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Additional Shopping Opportunities

Cheap holiday shopping abounds beyond the traditional "storefronts" of these mega-retailers, whether you're shopping through Amazon or Walmart. Walmart.com sells more than 1 million items, including many not found in Walmart stores.

Our hands-on test of the site found it well-organized and user-friendly. Walmart.com also hosts a Marketplace where outside retailers approved by Walmart can sell items through the company's website that might not otherwise be available to Walmart.com shoppers. The page showcasing the item clearly states "Buy from Marketplace." Marketplace retailers don't have to follow Walmart.com policies for returns and order cancellations; they can adopt their own.

Amazon also features a Marketplace, but unlike Walmart's, it adds a layer of complication to the site. You may see up to three prices for the same item. If the phrase "Ships from and sold by Amazon.com" appears under the first price on the product page, this is a straight Amazon.com deal. Absent that phrase, the Marketplace seller's name will be noted, which means Amazon is serving as the intermediary and the seller handles customer service, returns, cancellations, and refunds. You may also see a "new" and a "used" price, the latter signaling that a third party (not Amazon) is selling the item. Sometimes an item is sold by an outside seller but shipped from Amazon. In that case, you'll see "Sold by (seller's name) and fulfilled by Amazon," which means Amazon controls shipping and customer service (including return and cancellation policies). Some customers grumble about Marketplace vendors, noting on sites like My3Cents and Epinions that prices are sometimes set too high and used or refurbished items may be in poor condition.

Shipping Costs and Sales Tax.

One concern for frugal shoppers when deciding whether to shop at Amazon or Walmart is the cost of shipping. Amazon tries to minimize the potential for bottom-line shock with a variety of shipping options. First is the free Super Saver Shipping, which is offered on purchases of eligible items totaling $25 or more; delivery takes five to eight business days. Another alternative is Amazon Prime: For a $79 annual membership fee you get free shipping and two-day delivery for qualifying items. CNET points out you can leverage the cost of an Amazon Prime membership by sharing it with up to four family members (at your address) or four co-workers who shop on the same account. Consumers seem to like Amazon Prime. One member we spoke with says her orders always arrive within a day or two, and the free shipping makes the final cost seem like a wholesale deal. Reviews of Amazon posted at SiteJabber also commend the shipping service. One committed Amazon shopper says orders often arrive sooner than expected, and even the free Super Saver Shipping rarely takes the stated five to eight business days.

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Shipping costs are a non-issue when shopping in-store at Walmart, but they can add up on Walmart.com. To help ease the pain, the retailer's online division just introduced (in time for the 2011 holiday shopping season) free shipping to your home with a minimum $45 order on items that qualify. Walmart.com also offers free shipping on qualifying purchases through a program called Site to Store. Orders are shipped to a Walmart store or FedEx location of your choosing, where you can pick them up. This service is open to any Walmart.com shopper -- no membership required. Items that qualify have a note in the buying options table that says "Free shipping to store." You should figure on one to two days for the order to process and another five to eight business days for it to arrive at the delivery site; you'll receive an email or text when the order is ready for pickup. Thousands of items qualify for free Site to Store shipping; the most common exceptions are perishable, hazardous, or extremely heavy (350 pounds or more) items. A much smaller selection of items can be ordered on Walmart.com and picked up that day at your local store.

Sales tax is another added cost that may affect your choice of Amazon or Walmart. When you buy something at any bricks-and-mortar store in 46 of the 50 states, you're hit with state and/or local sales taxes; Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon are the exceptions. (According to the Tax Foundation, Tennessee's combined state and (average) local sales tax levy of 9.43 percent is currently the highest.) If you shop at Walmart.com, the relevant taxes for your place of residence are applied to the final cost. Amazon takes a different approach to the sales tax issue. The website states that if you purchase an item and have it shipped to Kansas, Kentucky, New York, North Dakota, or Washington, the sales tax applies; orders sent to other locales escape tax-free. As one Amazon shopper we interviewed says: "(Shopping at Amazon is) quicker, easier, and less hassle than going to a store. Plus, no sales tax!" But note: Some states require that you declare how much money you spent on tax-free online purchases during the year and pay up when filing your state income tax return, so be sure to check the laws in your state.

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