Shopping online can fall into that category. The upside is, of course, convenience.

Shopping online can fall into that category. The upside is, of course, convenience.

Parents can play Santa while the kids are dreaming of sugar plums. The downside is frustration. Squinting at thumbnails of every imaginable Pokemon action figure or Dora the Explorer accessory can sap holiday spirit every bit as much as a weekend trip to the mall. The frustration is compounded if you don't actually get what you think you're ordering.

Fortunately, a few tips can help online shoppers get better results.

First, use websites that compare prices, such as NextTag.com, MySimon.com and Shopzilla.com. The information on these sites is useful even if you buy from a local retailer.

To be sure the price comparison is fair, check shipping charges. Some websites lure in customers with discounted prices, then pile on shipping and handling fees. When possible, leave enough time to use ground shipping which is free on many websites, especially during the holidays.

Second, take advantage of websites that offer print-out coupons and codes that can be used to get discounts on Internet orders. Savings.com and Naughtycodes.com are regularly updated and easy to search. Coupon sites constantly change and special offers end abruptly, so be sure to print out a potentially useful coupon as soon as you find it.

Finally, to zero in on hard-to-find gifts, use specialized search engines like the "Shopping" section of Google. The exception to this rule is the one hot toy that is invariably in short supply each year. Scam artists, including some on auction sites, often exploit the desperation of holiday shoppers by offering, but not delivering, the coveted item.

If you find something on a website that is sold out in every other store or site, be sure to check credentials of the seller before buying online. Also be certain you have full contact information, including an address and a working phone number, so you can follow up if the item doesn't arrive. TheBAG Lady hosts a Find that Toy forum on TheBAG.com, a local site in Columbus, which you can check out for hard-to-find items.

Here are other tips to make online shopping go more smoothly:

Avoid Cyber Monday. Malls are usually packed the Friday after Thanksgiving. Now, the Monday after Thanksgiving has become a big traffic day for websites. Shop another day to avoid slow-loading websites.

Choose trustworthy websites. Be wary of online advertising that appears out of nowhere. Don't purchase items recommended by e-mail or pop up ads. Clicking on this kind of ad will guarantee that you'll get more of them in the future.

A growing number of these ads are blatant attempts to steal personal information. So-called "phishing" sites mimic the look of sites that belong to reputable companies, including banks and big-name retailers. Avoid them by going directly to the website you want rather than visiting whatever pops up.

Check out unknown vendors. If you don't already know the company that has an item you want, do a little sleuthing. A lot of unknown websites are backed up by legitimate small businesses, but not all.

Check the About Us section of a site to find out how long the company has been in business.

Call the phone number and evaluate the person on the other end. Information about a company's reputation is also available at formal sites like BBBOnline.com and informal sites like epinions.com. Putting "I bought" and the name of the company into a search engine is another way to find out about complaints.

Provide only the information needed for the transaction. Obviously, someone who is shipping merchandise needs to know your name and address. Usually you'll need to provide a phone number and/or e-mail address so the company can contact you if there's a problem with your order. No other information should be necessary. A reputable merchant will NEVER ask for a Social Security number or bank account information.

Use a credit card. Because of the Fair Credit Billing Act, your liability for an unauthorized charge to your credit card is no more than $50. Sites that use secure technology have an icon of an unbroken lock in the lower right corner of the page. Another sign of a secure site is an "s" before or after the "http" in the web address. NEVER e-mail a credit card number to anyone.

Look for the return policy. Sometimes websites associated with brick and mortar stores allow returns of online purchases to their local stores. For merchants selling only online, read the return policies. Most, but not all, websites expect you to pay the cost to ship back an item, but some also have restocking fees that can be as high as 25 percent of the item's purchase price.

Opt out. You don't give merchants at the local mall permission to call you every time they're having a sale. Unless you really want to know about every "special offer" a company dreams up, check the box that allows you to opt out of e-mail promotions. It's also a good idea to scan a merchant's privacy policy to find out if it will share your customer information with other companies.

Keep records. Print out what you ordered along with contact information for the company. Compare your receipts to your credit card statement to be sure there aren't any unauthorized charges.

Of course, saving time by shopping online won't matter much if you overspend. The biggest secret to happy holiday shopping is making a budget and sticking to it. Use a small notebook or an online spreadsheet to keep track of what you buy - online and off. That way the dread of January's bills won't interfere with the joys of holiday giving.