Shopping Online? Best Deals for Moms

Statistically, moms still control the proverbial purse strings in many families -- and online shopping outlets have caught on. Sites of all sizes and categories are offering the best deals and perks just for mom consumers, who welcome not only the savings, but also the added convenience.

“I think online shopping is one of the greatest things to happen to modern motherhood,” says Mir Kamin, an Atlanta-based mom and what’s called a “DealProorSavings.com. “When you’ve got little kids, the idea of even just running to the grocery store to get cereal can be daunting. Being able to sit in your pajamas at the comfort of your computer and have it delivered for less hassle and money? Amazing!”

Linsey Knerl, a mother of five based in the tiny town of Tekamah, Neb., couldn’t agree more. The extremely rural nature of her surroundings makes it tough to trek out for necessities, and shopping online helps deliver her family’s needs to their doorstep. She often checks sites like Alice.com and BabyCheapskate.com for new deals. She also uses Amazon Mom on a regular basis.

“I save at least 20 to 30 percent on my total spending, but I also value the peripheral savings,” says Knerl. “When I go shopping, I usually have to bring all five kids, which means I’m driving the Suburban. Shopping online saves us hundreds of dollars per year on gas alone.”

So how can you make online shopping work for your family’s needs -- and your budget? Find out where the best deals are and how to make the most of them:

Online Shopping Tip No. 1: Look for websites that pack a double savings punch.
For instance, those with a free Amazon Mom membership get not only 30 percent off diapers and wipes through its Subscribe & Save program, but also three free months with Amazon Prime (which affords free 2-day shipping on most products). For every $25 spent, another month is tacked on to the free Amazon Prime access. “When I order anything at all -- from cereal to parts for my husband’s car -- we get it shipped in two days for free,” says Knerl of her Prime benefits. “I have one year banked where I don’t have to pay any shipping costs.”

Online Shopping Tip No. 2: Let the best deals come to you.
Some moms don’t have time to comparison shop or search for deals, and that’s where time-saving resources like DropDownDeals.com come into play. After downloading a plug-in, users can visit various retail websites, and available coupons will automatically be displayed for that merchant. Time-strapped moms can also subscribe to services like ZingSale or DealNews email alerts, which send shoppers customized sale and savings notifications.

Online Shopping Tip No. No. 3: Look beyond Groupon for the best deals.
“In the wake of the recession, everyone wants a bargain, and retailers are sensitive to that,” says Kamin, who also runs the blog WantNot.net. “That’s why we’re seeing an explosion of Groupon-style sites.” No doubt about it: Groupon has started a major trend in the daily deals arena, and many similar sites with exclusively family-focused offerings are now popping up. BabySteals and  FamilyFinds are just a few popular sites in the cloud in this growing category.

Online Shopping Tip No. 4: Translate the savings to your brick-and-mortar experience.
Even when you’re not shopping online, you can still employ your Web savvy to save big bucks. (Research shows that $917 billion of 2009 retail sales were Web-influenced!) Sites like  SaleLocator point shoppers to local sales and even help users determine the best driving route to maximize time and gas mileage.

Can You Trust an Online Review?

It used to be the job of print, radio and TV journalists to review everything from restaurants to movies, products and customer service. But nowadays, anybody with a keyboard and a connection to the Internet can write a review.

That’s partly a good thing: The idea is that the democratic nature of consumer-generated online reviews will lead to more truthful, accurate information. But the reality is that online review sites are often filled with impostor reviews from owners who want their products to succeed -- or from competitors who want them to fail.

For example, the popular review site Yelp.com has been sued for allegedly extorting businesses with poor reviews -- allegations the company denies. Travel site TripAdvisor has reportedly been accused by a group of 420 hoteliers of failing to guard against fake online reviews and has since begun flagging suspicious reviews. But there probably isn’t a single review site out there that isn’t targeted by people trying to game the system.

So how do you differentiate between a suspicious online review and a review you can trust? Start with these guidelines:

Online Review Tip No. 1: Look for real names.
If a website encourages reviewers to post under their real names, its reviews are more likely to be the real deal. Amazon’s “real name” system uses the credit card that you have on file to determine your real name and then lets you choose some variation -- John Smith, J. Smith, J.S., etc. -- under which to post a review. A “real name” review is weighted more heavily than an anonymous review, but you can bet there are still plenty of impostors who post anonymously.

Online Review Tip No. 2: Look for real photos.

In the same vein, when reading an online review, look for accompanying photos connected to the reviewer’s profile. “If it’s a company that’s doing the reviewing, a lot of times they don’t take the time to put up a photo,” says Elysa Rice, a social media expert who blogs at GenPink.com.

Online Review Tip No. 3: Find other reviews by the same person.

If a review is attributed to a username, check whether the reviewer has written other reviews on the site. If you find numerous reviews, it’s less likely that the reviewer is a company pretending to be a consumer. Says Rice: “If there’s a person who has reviewed 50 other things, then I would take their opinion over someone who has reviewed just one.”

Online Review Tip No. 4: Expect a few low-rated reviews.

If every review glows, be suspicious. Even the best-rated restaurants occasionally overcook a steak or make people wait too long.

Online Review Tip No. 5: Read beyond the stars.

Consider why someone gave a poor rating. Recently, a critically acclaimed book received a huge quantity of one-star ratings on Amazon because it wasn’t available as a Kindle e-book. Although that had nothing to do with the quality of the book itself, those reviews contributed to a misleading overall rating of the book. But you wouldn’t realize that without reading the one-star rants.

Online Review Tip No. 6: Use your sixth sense.

If something seems off, be suspicious. For example, people who have an agenda tend to talk in hyperbole. So if a few outliers call a spa “the most amazing experience ever!” or “a fantasy come true!” you’d be wise to ignore them. “There’s content that just sounds robotic as opposed to the way humans would talk,” says Rice, and that’s the stuff you should write off.

Online Review Tip No. 7: Stay skeptical.

No review site can guarantee legitimacy, so take what you read with a grain of salt. Go with your gut.

Finally, once you find your favorite review sites, check if they offer an app you can load on your smartphone. And as with anything good, give back. Get in the mix and write an online review or two of your own: You’ll be making the system a little more honest.

How to Prevent Identity Theft

You’re ready to drive that new minivan off the lot when the salesperson gives you the bad news: You didn’t qualify for the loan. He shows you your credit report with numerous unpaid accounts. Until today, you thought you had perfect credit.

“If a thief has your social security number and date of birth, he can look legitimate on a credit application,” says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit information and consumer advocacy organization. “I’ve seen people lose their dream homes because they suddenly can’t qualify for a mortgage.”

Sounds scary, but don’t pull the plug on your computer just yet. You can reduce the risk of online identity theft by taking these steps:

Identity Theft Tip No. 1
Understand phishing and spyware.

Have you ever gotten an email that claims to be from your bank or favorite online auction and says something along the lines of “You must restore account access” or “Your credit card number on file is about to expire”? Well, most of these emails are actually sent by phishers, who take you to a spoof website where you unknowingly enter your account information -- only to have it stolen. Delete emails that ask you to reveal sensitive information, because reputable companies will never ask for your account information via email.

You also need to beware of spyware. These programs sneak onto your computer through email and pop-ups. Then they gather data as you type and send your passwords and other sensitive information to malicious hackers. Use antispyware software or an online security service to keep your computer and devices safe.
 
Identity Theft Tip No. 2
Read the privacy policy before giving up your social security number.

Here’s the thing: Your online DVD rental service doesn’t need your social security number to set up your account. In general, be stingy with the data you give out online. Always read the site’s privacy policy to see why it needs your data and how it will be used. Also monitor your accounts. Federal law entitles you to one free copy of your credit report each year. Get a copy of your credit report and then go over it carefully to spot potential red flags.

Identity Theft Tip No. 3
Don’t use real words in your passwords.

If your passwords include words from the dictionary, your birth date, the year you graduated college or the name of someone close to you (even spelled backwards), a criminal can easily figure them out on their own or with the help of specialized software. Instead, create passwords with more than six characters, and combine letters and numbers. For example, you might create a password that sounds like something you can easily remember -- such as lyrics to your favorite song -- but is spelled cleverly with letters and numbers.

Identity Theft Tip No. 4
Don’t give to random charities.
Some unsolicited emails may ask you to contribute to unfamiliar charities or to get involved with real estate offers in other countries. These scams ask you to provide your bank account information online to someone you’ve never met. Once the scammer has your information, he can use it to clean out your bank account or commit other types of fraud. Never respond to email offers asking you for your bank account number or for money. If you have a favorite charity, contribute directly through its secure website.

Identity Theft Tip No. 5
Warn your kids about identity theft.
Filtering software can help prevent your kids from sending out their home address and other personal information via email or the Web. But experts say you shouldn’t rely on technology alone. Make sure your kids know why you don’t want them giving out private data or responding to phishing emails. Let them know that they can always come to you with questions if they’re not sure what to do. Also, gather your kids and check out safety-tip sites like GetNetWise.com together to make learning about online privacy a bit more fun.

If your identity is stolen, your first call should be to the police. Report the theft and get a copy of your police report. You’ll need it when you call the three credit reporting agencies to put a 7-year fraud alert on your account. Also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission. Remember, the earlier you catch identity thieves, the easier it will be to recover.

The App Guide: 5 Must-have Shopping Apps

Mobile apps have changed shopping forever -- and for the better. With just a few apps on your smart phone, you can save money and time, and get goods in your hands faster.

Today’s shopping apps not only let you compare prices and find discounts, they also use social trends, like social networking and geolocations, to enhance your shopping experience. “More and more people are trying to bring the whole shopping experience that you get online and make it something you do in person too,” says Mia Kim, editor in chief of Popgadget, a tech blog for women.

On that note, here are six must-have apps that will make shopping more fun and efficient.

Shopping App No. 1: Shopkick
Shopkick
  is all about offline shopping. Just let the app recognize your location, and it will offer you deals in all the participating stores nearby. Scan certain products with your phone’s camera and earn kickbucks to use for gift cards, movie tickets, merchandise or charity donations. The app works in cities across the U.S.

For: iPhone and Android

Shopping App No. 2: Amazon App
Amazon App is more than just a smart-phone-sized version of Amazon’s website. With your phone’s camera, you can scan any barcode to find and buy the item on Amazon in a matter of moments. You can also add products to your shopping cart and complete your transaction later on the spot. “Everything is there,” says Kim. “Because most people have Amazon accounts with payments set up, it really takes five seconds to buy something.”

For: iPhone , BlackBerry and Android. A separate app, Windowshop, is available for the iPad.

Shopping App No. 3: FastMall
If you have a love/hate relationship with malls and saving time is just as important to you as saving money, FastMall is the app for you. FastMall provides interactive maps for thousands of shopping malls around the world. Looking for the nearest restroom? Shake your iPhone and find it without getting lost in the mall. Or use the app’s turn-by-turn navigation instructions to make your way from the food court to the bookstore.

For: iPhone and Android

Shopping App No. 4: GoodGuide
With GoodGuide , you can shop sustainably and eco-consciously. Browse, search or scan a barcode to learn how a product scores in such categories as health, environment and social impact. You can create lists of products you love and those you want to avoid and share your lists in social networks.

For: iPhone

Shopping App No. 5: CardStar
How many reward cards do you have dangling from your keychain or stuffed into your wallet? CardStar saves all your reward cards’ barcodes to your phone, so the checker can scan your screen instead of the little plastic card (which you can never find anyway).

For: iPhone, BlackBerry and Windows phones

Holiday Party Planning in a Snap

For her annual holiday cookie exchange, Kimberly Notarianni loves to use the Web to streamline her planning. She signs on to Evite  to send her invitations and keep track of RSVPs, and she even sets it up to automatically generate thank-you notes after the gathering ends. "It makes everything so easy," says Notarianni, the mother of two from Fairfax, Va. "Every time someone responds, I get a notification in email. On the day before the party, the site will email a reminder to everyone. And when the party is over, I can upload pictures and send them with the thank you notes."

Party planning is even easier now, thanks to the cloud (the current Internet trend that offers Web-based services for your PC or mobile devices), which has gone way beyond the convenience of Evites. Check out these online resources to make every step of your own holiday party planning a snap:

    1.    Picking a Theme
    For your holiday get-together, first search theme ideas on the Web. "You could do 'fantasy and frost' with all snow and ice decorations," says Phyllis Cambria, who blogs about party planning and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Throwing a Great Party. "You can also do a wooden soldier theme from Babes in Toyland."

    Sites like Ehow also post videos that show you how to plan a holiday party for the office or your home. Or try Punchbowl, which offers tools for every phase of party planning. Various mobile device apps can also help you plan and manage your get-together, like Party Planner for the iPhone.

    2.    Inviting Your Friends
    The popular Evite has an assortment of holiday invitation designs you can send via its website or your mobile device. Competitors like Pingg offer artist-designed invites and allow you to connect them to your Facebook or Twitter account. Other services like Anyvite let you manage your invites on the go with your mobile device. Or just throw out the dated notion of invites altogether and simply create an Event via your Facebook profile and invite all your friends or only a few.

    3.    Making the Menu
    Whether you want to make prime rib with Yorkshire pudding or baked country ham and oyster pie, Epicurious and its mobile app offer holiday party menus for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Simple Soiree is a fun app that helps you plan your theme and menu, and send your invites using your iPhone or iTouch.

    You can also use the Web grocery store -- or make your list and check it twice. Big brands like Safeway and Bevmo deliver to Web shoppers, as do online-only outifts like Netgrocer And there are apps that will help you avoid getting in your car and waiting in long lines too. Check out MyWebGrocer to find grocery stores in your area that you can order from. If you want to peruse the quality of ingredients in person, then use your mobile device to search for an application like GroceryIQ, which lets you make a Web-based shopping list you can access from any online device or share your list with your party co-planners.

    4.    Decorating
    If you’re running out of steam, order your decorations online too using a site like Party411, iParty  or PartyCity, which carry everything from gold and silver foil bells to Santa costumes to holiday-themed party packs of matching plates, napkins and cups. Or just search the Web for "party supplies" to get started.

    5.    Playing Music
    You can customize the playlist for your fete through iTunes, where you can purchase “Jingle Bell Rock” by every artist from The Chipmunks to the Rat Pack. On the other hand, you can stream music or create a holiday music channel through a Web radio service like Pandora or Jango. You can stream the tunes through your PC or mobile device and blast it through your surround sound or home speakers. (Check our Pandora’s partner page for ideas.)

When planning a holiday party online, using the cloud will make your life so much simpler. "There is so much information out there," says party planner Cambria. "You start wondering how you ever planned a party without the Internet!"