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Best free stuff online: Catering to consumers
(IDG) -- Spanning the Web to bring you the finest in freebies, PC World lists the best sites for the resourceful, penny-pinching and downright cheap.
Today: Sites that offer frequent-buyer benefits, sites that help you save and sites that deliver to your door for no extra charge.
The best frequent-buyer benefits
Many online stores have taken a cue from the wildly successful frequent-flier programs. Vying for consumer attention in the cluttered Web mall, vendors have begun to offer points for purchases -- usually one point per dollar spent -- as well as special bonus-point offerings. This past Christmas, I did most of my shopping on the Web and came away with much more than I had purchased. By shopping at sites I would have visited anyway, I racked up thousands of points for frequent flier and lodging programs. Plus, I was also able to convert points into charitable donations for the organizations of my choice.
The plans are managed through point-provider partners such as ClickRewards and MyPoints, or through charity point sites such as GreaterGood.com and IGive.com. Once you register with them, you can shop online as usual, except you must enter the Web stores through links on the point provider's site. (Note: If you want points and privacy, don't be lured by bonus offers that require you to provide a lot of personal information.)
ClickRewards: This site gives ClickMiles for purchases from partner e-merchants. You can easily monitor the accumulated points in your account, and you can apply the miles to the frequent flier programs for any of ten major airlines. You'll need a minimum of 250 points before you can redeem them, but that's not a problem. You can easily rack up points quickly with the numerous bonus incentives offered for purchases.
MyPoints: This program seems especially eager to give you bonus points. But almost all of them come at the cost of divulging personal information about you and your buying habits. MyPoints has the best-organized redemption page of these services, with QuickLists of awards broken down by number of required points or by participating partners. A minimum of 500 points can earn you gift certificates for retail stores, airlines, restaurants, and even gas stations. As an added incentive, the MyPoints links to Eddie Bauer, Tower Records, and Sharper Image earn you a $10 discount -- one you would not get if you went to these vendors' sites directly.
GreaterGood.com: You get a $5 certificate to Amazon.com for registering and a $2 donation to your favorite charity for each friend you refer to the site. You can list only one nonprofit cause or charity in your profile at a time, but the site notes what percentage (3.5 and up) of your purchase price is donated. If you return an item, the donation does not change. By linking to merchants from GreaterGood.com, you also get discounts not otherwise offered.
IGive.com: You donate money (3.5 percent and up) to charities each time you buy or even browse the IGive shopping mall, which consists of links to hundreds of e-stores. Some merchants offer first-time discounts for shopping via IGive. While a pre-selected list of charities is provided, you can add your own causes to the roster. The site even offers to route the completed donation check to you first, so you can ensure that the funds are really distributed.
Best consumer-advisory and coupon sites
Consumer retorts: Productopia
If you want buying advice on a wide range of products, you could subscribe to the venerable Consumer Reports; or you could get equally good free tips from your peers on Productopia. This site offers a plethora of straight talk from consumers who have road-tested the electronics, software, and appliances you're thinking about buying. But what sets Productopia apart from other product review sites is its combination of individual consumers' opinions with evaluations and background information written by its own staff. The site is easy to navigate, with links to related product categories on every page. If you're looking at digital cameras but also want to check out video cameras, for instance, you don't need to run another search; simply click on the link.
Digital coupon-clippers: MyCoupons
Coupon clippers, drop your scissors. No registration is required to access this site's grocery and shopping coupons, which you can print out and take to stores for discounts on everything from organic toothpaste to kosher poultry. There are also offers of the day and an Internet coupons page that provides special codes you can use for discounts on such products as perfume, books, and videos from participating online vendors.
Custom coupon: CoolSavings
This site personalizes coupon clipping by providing special offers on items that you specify. Once you register, you're asked to choose products from categories such as automotive, grocery, gifts and flowers, hardware and garden, and pets. The site then gives you "coupon codes" for discounts from participating online retailers. Download the site's Coupon Manager software and you can print out coupons for local retail stores, restaurants, and travel providers.
Free wheelin': Web sites that deliver
With the advent of the Internet and e-commerce, it's now possible to be a complete hermit and still shop 'til you drop (your mouse, that is). Plus, you can get all your purchases delivered to your door. But what may seem like a great convenience can be offset by extra delivery charges. A number of sites deliver for free, but they make you pay for the privilege with higher base prices. We found a few that don't charge you for either the delivery or the perk.
1stAmericanFlowers: Some florists offer free delivery but add a service charge for Internet orders. Not 1st American Flowers, a Canadian business that also doesn't charge sales tax on U.S. deliveries. The company will even deliver the same day if you order by noon in the recipient's time zone. The minimum order is $29.95, but most floral arrangements in the site's catalog cost that much, anyway.
Boo.com: This ultra-hip shopping site delivers clothing and accessories free in the U.S. and in many other countries, including France, Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. (Some overseas orders may come with import duties and taxes.)
Freeshipping.com: Browse through more than a million brand-name products here. You don't purchase from freeshipping.com itself; a robot scours for deals at other online retail sites. But gratis delivery doesn't always mean the lowest price here. Freeshipping led us to a Wusthof cutlery set from cooking.com for $426. But we found the same item at p4online.com for $391, including -- you guessed it -- free delivery.
Outpost.com: Also known as Cyberian Outpost, this site, which features computers, electronics, games, and home and office equipment, takes the term "free shipping" to a new level. The company offers free overnight delivery in the U.S. via Airborne Express Next Day service. Most sites send goods via UPS or USPS ground, which can take a week or more to arrive.
Vitamins.com: Feeling run down? Hurry to this site for vitamins and other nutritional supplements, as well as toiletries. Shipping is free in the U.S. The site also provides an online encyclopedia with sections such as general health concerns, herbal remedies, and drug interactions.
USAppliance: This online store will not only deliver heavy appliances such as refrigerators and dishwashers to your home, but its delivery people will even unpack the item and plug it in for you.
Best free stuff online: Advice abounds
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