By: Diana Ratliff

Finding the best price for the gifts you want can drive you crazy at the best of times - add a holiday deadline, limited budget and a list as long as Santa's, and you've got major stress. Even if you shop online for the sake of convenience, the experience is often bewildering. Who can you trust? Which vendor has the best price? What about customer service?

And how can you find the answers to those questions, fast?

Online comparison shopping sites like Shopzilla.com, Pricegrabber.com and Shopping.Yahoo.com (all well-regarded services) were designed to solve those problems. Growing numbers of US consumers turn to these sites to help them quickly locate the best prices on a wide variety of products.

So how do online price comparison sites work, and how do you use them to find the best deal?

Most comparison pricing sites allow you to enter the specific item you want - an iPod Nano, let's say - and then show you a list of retailers that carry it. Usually, you'll see the price that stores are charging for the item and some rating (using stars, checkmarks or smiley faces) of the merchant's reliability. If you know exactly what you want, this fast, basic search may be all you need.

The Search

But if you need to do some browsing to find what you want, or if you want to see results from more vendors, you'll have to look further. Trying a different price comparison site may help. Some have more participating merchants; some focus on specific product categories.

For example, try AddAll.com for book price comparisons, AMusicArea.com for music CD comparisons and AMovieArea.com for movie DVD comparisons. Generally speaking, electronics, computers, appliances and techie "gadgets" are easiest to find at online shopping comparison sites.

Be sure to use the search tools sites offer, such as searching by price, zip code, shipping fees, product popularity, product rating, and so on.

The Stores

iPod Nanos are sold at hundreds of stores, so why don't you see hundreds of merchants in your comparison shopping price results? That's because only vendors that pay to be included will come up in your search. The fact that a site is listed (or listed first), does not mean that it is endorsed or that it has even been checked out.

This is one of the biggest downsides of using product price comparison sites. If your favorite online retailer(s) do not appear, you'll need to do a separate search at their site.

Be sure to do your research before buying from stores you've never heard of, or paying a price that seems too good to be true.