Imagine standing at a store checkout counter this holiday season. To get 20 percent off your order, all you would have to do is step away from the cashier for a moment and look on a nearby shelf for a coupon.
Would you bother?
That's essentially what you can do while shopping on the Internet--if you know how to crack the code to savings.
The secret is to use discount codes, also called promotional codes or coupons. They are widely available if you know where to look. And they can add up to significant savings for frequent online shoppers.
What are discount codes?
When buying online, you place items in a virtual shopping cart and then go through a checkout procedure. While checking out, the Web site often will ask if you have a discount code to enter. These codes are generally a series of numbers and letters that unlock goodies, such as a percentage discount on your order, dollars off your purchase and discounted or free shipping.
If you don't have a discount code, you might ignore the box for the code and go forward with your purchase. That's a mistake.
Instead, you should go code hunting.
"I do all the shopping I can online, and I'm amazed at what you save if you can find a coupon code," said Stephanie Nelson, author of the book "Greatest Secrets of the Coupon Mom," and creator of the CouponMom.com Web site.
At promotional-code site CouponCabin.com, the average savings is $8 per transaction, said Scott Kluth, founder of the site. Consumer savings for 2005 from CouponCabin alone totaled $2.8 million, he said.Here's how to crack the code to savings:
-- Stop. When you're asked for a promotional code during checkout, let the Web browser sit idle in the middle of the checkout procedure. Open another browser window, or open a new tab in your Internet Explorer 7, Mozilla or other tab-equipped browser.
"Wouldn't it be nice if you could do that at the grocery store? Say to the cashier, `Wait right here, while I go get a coupon over there,'" Nelson said.
-- Use search engines. Call up a few of your favorite Web search engines to find codes. Type in the retailer's name, the word "code" and other such terms as "promotional," "coupon" and "discount."
-- Try code aggregators. Some Web sites compile these discount codes for you. Examples besides CouponMom.com and CouponCabin.com are FlamingoWorld.com and CouponMountain.com.
"There are literally thousands of coupon-code Web sites," and they have different codes, Nelson said.
If the aggregator's Web page has a long list of codes, search the Web page with your browser's "Find" function, usually hitting keys Control + F.
-- Input the codes you find. Highlight and copy the code, return to your checkout browser and paste the found promotional code into the box, or just type the code. Often, you won't know whether the code you found has expired, but there's no harm in trying it.
"The downfall of many coupon code sites is that they don't take the time or have the staff to update the codes, which can expire at any time," Nelson said.
The worst that happens is the retailer rejects the code. If so, you can search the Internet further for unexpired codes or proceed through the checkout without a discount.
If you type in a correct code, the discount will be applied to your order.
A few minutes of searching could yield worthwhile savings. Recent offers at CouponCabin.com included 10 percent off a Circuit City purchase of $199 or more, free shipping at J.C. Penney and $15 off an order of $30 or more at Lane Bryant.
Another way to obtain promotional codes is to sign up for newsletters and promotional e-mails from your favorite retailers--promotional codes and special offers often are included in these e-mails. You might want to establish a separate e-mail account for these offers so your regular inbox doesn't become cluttered with promotions. Yahoo, Microsoft Hotmail and many others offer Web-based e-mail service for free.
As always, don't spend money you didn't intend to just because you have a special offer or coupon. But if you're buying something anyway, promotional codes have become so prevalent it's always worth code hunting.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Co. newspaper. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional discussion on spending wisely, see the Spending Smart blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/spendingsmart/.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times