Cyber shopping sprees for the whole family

by Melissa Jaramillo

Cyber MondayIf doing battle in the Black Friday chaos just isn't your thing, but you're seeking great deals for your family holiday gifts, I have another option to suggest. Online shopping with Cyber Monday!

Held the Monday after Thanksgiving, the online event grows each year, with more companies offering sales, and deeper discounts, and more consumers participating.

You may find that Cyber Monday has morphed into week long cyber shopping spree, as many stores launch sales on Thanksgiving and run throughout the following week.

Your Cyber Monday shopping guide

You don't have to worry about the weather, face the crowds, or race through stores locating a special toy that for some reason is displayed in the toilet paper aisle. You don't have to drag the kids along or find a sitter. Heck, you can even shop in your jammies!

You do need to prepare and create a game plan before hitting the 'net. Use these top cyber-shopping tips to find gifts at great prices for everyone on your (the naughty or nice) list.

Preliminary work

1. Set a budget. Make one for your overall holiday spending and for individuals on your list.

2. Create a shopping list. Write down either specific gifts or idea/category for each person.

3. Know your prices. You can't score a great deal if you don't know one. If you'll be shopping for specific gifts, look around ahead of time to learn the average regular price. Does it include shipping as those costs can add up?

4. Visit your favorite store websites early and sign up for their sales alerts. Subscribing gives you a heads-up for their specials. Several have already emailed "save the date" alerts!

5. Bookmark Cyber Monday websites to help your ferret out the best deals, hour by hour. Some allow you to set up alerts for specific items. My favorites include CyberMonday.com, Bfads.net, and Amazon.com.

6. Stay safe and "secure." As you make your purchases, insure that you're on a secured website, typically indicated by "https." If you're unfamiliar with the company, do a quick search with the Better Business Bureau. Print out receipts or save as screen shots on your computer. If in doubt, opt out. No deal is worth identity theft.

The big day

Sales typically begin at midnight Eastern. Pull out your game plan set alarm reminders to nab an hour special. Lucky west coast people -- you don't have to stay up as late to catch the early bird specials.

Stick to your list and budget! Don't get sucked in by what looks like an awesome deal for items you don't need.

A must for Black Friday shoppers are comfortable shoes. For those hitting Cyber Monday/Week sales -- grab coffee or your personal favorite energy booster. You'll want to be sharp as you enter the land of URLs.

Important note: If you're shopping from work, check your company's policy regarding use of company equipment or time. Their policy may exclude even your Smartphone. While you can cry "Grinch!" don't risk your job.

Unique suggestions for the family

For the kiddos: Hot toys of the year may initially catch their eye, but judging from past experience, not their lasting attention.

Consider tapping hobbies or other interests. Cyber deals include everything from musical instruments, to cameras, museums, zoos, sporting equipment and lessons. You'll be giving a gift that will give lasting pleasure.

For parents/grands: Pull together that ton of pictures you have downloaded on your computer or phone and create a digital scrapbook. Take advantage of Cyber Monday offerings from companies like Snapfish or Shutterfly. You're bound to be met with loads of smiles.

For him or her: Create a basket of romance and rekindle your relationship Check out Restaurant.com for dinner for two. Pick up discount tickets to a show (see Ticketmaster for live theater or Fandango to catch a flick on screen). Wind up the evening with warm body massage oils available from Bath ∓ Body Works, your favorite soft music, candles, and…well you get the picture!

Vacation: You can capture terrific discounts on flights, hotels, and cruises. Maybe you'll find that dream vacation within reach! Look on Orbitz, Travelocity, Hotels.com, Disney, and similar sites.

A final tip: As the packages arrive, open them up, verify the contents, and keep track of what you've received. Trust me; there's nothing worse than realizing at the last minute a special gift didn't make it.

Will you be staying home and hitting online for your holiday shopping this year? What tips (or snafus!) have you run into?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.