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Insider tips for online shopping

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"TURN on, tune in and check out" has become the mantra of the merchandise-amassing millions who flock daily to the Internet to buy an assortment of things that would make even Timothy Leary scratch his drug-addled noggin.

We buy music over the ether, try on clothes from across the globe and pick pizza with our PDAs. According to a Nielsen survey, more than 875 million people worldwide have shopped online -- a 40% increase in just two years. Here in the U.S., online retail is even defying the gloomy economic forecast, with cyber sales expected to rise 17% this year to $204 billion -- and apparel leading all categories at $26.6 billion, according to Forrester Research.

With the information superhighway on its way to becoming as crowded as the 405 at drive time, even the savviest shopper needs to know how to compete. So, to help you beat the masses to the merchandise, we've gathered a few tips about when to wake up, how misspellings can help and why not to pay for expedited shipping. Below, some pointers from online apparel e-tailers we frequently visit.

Brooks Brothers

brooksbrothers.com

Brooks is one of many retailers that uses the Web as a testing ground, so sharp shoppers will find new prints, fits and even new pieces (that's how the brand's slim-fit boxer made it to store shelves).

Pay attention next time you see a Brooks Brothers catalog come in the mail; the company updates its site every two to three weeks to coincide with mailings. Men's and women's clothing and accessories go on sale in June and December and are marked down further in July and January. But everything remains in the site's clearance section (even the stuff from stores) through the entire next season.

Bluefly

bluefly.com

Set your alarm clock and brew some coffee, because hard-core fans of this site, which serves up discounted designer goods from the likes of Tory Burch, Vivienne Tam and Michael Kors, know that 250 new items are posted at precisely 3:31 a.m. PDT every morning. And limber up that clicking finger, because really hot items can sell out in just a few hours.

It might also help to mark your calendar; the entire website gets updated once a week, typically Wednesday mornings. That means all seasonal launches will happen on Wednesdays too (and usually in the first week of the month). For exact dates and other updates, including what designers are coming, sign up for e-mail blasts.

EBay

www.ebay.com

Once you've found your prey, the best way to improve your odds at this online auction site is to look for listings that expire at odd hours (think rush hour, dinner time or the wee small hours of the night), when your competitors are likely to be off their game. Also, shop on Sundays. They tend to be lightly shopped, and auctions that end on Sunday mornings and afternoons often wrap up at a lower value than at other times.

And don't be afraid to search the site for "Tom Frod" sunglasses or a vintage "Marymekko" dress. Failure to spell-check could mean failure to find for most prospective buyers -- and that could mean a bargain find for the sleuth.

Gap

www.gap.com, www.bananarepublic.com, www.oldnavy.com, www.piperlime.com

Gap Inc.'s sites are among the busiest on the Web, so signing up for e-mail alerts is crucial for staying ahead when it comes to new collections, sales and special events (you can do this from the home page of each site). The company sites are also a good way to get a gander at new a product that hasn't hit stores yet (new merchandise generally hits the Web a few days before it appears on shelves -- head for the "New Arrivals" section).

The Web also levels the playing field for customers who want limited-edition pieces that will physically roll out only to select doors (like the Gap Design Editions collection of white shirts, which will hit only 50 Gap stores this week, and Banana's upscale Monogram collection, which will be in only a dozen brick-and-mortar stores).

Gilt Groupe

www.gilt.com

The best way to score those deeply discounted Dolce & Gabbana pumps or that John Varvatos jacket when you're battling it out at this 36-hour, members-only online sample sale, with goods up to 75% off, is to get on board early. To help with that, sign up to receive text message alerts to your cellphone right before sales start at 9 a.m. PDT and click the "Add to Calendar" link, which allows you to add the sale date to the calendar program on your computer.

If you're not quick on the draw and the item you want has already sold out or is languishing in another's shopping cart, you can click the "waitlist" button. If another shopper gets cold feet -- or if Gilt gets more inventory after the sale has ended -- you will be alerted by e-mail or text message.

Haute Look

hautelook.com

This L.A.-based site runs 12- to 48-hour private sales when designer goods go for as much as 50% off retail (recent brands include LaROK, Ya-Ya Designs and Revolver), so you'll need to sign up before you can start shopping -- which happens promptly at 8 a.m. PDT the day of the sale ( usually ending at 11 p.m. the same day). Signing up for the e-mail blast means you'll get a five-minute warning shot before the start. To plan the next week of e-tailing, scroll through the site to see what brands are on tap.

And keep an eye on the clock: Once you've added an item to your shopping cart, the purchase must be completed within 15 minutes or it will be released back into the wild.

Intuition

shopintuition.com

Subscribe to the "Intuition Insider" e-mail blast and the online outpost of this Pico Boulevard boutique will give you real-time info on which starlet's wearing what, what the trends are -- and how much it will cost you. "We do those in the middle of the night if we have to be the first to get the word out about black latex leggings being the must-have," says Intuition owner Jaye Hersh. "We try to be the first to talk about a trend."

Although the site updates new merchandise 24/7, Tuesday is the best day to revisit the site. "Monday night we clean up the inventory from the weekend, and Tuesday morning the bulk of the new stuff has gone up."

J. Crew

www.jcrew.com

One shopper's return can be another's reward -- every day of the week. The J. Crew site is updated each morning with merchandise that has been returned. So if that T-shirt you want happens to be MIA on the first pass, there's always a chance one will be repatriated overnight. Failing that, you can use the "We'll Find It for You" service to help track it down at the brick-and-mortar stores.

The Crew crew uses the unlimited real estate of cyberspace to serve up additional shoe sizes (as small as a 5 1/2 and as large as a 12), clothing at both ends of the size ranges and a choice of exclusive products across the board from women's tops to men's jackets and even an online-only bridal collection.

Net-a-Porter

www.net-a-porter.com

This U.K.-based site, which boasts designers such as Stella McCartney, Christian Lacroix and Roberto Cavalli uploads about 200 new products first thing Wednesday mornings, London time, which means L.A. customers can start getting their shop on around 2 a.m. Also of note: Spring merchandise starts hitting the site in December, and fall starts showing up as early as June.

Shopbop

www.shopbop.com

This popular site for contemporary women's clothing (think Juicy Couture and Diane von Furstenberg) updates its inventory every morning at 3 a.m. PDT, with e-mail blasts going out to subscribers as early as 9 p.m. the night before.

Zappos

www.zappos.com

Inventory at the shoe-focused e-tailer is updated in "real time," which means as soon as the item is scanned into the warehouse, it's ready to buy. So there isn't a magic time to log on for new arrivals, but there are a few helpful things to remember when it comes to shipping. First, the site prides itself on offering free standard shipping both ways: You don't pay when you purchase, and you don't pay when you return.

Although the company promises standard delivery in four to five days, Chief Executive Tony Hsieh says, "we'll often give a free upgrade to overnight delivery if the address is within the continental U.S. and served by UPS or FedEx. I'd say we do that about 95% of the time."

adam.tschorn@latimes.com

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