SO, you want to get things cheaper? Well there is a way. With Christmas only four days away and the last-minute rush on the high street to buy presents getting ever more frantic by the hour, more and more people are turning to the Internet as the solution to their problems.

It's a wise move too, because providing you are careful and patient, there are some fantastic deals to be had on the electronic highway that often put store prices to shame.

But there's one significant difference between buying online and buying at the shops.

Looking for that perfect gift doesn't work quite as well on a computer, so you need to know what you're after before you start searching for it.

For that reason, and contradictory though it is, the best way to go about buying something online is to check out your local shops first.

Deciding what you want to buy by having a look at what's available in the high street also gives you two added bonuses.

Firstly you can get a hands-on feel for the product that you are after. You can check the quality of the thing you want as well as making sure that it fits the bill.

However, equally important is finding out how much something costs in the high street, so you can guarantee you are getting a better deal when you place an order online.

One of the best ways to find things cheaper online is to use websites that allow you to compare prices being offered by online shops.

The thing to remember about searching for the present you want is to be patient.

Just as high street shops offer different prices on different items, often depending on how much of the stock they have managed to get hold of and how much they want to shift it, so too do Internet shops.

For that reason, take your time to look at all the deals available and use as many different search engines and websites as you can stand. You never know, one of them might just be offering it that little bit cheaper.

Having said that, it is worth mentioning that, unfortunately, it seems toys are unaffected by market competition.

I searched scores of online shops looking for the best deal on some of this year's most popular children's toys and found, surprisingly, that no matter where you look, every toy is the same price.

Almost every other present I could think of, from gadgets to perfume and TVs to clothes, are on offer at different prices at different stores, but for parents looking to get their children cheaper toys, it would seem there is no such thing.

Next thing to be aware of is the small print.

Check that the price you are being asked to pay includes VAT and delivery, otherwise the price you think you're getting could be a long way from what you end up paying.

Another important thing to bear in mind is availability.

Ways to safe and speedy online deals

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Although, unlike a shop, you are never going to walk away with the item right there and then, many Internet shops make great efforts to get the product to you either the next working day or within a couple of days.

In fact, a lot of Internet companies use quick delivery times as their method of enticement.

So, now you've found what you want online and potentially saved yourself lots of money, how do you go about ordering?

There are two main ways to buy the goods you want.

You can go ahead and buy the product online. However, for some people, doing this is about as appealing as wrestling a crocodile.

One of the main causes of concern for people thinking about shopping online is security. Is someone going to be able to get hold of your bank details and then use your account to their benefit?

While this does occasionally happen it is actually quite a rarity and, with a few sensible precautions, you can minimise the risk.

If possible, buy from a shop that you recognise.

Most high street stores now have an online version, for example Comet and Argos, and indeed they frequently offer deals to their web-based customers that are not available to a high-street shopper.

But don't necessarily be put off if you have never heard the company's name before.

Make sure the website includes the trader's full address and telephone number.

Most important is to check that the website has a secure way of paying, known as an encryption facility, which is often depicted by a padlock symbol.

This allows information being sent across the web to be scrambled into an unrecognisable tangle that can only be translated into meaningful data by the company you are dealing with.

Another important point on the checklist is to look for a privacy statement, usually found at the bottom of the website. This is your guarantee from the company that your details will not be passed to another party.

For further information, the Department of Trade and Industry has produced a leaflet called Safe Internet Shopping which is available from local libraries and Citizens Advice Bureaux.

You could also give your credit card provider a call because most offer some form of protection against credit card fraud committed on the Internet.

Finally though, if the thought of buying online is still leaving you in a cold sweat, bear in mind that most online shops also offer a telephone order service, where you can still deal with a human being.

Examples of Internet sites where you can compare prices include:

All these sites provide a cross section of prices available online, with most of them offering the option of listing prices in ascending order - ensuring you can find the cheapest available price.

However, as well as using these sites, it is also worth using search engines such as and and typing in the product you are after.