Careers: Interviews
Internationally Respected and Widely Regarded Author, Writer, Consultant

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Michael Miller.

Michael is the author of more than fifty non-fiction books and numerous magazine and Web articles. He writes about a variety of topics, ranging from computers to consumer electronics to music. Throughout his writing, he has established a reputation for practical advice, technical accuracy, and an unerring empathy for the needs of his readers. Mr. Miller prides himself on being able to explain complicated topics to the average reader.

Mr. Miller received a Marketing degree from Indiana University in 1980, and then spent several years working in his family's retail business. He entered the publishing industry in 1987 and spent a dozen years in various management positions at Macmillan Publishing, including Director of Marketing, Associate Publisher, and Vice President of Business Strategy. Mr. Miller formed The Molehill Group in 1999, and is now a full-time writer. His best-selling books include Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Computer Basics, 2nd Edition (Que); Absolute Beginner’s Guide to eBay (Que); Tech TV’s Windows XP for Home Users, 2nd Edition (New Riders); and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory (Alpha/Penguin).

Michael’s latest book, Bargain Hunter's Secrets to Online Shopping (Que), is garnering wide praise.

Discussion:

Q: Michael, with your fine reputation for excellence, we are very fortunate to have you with us. Thank you!

A: Glad to be here.

Q: What valuable lessons can you share from your current projects?

A: There are a lot of bargains available on the Internet! And not just on the so-called discount sites. Almost every Web retailer has some sort of bargain or closeout section on their site where you can find some really great bargains.

Q: Please share two surprising experiences.

A: First, many people assume that the best bargains online are to be found on eBay. While you can find great deals on eBay, in many cases the price you end up paying is no better than what you can find at other sites, or at traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers. eBay is a great example of supply and demand working in real time, and with millions of users bidding on items every day, sometimes prices get bid up to unreasonable levels. Great for sellers, but not always great for buyers! So if you're shopping on eBay, make sure you do your homework so that you don't bid more than you'd pay elsewhere.

Second, I've found that the lowest price isn't always the best deal. I know this might shock some hard-core bargain hunters, but I'm willing to pay a little bit more for good service, in the form of a quality site, fast shipping, solid communication, and such. In many cases the really low-ball sites cost me more in time and concern than I save in dollar and cents. I prefer to send my business to those e-tailers who do a good job at what they do.

Q: Share your top ten tips from your book, Bargain Hunter's Secrets to Online Shopping (Que).

A: 1)  Research your purchase before you buy. Check out the information at the manufacturer's Web site, as well as opinions of other users at sites such as Epinions.com.

2)  Use a price-comparison site to compare prices from dozens of online retailers, all at once. The best of these sites are Shopping.com, Yahoo! Shopping, and Froogle.

3)  Don't buy at the first site you visit! Check out prices -- and service -- at competing sites to make sure you're getting the best deal.

4)  Look for sales. Online retailers are just like traditional retailers, in that they frequently run sales and other special promotions which can reduce the price of what you want to buy. To find out which merchants are running what promotions, turn to an online promotion site, such as DealofDay.com or Specialoffers.com.

5)  Sometimes you can save a few bucks by buying a used or refurbished item, instead of one new in the box. Amazon.com offers a “buy used” option for most of the products it sells, and you can find returned and refurbished items at the sites of many product manufacturers.

6)  Take advantage of manufacturer rebates. If you’re not sure which manufacturers are offering what rebates, check out a rebate tracking site, such as myRebates.com or rebatesHQ.com. These sites list current manufacturer rebates, let you print the official rebate forms, and even track the progress of your rebate claims.

7)  Use an online coupon. The big difference between a traditional and an online coupon, of course, is that an online coupon isn’t printed. Instead, you get a coupon code that you enter when you go to check out at a merchant’s site. There are numerous Web sites that track the online coupon offers from various manufacturers and retailers. The best include CouponMountain.com, DealOfDay.com, and MyCoupon.com.

8)  Sign up for a cash-back purchasing program. Several Web sites offer “frequent customer” plans that let you earn rebates for each purchase you make at participating retailers. These sites include Ebates.com and MoreRebates.com.

9)  Look for sites that offer free or reduced shipping. Sometimes a low price on a product is offset by high shipping costs. You want to shop for the lowest total price, shipping included.

10)  Reduce your shipping costs by combining multiple items into a single order, or by choosing a slower and cheaper shipping method.

Q: Why should our readers study this book? What differentiates it from others?

A: There are few other "shopping directories" on the shelves, but Bargain Hunter's Secrets to Online Shopping is the only one that focuses on finding the lowest prices online. The first half of the book is devoted to specific bargain-hunting techniques, while the second half is a directory of the best sites for bargains, in the most popular categories. I even point out where on each site you can find the best deals.

Q: You pick the topics: now provide us with those valuable rare “gems” that only you know.

A: Here's a cool one. You can use the Web to save money at traditional retailers. Many sites, such as CouponCart.com and Hotcoupons.com, let you print out coupons you can use at your local retailers. And SalesHound.com lists advertised sales at hundreds of national and local retailers; all you have to do is enter your ZIP code, and SalesHound displays all the sales and deals it knows about in nearby stores.

As to saving money at particular retailers, here are a few tips for getting the best deals at Amazon.com, the largest online retailer. (I devote an entire chapter to Amazon.com in my book.)  To view all current promotions, discounts, sales, rebates, and the like, across all categories, click the Welcome tab and then click the Today's Deals link. More bargains can be found in the Bottom of the Page section at the (where else?) bottom of every category or listing page. Clearance merchandise can be found at the Amazon.com Outlet page, which you get to by clicking the Outlet tab on the navigation bar. And the best bargains are found once a week at Amazon's Friday Sale; go to the Outlet tab and then click The Friday Sale link.

Q: What future books can we expect from you?

A: Alpha/Penguin has just published a new music title that builds on the concepts in my best-selling music theory book, called The Complete Idiot's Guide to Solos and Improvisation. This fall Que will be publishing two new books I'm currently working on. The first is titled Bad Pics Fixed Quick, which is designed to help the casual digital photographer fix really bad pictures, using Photoshop Elements. The second book is Tricks of the eBay Masters, which compiles hundreds of useful tricks and tips from successful eBay buyers and sellers.

Q: What are the most important trends to watch, and please provide some recommendations?

A:  1) The big trend, obviously, is that more and more retailers are establishing an online presence. Not only can you shop at Web-only retailers, you can also use the Internet to shop the big stores you've been frequenting for years in the real world. The advantage of this is that you can place your order online and then pickup your merchandise at your local store, saving on shipping costs.

2) A related trend is that online retailers are partnering with bricks-and-mortar retailers. Amazon.com, for example, partners with Target, offering Target's merchandise online -- and letting you pick up some orders in your local stores.

3) More and more online retailers are offering free or reduced shipping -- or lowering the amount of merchandise you need to buy to get free shipping. Shipping has always been one of the hidden costs of shopping online, so any reduction in shipping charges is a good thing.

4) Look for more manufacturers offering merchandise direct to the consumer, bypassing traditional retailers. (Manufacturer sites are also good sources of closeout and refurbished merchandise.)

5) Amazon.com continues to add more categories of merchandise, and more ways to find different merchandise. In particular, look for Amazon to become more aggressive in offering used merchandise through their network of Amazon Merchants; look for the Buy Used link on product pages to purchase a used copy (at a lower price) instead of a new one.

Q: What kind of computer setup do you have?

A: I actually have three active computers. I have a two-year old Dell Pentium 4 that I use as my main desktop. However, I do most of my writing on a new Gateway laptop with 15" screen and built-in WiFi. I also have a lower-powered HP machine that I use to drive my home recording studio.

Q: Michael, thank you again for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this interview.

A: Glad to participate!

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