Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

It used to be clear-cut: buying online saved you a tidy sum. With far lower overheads for office and retail space, e-commerce sites could set up shop for tens of pounds rather than tens of thousands, market themselves online with a few well-chosen keywords and banner adverts and undercut established stores by miles.

But after a few years of the web having things its own way, the high street is making a comeback, as concerns grow among prospective internet shoppers. Is it safe to enter credit-card details online? Will the product turn up? Is that identikit web store going to be around longer than it takes to bank your money? We've learned from bitter experience that chasing online bargains doesn't always pay.

Besides, these days you can barely amble down a high street, open a newspaper or magazine or switch on the TV or your PC without being bombarded with offers.

To find the best things to buy, check out PC Advisor's Christmas gift guide

Buy this - get something else free

Amid the clamour to slam down your debit card or splash your cash on yet another unbelievably good offer, we urge you to take a moment to reflect. Is it really such a good deal? Are there strings attached? How confident are you that the offer or the apparent bargain is as good as it seems?

You'd often be better off spending an extra pound - or even £20 - for the security and convenience of being able to pick up that laptop, console or whatever else your heart desires and take it to the till before tucking it under your arm and taking it home.

As we head for the buying frenzy of Christmas, we've compared the pros and cons of shopping online or on the high street to find where it's best to seek a good deal.

There are potential pitfalls wherever you buy, but the checklist we've put together over the following pages should help you enjoy a safe and economical shopping experience.

  1. Get the best deal: high street vs the web
  2. New web ways
  3. Trial and error
  4. Signed, sealed, delivered
  5. Going for a song
  6. Rare finds
  7. Safer shopping
  8. Final thoughts?
  9. Protection racket: your rights explained
  10. Money's too tight (to mention)
  11. Sphere of influence

Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

New web ways

There's no doubt about it - the web has changed the way we do many things, not least the way we buy and sell essential items and life's little luxuries.

It's made a difference to our environs too, with some types of business premises starting to disappear. You can pull in at the corner of almost any high street and take out money from a cashpoint, for example, but finding an actual bank branch where you can undertake face-to-face transactions is increasingly difficult.

Bricks-and-mortar travel agents, too, seem to be a dying breed. The likes of Lastminute.com, Expedia.co.uk and other online flight and package-holiday sites are able to sell direct to the public and fill last-minute seats and rooms. TV-based offerings such as Teletext have added to the pressure on high-street travel firms.

But they don't offer the experience or the local advice that a travel agent can. If you want to find out whether the operator, travel facilities or resort lives up to its promise, you need independent, impartial advice - and, in the absence of the travel agent, that usually means fellow travellers. An online booking site may be able to find you a cheap deal, but it can't tell you whether that holiday is worth booking in the first place.

Nor does it always follow that tailor-making your own itinerary over the web is always the cheapest way to go.

This summer, disparate groups of my extended family headed to Italy for a get-together. Each couple had a different plan regarding activities, facilities and length of stay, but we were all staying in the same town on the same weekend.

We each did our online research, shortlisted hotels and added extras such as hire cars and escorted days out. My party lucked out with a comfortable, reasonably central hotel for a modest outlay, booked online; my brother also booked online and ended up in a slightly better furnished abode but on the edge of town.

Our parents looked on the web to see what was available - then left the arrangements in the hands of a travel agent. When their chosen hotel double-booked itself, rather than casting about for a second choice and paying over the odds, the agent used her connections to get them a better hotel for the same price.

TeletextLastminute.com, Expedia.co.uk and Teletext have all put the squeeze on bricks-and-mortar travel agents

Know your onions

With technology, knowing the market and knowing what you're paying for is a big part of the equation. Reading up on PC Advisor and elsewhere on the web is, of course, part of this process, as is getting peer reviews and customer feedback.

What quickly becomes clear when reading reviews-based magazines and websites such as ours is the extent to which seemingly similar products can vary in price, performance, build quality and design. Because of this - and the speed with which new products are released and innovations introduced - one of your first ports of call should be the PC Advisor Reviews Centre.

We thoroughly test each and every product that comes our way, using recognised benchmarking software and hardware for PCs, laptops, monitors, printers, digital cameras and more. And, while pure performance may not be the be-all and end-all when choosing a product, it's an important indicator of how well desktop PCs and laptops in particular have been put together, and how well their components work with each other.

Awards from respected technology magazines and websites are highly prized by manufacturers, since they offer a seal of approval and quality. In common with other publications, we stipulate that manufacturers may display our Best Buy, Gold and Recommended rosettes against only the product they refer to, and to clearly indicate the magazine issue or review month.

  1. Get the best deal: high street vs the web
  2. New web ways
  3. Trial and error
  4. Signed, sealed, delivered
  5. Going for a song
  6. Rare finds
  7. Safer shopping
  8. Final thoughts?
  9. Protection racket: your rights explained
  10. Money's too tight (to mention)
  11. Sphere of influence

Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

Trial and error

There's a lot to be said for being able to get your hands on a product and decide whether it's right for you before coughing up the money. In the case of flat-panel displays and TVs, we'd strongly advise you to visit the shop and take a look for yourself. This is an item you're going to spend an awful lot of time staring at, so make sure you're comfortable with the image quality, features and settings - find out, for instance, whether the angle and height can be adjusted.

Laptop screens can be a matter of personal preference - some users prefer the expensive look of high-gloss displays, while others find a glare-free monitor more comfortable to look at.

No matter how many glowing reviews you read, remember that usability is largely a matter of taste. If you're going to use a phone or other gadget a lot, it makes sense to try it out for size to see whether it suits you. As you'll see from the phone reviews on our Mobile Advisor site, many desirable-looking gadgets lose their appeal as soon as a real customer tries to make sense of how to use them.

As you may have noticed from the firm's TV advertising, PC World has been pushing the sensible idea of heading down to your local electrical retailer for a bit of idle browsing and hands-on time with products on your shortlist before scuttling back home and saving money by buying from the firm's website.

As both a bricks-and-mortar and online concern, this is a canny message to push, and pretty much in line with the advice we've been giving over the years. The one thing we'd add is that you don't necessarily have to use a website that's associated with the high-street store you visited if you've settled on a particular brand and model, you may be able to find a better deal. Shopping around by comparing prices using Google or online price-comparison sites can reveal significant price differences on items.

There are two notes of caution to heed here: price-comparison sites aren't necessarily independent; and the fact that a site or shop does a great deal on a certain item doesn't mean it's the best place for other products. It may simply offer the best deal on the product you initially searched for at that particular time.

As veterans of price-comparison sites will tell you, deals can change not only from week to week but from day to day - or even faster than that. In fact, the reason such sites can be so useful is because of the way they constantly work the web. Their servers act as massive database stock controllers, continually monitoring how many of each item are available, where and for how much.

In the early days of price-comparison sites, customers often found themselves entering a search term and being directed to a well-known site or stockist, only to find that they had to wait two weeks for the product. That's less of a problem these days, but bear in mind that there can be a serious disparity between the headline price and the total you end up paying once international shipping, import duties and taxes are factored in.

Sites such as Kelkoo.co.uk indicate whether prices include VAT and/or delivery costs, but not all are so conscientious. Some believe the less transparent price-comparison sites deliberately mislead surfers to attract ad revenue, using the apparent low cost of their goodies as bait. While this practice isn't as widespread as it was a few years ago, it's worth watching out for.

If you find a site that's guilty of this, it's a good idea to let others know on an online forum. These are an increasingly important part of the equation when seeking bargains online. As regular visitors to PCAdvisor.co.uk will know, many manufacturers and retailers monitor what readers are saying about them and quickly dive into our forums if customer-satisfaction or build-quality queries arise.

A good business will not be afraid of customer feedback and will do its best to sort out any problems it can - and that certainly goes for PC Advisor's own Shopping site. Part of this process involves keeping the communication channels open.

PC Advisor shoppingPrice-comparison sites such as PC Advisor's are a useful tool

  1. Get the best deal: high street vs the web
  2. New web ways
  3. Trial and error
  4. Signed, sealed, delivered
  5. Going for a song
  6. Rare finds
  7. Safer shopping
  8. Final thoughts?
  9. Protection racket: your rights explained
  10. Money's too tight (to mention)
  11. Sphere of influence

Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

Signed, sealed, delivered

Another issue to factor in when deciding whether to buy off the shelf or over the web is how much you'll have to pay for delivery. It's fairly common for online stores to list prices including VAT, but delivery is routinely excluded from quoted prices.

If what you're after is difficult or inconvenient to get hold of locally, an extra £5 or £10 to have it delivered may be money well spent; in practice, however, valuable items tend to cost more than this. Depending on the type of your purchase, it's often a good idea to get insurance to cover carriage.

PC vendors have been known to flaunt eye-catchingly low-priced laptops and desktop PCs on their sites, without making it particularly clear that those headline prices exclude unavoidable extras.

Dell has been guilty of this in the past, and we still occasionally see Dell laptops with 'ex VAT' prices. As well as VAT, you're likely to face a delivery fee of £60.

Go to the firm's website - which, to be fair, is perfectly up-front about the additional charges - and ensure the deal you've heard about is as good as you thought. Going crazy with upgrades and customisation options won't help your bank balance, either.

Sites such as Argos and PC World that have both physical stores and online ones often offer differing prices for products. Argos charges a flat rate of £4.95 for delivery, which it aims to fulfil within two working days. Alternatively, customers can reserve a product online and then pick it up - saving the delivery cost but ensuring they don't miss out on a popular item.

Dixons Store Group, which owns and operates PC World stores, clearly shows the differences in price between its web and retail stores on its website. This is just as well, as for some products there is a significant difference in price - the satnav pictured on the right is £10 cheaper if bought online. Other items we found listed at pcworld.co.uk cost the same once delivery was factored into the price.

Like Argos, however, PC World suggests people browse the website to see which products they fancy, then go to the shop to buy. A spokesman for DSG told us that the firm sees this as the best scenario of all.

"By opting to collect instore, you get the best of both worlds," the representative said. "People can browse online and then collect from a store local to them that has stock. This seems to be increasingly popular."

  1. Get the best deal: high street vs the web
  2. New web ways
  3. Trial and error
  4. Signed, sealed, delivered
  5. Going for a song
  6. Rare finds
  7. Safer shopping
  8. Final thoughts?
  9. Protection racket: your rights explained
  10. Money's too tight (to mention)
  11. Sphere of influence

Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

Going for a song

Auction sites such as eBay.co.uk are another online option worth considering. Here, you can buy up surplus stock and barely used or unwanted items, hopefully at far lower prices than if you tried to buy them from a commercial website or a high-street shop.

You can either buy outright or bid on an item against others. Given the competitive nature of auctions, prices can quickly rise from a couple of pounds to many hundreds, so set yourself a limit and stick to it.

You'll often be pipped to an eBay bargain at the last moment, so you may want to place bids with multiple sellers if there's something you particularly want to acquire. Bear in mind, however, that the successful bidder is obliged to fork out, even if they've inadvertently won two or three auctions for the same product.

In other words, make sure the product is such a bargain that you could theoretically afford to buy more than one.

Tools exist to assist you in securing the item you want, even if you're not monitoring the auction yourself in its closing stage. These can be set to run automatically and incrementally up your bid as required. Specify a price ceiling before you start!

The advice we've already given about reading up on the buyer and the feedback they've received from satisfied and dissatisfied customers is at least as true for eBay. The entire site setup depends on trust. You shouldn't be afraid to contact the buyer for more details about a product's provenance, why they are selling or any other information you want before wiring money to them - securely, of course.

As well as eBay-style auctions, a number of websites have sprung up offering reverse auctions in which the lowest unique bid wins. While these are legitimate businesses, you should be aware that simply participating costs money. The 'auction' doesn't close until the organisation running it has made enough to cover its costs and more.

  1. Get the best deal: high street vs the web
  2. New web ways
  3. Trial and error
  4. Signed, sealed, delivered
  5. Going for a song
  6. Rare finds
  7. Safer shopping
  8. Final thoughts?
  9. Protection racket: your rights explained
  10. Money's too tight (to mention)
  11. Sphere of influence

Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

Rare finds

These examples presuppose that what you're looking for is the cheapest price, rather than simple availability.

For specialist items, you may well be split between the usefulness and far-reaching nature of the internet and wanting to get in-depth, personal knowledge from an expert - something best done in person or over the phone or email.

As well as ensuring you get the rare or unusual product you're expecting, establishing a relationship with the seller helps to build trust. Products that aren't run of the mill generally command a price premium, so the keeper of such items stands to make more profit from you than if you were after an Xbox game that flooded the market six months ago.

Make absolutely sure that the person or organisation is legitimate. Reputations are easy to lose and difficult to re-establish, but the web makes it far easier for rogue traders who get found out to re-invent themselves.

At the very least, you should be able to contact them by phone and email. We'd advise you to steer clear of any organisation that doesn't publish a physical address on its website. Enter the company's name into a search engine or into a comprehensive business database such as that held by 192.com. A call to Companies House (the registrar of currently trading businesses) can also help you make up your mind whether the company is a going concern and, crucially, one you want to spend money with.

  1. Get the best deal: high street vs the web
  2. New web ways
  3. Trial and error
  4. Signed, sealed, delivered
  5. Going for a song
  6. Rare finds
  7. Safer shopping
  8. Final thoughts?
  9. Protection racket: your rights explained
  10. Money's too tight (to mention)
  11. Sphere of influence

Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

Safer shopping

Get a list of what you've ordered ®C on a component-by-component basis if you're buying a laptop, PC or other complex product. It should be clear from the product description what your purchase includes.

Further protection is provided for online, mail order and telephone customers by the distance selling directive (click here for the DTI's summary of what this covers). The directive governs how goods can be described and the sorts of protection retailers need to provide to protect the customer from credit-card fraud.

Often, you'll be offered additional bits and bobs such as cables, batteries and backup memory cards. Add these to your order only if you really need them.

Look into how the product is supported and where from - a pricey US phone call to activate the product or get general advice could wipe out any savings you made by shopping online. For many products email and web-based support are the norm. If you're likely to need help setting things up, check whether the retailer can offer this sort of assistance (for a modest consideration - usually less than £30) or give you a demonstration instore.

Don't rule out going to friends for help, either - a small gift can do wonders for their goodwill.

Be cautious about being upsold insurance and warranties you don't need. It's likely to be an expensive way to buy peace of mind - especially if you already have household insurance or are likely to outgrow the product faster than it wears out.

Assuming you're happy that everything is in order and you've got your credit card to hand, add your chosen item(s) to the shopping cart and proceed to the virtual or real checkout.

Whip out your credit card if you're buying anything over £100. If buying online, make sure you use a secure site to complete the transaction. If you're not sure whether a site is secure, look for a lock icon and for a logo such as that of Thawte, a secure transaction server. PayPal is another good bet.

Your web browser should alert you that you are being directed away from the retail site to a third-party server to complete your transaction and warn you about the dangers of personal information being transmitted over unsecured web pages.

See Protection racket - your rights explained on page nine for more advice on shopping safely.

  1. Get the best deal: high street vs the web
  2. New web ways
  3. Trial and error
  4. Signed, sealed, delivered
  5. Going for a song
  6. Rare finds
  7. Safer shopping
  8. Final thoughts?
  9. Protection racket: your rights explained
  10. Money's too tight (to mention)
  11. Sphere of influence

Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

Final thoughts?

So what's our final word on whether the web or the high street is your best bet for a bargain? We hate to sit on the fence, but it depends what you're after, whether it's been around long enough for deep discounts to have kicked in, whether it's readily available and whether it's heavy enough to require a large outlay on delivery and insurance.

You won't save money by shopping around for an iPod, for example (Apple sets the price), but you may find it easier to get one in the colour and capacity you want.

There are risks to shopping online, but these are ones you can minimise using the common-sense advice we've provided. As long as you're not taken in by something that really is too good to be true, there are some real bargains to be had. And the web can be an invaluable source of buying advice.

All too often, items ordered online - especially at this time of year - end up being delayed due to over-demand, lack of stock or some rotters spoiling everyone's Christmas by striking. The high street has upped its game in a bid to compete with the web, so as long as you shop wisely and don't leave it too late, you should get a solid bargain, whichever way you splash your cash.

  1. Get the best deal: high street vs the web
  2. New web ways
  3. Trial and error
  4. Signed, sealed, delivered
  5. Going for a song
  6. Rare finds
  7. Safer shopping
  8. Final thoughts?
  9. Protection racket: your rights explained
  10. Money's too tight (to mention)
  11. Sphere of influence

Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

Protection racket: your rights explained

There are plenty of rules and regulations to protect you if the item you order fails to live up to expectations. The single best piece of advice we can offer is to use a credit card for any purchase of £100 or more. While we don't want to encourage you to rack up debts, putting it on plastic can save money and grief. Here are some more tips.

  • Check you get what you ordered: When your product arrives, make sure all is as it should be, with everything intact and all items included. Some websites and high-street stores substitute out-of-stock items with similar ones of equal value, but if it's not what you ordered and you don't like the alternative, you can send it back.
  • Don't settle for poor-quality goods: We've heard anecdotal reports of LCD screens showing widely differing quality from unit to unit. If your product doesn't match the standards set by the one you were shown in the shop, send it packing.
  • Make sure everything is up to date: Don't let a firm fob you off with outdated stock that needs updating (particularly the drivers) or ink cartridges for printers that have timed out. This applies on the high street shopping as much as online.
  • Send back faulty goods: You're well within your rights to return a product, along with the receipt and the packaging it came in, to the shop or site from which you bought it if it doesn't work properly. The 28-day returns policy shops operate is equally applicable to online stores.

If you can tell as soon as a product arrives that it's unsuitable, you can label it as such and have the retailer take it away – at its expense rather than yours.

  1. Get the best deal: high street vs the web
  2. New web ways
  3. Trial and error
  4. Signed, sealed, delivered
  5. Going for a song
  6. Rare finds
  7. Safer shopping
  8. Final thoughts?
  9. Protection racket: your rights explained
  10. Money's too tight (to mention)
  11. Sphere of influence

Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

Money's too tight (to mention)

Loss leaders are nothing new. The end-of-aisle offers in supermarkets and high-street stores are deliberately designed to be tempting – any company lucky enough to have its products displayed here is likely to sell far more than rivals whose goods are stacked in an orderly fashion on the shelves. They’ve probably paid a lot to be singled out in this way, often with attractive deals to the shop owner for volume purchases.

‘Buy two, get one free’ and ‘Buy one, get a second half-price’ deals are attractive if you were looking to spend that much on an individual item (and need multiple copies), but try to resist being ‘upsold’ goodies that you don’t want. Did you really go into the store to spend £30 on five so-so DVDs or £50 to get two games?

The internet is no better and no worse in this sense. We recently looked at the issue of bundled broadband, landline phone and other services (see PC Advisor's Broadband Advisor site), as well as whether it’s wise to sign up for lengthy broadband and mobile contracts in return for apparent freebies such as laptops.

In fact, some consumer electronics are now such desirable items in their own right that high-street stores are using them as lures to get you through their doors. In October, Boots was offering a half-price 7Mp (megapixel) Casio digital camera, while offers of free iPods (usually the entry-level shuffle variety, of course) are too widespread to list.

  1. Get the best deal: high street vs the web
  2. New web ways
  3. Trial and error
  4. Signed, sealed, delivered
  5. Going for a song
  6. Rare finds
  7. Safer shopping
  8. Final thoughts?
  9. Protection racket: your rights explained
  10. Money's too tight (to mention)
  11. Sphere of influence

Everyone knows you can save cash by shopping on the internet - but bricks-and-mortar firms are fighting back with unmissable deals of their own. PC Advisor weighs up your options. Here's how to save money today.

Sphere of influence

Forums and trusted bloggers can be a good source of advice about where to buy – and the places to avoid. Philip Wilkinson, founder of the peer-recommendation website Crowdstorm, reasons that when you want to get advice about a particular product, you want to hear from knowledgeable friends as well as professional reviewers.

Crowdstorm, which was opening for business as this issue of PC Advisor went to press, is geared up for exactly that and aims to simplify the decision-making process. Wilkinson co-founded Shopgenie, one of the early shopping comparison sites. It later merged with France’s Kelkoo to become one of the best-known price comparison sites around.

Reviewers and bloggers whose opinions and advice are posted on the site are ranked in a Digg-style public vote. Whether the group opinions on sites such as this end up swaying your opinion will be a matter of time and trust, but given the somewhat tricksy nature of the web, reassurances about unknown companies and their products and services can only be a good thing.