almost ALWAYS offer sales / deep discounts – their product price mark-ups allow them to be able to afford to do this for the customer while still being profitable on the company’s end.

Therefore, when shopping with “Big Brands,” I will use resources like RetailMeNot.com to find promo codes that can be used when purchasing their items, and I usually purchase everyday items that are not unique, like cleaning supplies, toilet paper, etc.

Small Shop – When it comes to purchasing gifts or anything unique, I choose to shop with Small Shops / Businesses every time. By doing so, you are supporting your community AND helping the economy.

With Small Shops, the money you spend with them almost always goes directly to the people who are making the items being sold, which makes me as a customer feel much better about supporting a Small Business as opposed to a “Big Brand” where a majority of their profits go to the people at the top of the “corporate ladder.”

However, many Small Shops cannot afford to offer sales / discounts regularly because they already offer their items at a lower price to compete with “Big Brands” / other Small Businesses, which means their profit margin are extremely low.

My advice for purchasing from Small Shops / Businesses is:

  1. you can wait to purchase from these small shops on a day that is traditionally a well known “sales day,” such as Black Friday / Small Business Saturday / Cyber Monday, or…
  2. you can purchase from small shops at full price knowing your money is being well spent with a merchant that really appreciates the purchase compared to a “Big Brand.”

In the end, I never contact a Small Business and ask them to give me a “discount” because as explained above, they are already pricing their items lower to compete, which is a discount. 

I also follow my favorite Small Businesses on Social Media or sign-up for their newsletter and wait patiently for them to have a sale in some cases. Sometimes, if you read their Policies / About Page / other areas of their website, you might find hidden within their information that they do offer discounts to shoppers.

In the end, as a customer, it is important to realize one truth – do not expect “Big Brands” and Small Businesses to operate the same in any aspect, such as policies, shipping, sales, etc. 

Shipping Insights

When it comes to shipping purchases directly to an address, it’s important to remember - Shipping is NEVER guaranteed

No matter the carrier, they all try their best to meet their various shipping deadlines and delivery items safely, but sometimes, items are delayed / lost / damaged in transit. 

Therefore, when it comes to shipping purchases to any address:

  • Plan ahead for shipping! Have you ever wondered why Black Friday / Cyber Monday are roughly an entire month before Christmas? Part of the reason is that it allows merchants to offer a sale close to the holidays while still allowing them AND the shipping carrier enough time to ship / deliver items before the holidays arrive.

Also, when there are major sales occurring, such as Black Friday / Cyber Monday, shipping volumes will increase for carriers, making it possible for delays / mistakes to occur. 

Therefore, planning your purchases / shipping ahead of time means that you can sometimes avoid the “shipping rush” or if you do experience a delay / issue with shipping, you can resolve that issue long before you need the item delivered.

If I am having an item shipped to me, I usually purchase at least 3 weeks ahead of my desired delivery date (or more depending on the merchant’s Processing Period – make sure to read this portion of their Policies) and 6 weeks prior for international purchases.

  • Consider purchasing upgraded shipping. If you absolutely need an item delivered by a certain date, purchase expedited / upgraded shipping.

In general, expedited / upgraded shipping will usually come with “money-back guarantees” and / or insurance against loss / damage (make sure to read a merchant’s Shipping Policies carefully or contact the merchant before purchasing to clarify if this is offered with their specific shipping options). 

“Money-back guarantees” and / or insurance against loss / damage means that the carrier is being paid more to make sure items arrive faster and safely. If they fail to fulfill this obligation, the carrier usually refunds the shipping fees only if an item is delayed or, if lost / damaged, the entire product price as well.

However, “money-back guarantees” and / or insurance against loss / damage will usually only be offered with upgraded / expedited shipping. Therefore, if you purchase Standard / First Class Shipping services – do not expect the merchant nor the shipping carrier to help you if your item is delayed / lost / damaged because in the end, upgraded shipping services were not purchased.

  • Use tracking! When an item ships, tracking is usually sent to the customer at the email address used to make the purchase, and tracking is usually hyperlinked to quickly click and view tracking updates. Some carriers will allow you to enter your cellphone number to receive tracking updates via text messaging.

When it comes to tracking a shipment, it’s important to remember that even though you purchased an item through a merchant, the shipping is always purchased with / paid to the shipping carrier.

Therefore, when you receive tracking information from a merchant, the tracking will usually re-direct you to the carrier’s website so you can view through the carrier’s system where an item is in transit.

Contacting the merchant with questions / issues with shipping is almost always pointless because the merchant will simply direct you to the shipping carrier since they are the entity providing the shipping services / delivering your item. 

Further, the merchant will be looking at the exact same tracking information as the customer, which is whatever the carrier provides in terms of tracking updates.

Therefore, I will start tracking my package about 24 hours after receiving tracking information from the merchant because it can take that long for the carrier to start updating their shipping information.

If I notice my package has been delayed / held at a specific location for more than 2 days, I will contact the carrier directly (NOT the merchant) and ask them where my item is in transit. 

I also choose to speak to a representative with the carrier so they can look into my tracking information more closely because a carrier’s automated system will not do this extra piece. 

Lastly, when my tracking information shows my item is “Delivered,” I go to my mailbox / delivery area to retrieve my item as soon as possible

The reason why this last piece is so important is because if my tracking shows my item was “Delivered” by the carrier but I am unable to locate the item in the delivery area stated on my tracking information, such as “In / At Mailbox,” “In Parcel Locker, “At Front Door,” I will contact the carrier immediately so they can resolve this issue. 

Never wait to resolve this type of issue – the longer you wait, the greater the chances are that you will not receive your shipment. As mentioned above – shipping is never guaranteed – and sometimes, carriers can accidently deliver items to a neighbor, in the wrong mailbox, etc. Contacting the carrier regarding a missing “Delivered” item means they can help you locate the item before someone else does...

Further, if you wait to resolve shipping issues and you did not purchase shipping that includes a “money-back guarantee” and / or insurance against loss / damage, you will most likely loose that purchase because as mentioned above, upgraded shipping with the carrier was not purchased. 

Also, most merchants will not refund / replace items that show as “Delivered” through the carrier because how can they trust that the customer does not have the item in their possession and is simply trying to trick the merchant into giving them free product. Just like there are bad merchants / stores in this world, there are also bad / dishonest customers and in order to survive / stay in business, merchants have to protect themselves against this aspect. 

Keep in mind, if a merchant gave a refund to every customer who came to them with an issue, they would not be in business very long, which is why it’s important to read a merchant’s Policies before purchasing so you know how they will handle issues that arise, such as shipping.

Also, just like a merchant, shipping carriers are selling their shipping services to customers / merchants and they too must maintain a good reputation for delivering items in a timely manner and safely if they want repeat businesses. 

Therefore, I treat the shipping carrier as part of my transaction and contact them regarding their shipping services if I have any issues with this portion of my transaction.

Reviews that Matter

Above I mentioned how to read reviews before purchasing from a merchant, but this section, I wanted to discuss how I leave reviews for my purchases…

  1. Product Reviews are for Products. When leaving a review, I focus on the product – did I receive the correct product; does the product match it’s Item Description (not just Display Images), and does the product appear to be made well?
  2. Merchant / Customer Service. The last part of my review, I will mention anything notable about the merchant and their customer service – did they ship on-time according to their Policy’s Processing Period, and, if I interacted with them, where they helpful?

I never mention anything about the shipping carrier within reviews because shipping services are separate from the product / merchant. The merchant is usually never delivering items themselves – as mentioned in the above section, shipping carriers are paid to perform this task.

Therefore, using a review to talk about the shipping carrier is not fair to the product / merchant since they did not perform that specific task / portion of the transaction. Issues with the shipping carrier should be addressed directly with the carrier.

Also, if I have an issue with the product / merchant, I will contact the merchant privately to address my issue and I give them about 2-3 Business Days to address my concerns. Keep in mind that many merchants do not have customer support on weekend or holidays – they are people too and need time to live their own lives. Giving a merchant several days to respond to your issues is considerate, even if you have to try a second contact attempt. 

I never use a review as my first method to resolve an issue with a merchant because in the end, the merchant is only human and therefore, issues occurring are normal. 

What matters most is how the merchant will respond to the customer with an issue

In cases where I failed to read a merchant’s Policies as a customer and they kindly and professionally point this fact out to me – I accept their response and move on. I might still review the product positively but I do not hold the merchant responsible for my errors as a customer by giving them a bad review.

In cases where the merchant made a mistake in the product they sent to me and they kindly and professionally assist me in receiving the correct item, I leave a positive review and mention that they have “excellent / responsive customer service.” I do not mention my specific issue in the review because the merchant will ultimately not appreciate the fact that the customer mentioned their shortcomings for new customers to read.

The only time I would ever consider leaving a negative review is if the merchant was unresponsive to 2 or 3 private contact attempts on my part AND if their response to me was unprofessional / violated their own Policies. Merchants, big or small, are businesses and therefore, they should be expected to act professional and abide by their own Policies. If they cannot do this piece, then other customers deserve to know through a review.

One time, I purchased pre-packaged candy from a “Gag Shop,” which shall remain nameless, and before purchasing, I read this shop’s Policies, which stated that ANY items could be returned in-store, even if the item was open. 

A few days later, I decided to return the un-opened candy and the clerk assisting me at the store refused by return and told me, “It’s common sense not to accept returns on food items.”  I pointed out that their Policies state I can return ANY items in their store, but still, the clerk refused to accept my return.

Later, I contacted their management, which after 3 attempts, did not respond to me. Therefore, I resorted to leaving a negative review, and it was after this action that I was contacted by a manager and they not only apologized to me that the clerk violated their store’s Policies but they also accepted by return.

I also removed my negative review after this action occurred. I did not replace it with a positive review only because the negative interaction with the clerk and the 3 unresponsive contact attempts was not professional. I never shopped with this merchant again either.

Also, I remind myself that as a customer, leaving ANY kind of review, positive or negative, is ultimately not a powerful action. Word-of-mouth is still the most impactful action a customer can take for OR against a merchant. Telling friends, family and even strangers your experiences with a merchant will shape the future of a merchant’s business more than you know.

For example, as a merchant myself, I would rather a customer encourage other people to buy from my shop instead of leaving one positive review because continued business will ensure the survival of my company.

Likewise, if a customer as any issues with my products / services, I would rather they contact me privately so I can assist them privately and again, not leave a review.

Black Friday VS Cyber Monday

In the past, brick-and-mortar stores observed Black Friday, while online merchants observed Cyber Monday.

However, with online sales / shopping surpassing those made at physical retail locations in recent years, many brick-and-mortar stores are now selling their items online and extending their sales to last from Black Friday through Cyber Monday.

Also, more online merchants are offering sales on Black Friday in addition to Cyber Monday to compete with physical retail locations.

Therefore, these days, I don’t think it matters which day you choose to purchase as long as you find the sale that works best for you. 

As a friendly tip based on what I still observe, brick-and-mortar stores will still offer their largest sales on Black Friday and online shops will reserve their biggest sales for Cyber Monday. Even if both types of merchants have extended sales, they traditionally observe the shopping sale date that applies more specifically to their type of business.

Also, both brick-and-mortar and online merchants often reserve their very BEST sales for loyal newsletter subscribers (we certainly do). Therefore, I suggest that anyone looking for great sales / discounts to sign-up for a newsletter at the beginning of November so you can start receiving emails about deals / sales from your favorite retailers. 

Don’t forget Small Business Saturday, which is between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This is a “newer” sale day that is observed by Small Businesses and since many small merchants generally cannot afford to offer the same giant discounts that “Big Brands” do as explained above, they will conduct their short-term sales on Small Business Saturday instead of observing Black Friday and / or Cyber Monday. So, if you have a favorite small boutique / online shop, again, sign-up for their newsletter to see what sales they will offer.

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