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Consult websites and apps before shopping

Updated on June 21, 2015
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The Internet is a great resource that informs, entertains and amazes us. You can use the Internet for all sorts of things, but this time of year why not put this fantastic tool to work and improve your shopping experience?

With that in mind, I reviewed several consumer websites that will help you make a more intelligent decision when you go shopping. But, before I get to my list, first a little warning. You need to be wary about the truthfulness of what you read on the web. This is especially true during the holiday season. Whether it's the latest online scam, an unfamiliar company or website you need to be cautious before forking over your cash, credit cards or personal information.

Have a happy shopping spree.

The most impactful way consumers can assert their power is to become mindful shoppers..."

— Simon Mainwaring

NOTE: Most of the following websites have mobile compatible versions and Android and Apple apps.

► Product Rating and Review Websites

• Amazon.com – You may overlook this site as a great resource. Don't. I find that the best, most truthful product reports come from the people who use that product everyday. There are millions of customer reviews on Amazon. The users post reviews along with ratings on a 5-star scale. With over 160 million customers visiting the site each month, you’ll find anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of reviews for each item. Amazon is such a powerhouse, that you don’t need to go to its website to find one of their reviewed products, just Google the manufacturer and the item’s name and I bet that Amazon is one of the first ten Google listings.

NOTE: You don’t have to shop on Amazon, but I’ve been a very satisfied customer of theirs for a decade or so. I’ve found that items are shipped earlier than they promise. I also have been extremely satisfied with their customer service. A couple of electronic items I purchased didn’t work and they stood behind them and gave me a full refund each time!

• CNET.com – Before I buy electronics, I always refer to this site. The CNET editors review various items and you can read or watch videos of their reviews. The site also posts user reviews. Both groups also rate each item on a 5-star scale. If you find a product that earned high marks by both the editors and ”regular folks” you’ve found a good product. The site also has news and tips on the latest in electronics. CNET.com is owned by CBS.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention two other sites that publish reliable technology reviews: PC World and PC Mag (short for magazine).

• ConsumerReports.org is a non-profit company that conducts its own testing and product analysis. Its website mirrors the information published in a monthly magazine with the same name. The magazine, which has been around since 1936, publishes reviews and comparisons of consumer products and services based on the results of its testing and reader surveys. Consumer Reports accepts no advertising and they purchase all tested products anonymously. Without advertising support ConsumerReports.com charges for access to much of the information on its website. The cost is $30 a year for the website alone or $20 annually for magazine subscribers.

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• ConsumerSearch.com – If you've never heard of this free site don't overlook it! I rate this as one of my top consumer product review sites.

ConsumerSearch.com is packed with valuable consumer information. This site collects reviews from various publications and websites (including Consumer Reports), analyzes them and ranks the best products. Their editors look for comparative reviews and other information about the products in question and they produce a list of the top three to five products.

But they don't stop there, the editors also publish a detailed buyer's guide and a multi-page report (complete with their sources) for each of hundreds of product categories. The eclectic mix of products include: cellphones, bed sheets, life insurance, car wipers, bicycle helmets and office chairs. You'll also find in depth analysis on such obscure items as portable USB smartphone chargers and dog food. ConsumerSearch.com was started by The New York Times, but it's no longer owned by The Times.

Reviewed.com – The mission of this site, owned by USA Today, is “to empower consumers with information that can help them make better and more informed buying decisions.” The editors of Review.com thoroughly test all the products. The site primarily rates major appliances, cars and electronics.

They are very concerned about integrity of their reviews and on an Ethics page they state, “We will not permit our recommendations to be influenced by any outside biased party who seeks to put their self-interest over the credibility, integrity, and independence or our reviews regardless of a perceived advertising or business relationships advantage which might accrue to Reviewed.com.”

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► Consumer Review/ Complaint Websites

• Epinions.com & • My3Cents.com – These are two top sites in the consumer review/complaint field. If you have doubts about ordering with a certain company, you need to check one of these sites first. They feature posts that discuss the experience other consumers have had with a product or service. You are also welcome to share your story and let others consumers know the good or bad experience you had. Both Epinions.com and My3cents.com are well organized sites with a search box on the top, which allows you to search their database of reviews for the past several years. When you scroll down a bit you’ll find reviews/complaints listed in numerous categories from “Airlines” to “Utilities.”

Consumer Federation of America, a non-profit advocacy association, says My3Cents.com is the best of the consumer complaint websites. Epinions.com, which is owned by eBay, is the veteran in the field and that makes it a great resource because of the extent of its database.

There are other similar sites you might want to check out: Complaints.com, ComplaintsBoard.com, ConsumerAffairs.com, MeasuredUp.com, PissedConsumer.com, RipoffReport.com and Viewpoints.com.

Together with Epinions.com and My3cents.com, these nine sites annually receive tens of thousands of reviews and complaints and most publish these sometimes snarky comments as they are submitted. All these sites accept advertising.

► Consumer Advocacy/Education Websites

From the AARP to the Women's Bureau there are several websites trying to protect you and your money. The one that tops my list is:

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• ClarkHoward.com – Being a radio talk show fan I regularly listen to Clark Howard’s daily consumer show. It is unique and informative. (I’ve been listening to him for a decade.) Clark advises consumers on “how to save more, spend less and avoid getting ripped off.” His radio show is on more than 200 radio stations. You can download free podcasts of his show on iTunes. (Clark has also written several books aimed at helping people be good consumers and stewards of their money.)

Clark’s web site is packed with information! Since he started as a travel expert, it’s heavy on travel, but using the search function on the website you’ll find all kinds of helpful tips and links on a variety of consumer topics.

InfoPlease.com has complied a great list of other consumer advocacy websites.

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► A Few Shopping Apps

These are free apps that are available for both Android & Apple (iOS) devices.

Here are a couple of apps to help with your experience, whenever you shop:

• POINT INSIDE is a free app that helps you navigate through hundreds of U.S. malls and airports. In a mall it will lead you to a particular store, the restroom or the food court. It's best to download the map you'll need before you venture out. Then it will be handy when you're at the mall beyond the range of Wi-Fi or cellular service (or aboard a jet, operating in "Airplane mode"). CNET says this app is "useful and a lot of fun."

• Barcode apps make for a whole new kind of shopping experience. Many consumers say they will never go shopping without one. The outstanding app in this category is REDLAZER. It uses your camera to scan QRs and barcodes. Point it at a product’s tag in a store and the app lists the prices of that item at various online and local outlets, so you can make the best deal. Reviewers give RedLazer high marks and say it works smoothly and will definitely save you money. –TDowling

The safest place to download apps is to go directly to iTunes’ App Store or Google Play. Before downloading any app, it’s a good practice to to learn if there are any problems or tips by reading the app users' comments.

© 2014 Thomas Dowling

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