Shop around for the best deals -- and the best rewards.

Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

In the olden days, "cash on the barrelhead" meant a direct exchange of money for goods. A transaction was immediate and pretty straightforward. There were no pesky credit card bills, no coupons, no points, and no strange or complicated discount programs to decipher and track. A penny candy cost a penny (yes, candy was pretty cheap once upon a time).

Fast forward a handful of decades and most American consumers now expect a little wrangling and a few creative discounts and perks along with their purchases. From sites that specialize in scouring the Internet for coupons to large retailers that sponsor clubs where you can qualify for rewards based on how much, how often or what you purchase, online rewards programs are basically loyalty programs. They're designed to save shoppers money for frequenting a particular merchant or structuring their purchases in a specific manner.

Rewards are available through online retailers in a couple of different ways that we'll refer to as direct and indirect programs. Direct programs exist on a retailer's Web site and may take the form of accruing points or airline miles when you use a credit card, refer a friend or buy items within a specific category. You may also qualify for rewards if your purchases exceed a certain dollar amount within a prescribed period of time, or within a specific category like winter sweaters or electronics. Rewards payouts can be modest, like qualifying for free freight on your purchase. They can also include merchandise, coupons or gift cards. This may sound familiar because online rewards strategies aren't that different from the preferred customer rewards you're used to receiving at your local market or department store.

Shoppers can also qualify for rewards in a way that's unique to the Internet. We'll call these indirect rewards. Here's how they works: Specialized sites like Ebates are collectively referred to as rebate sites. They receive revenue from online retailers for directing customers their way. Think of rebate sites as portals to online vendors. When you use the portal to visit a retailer, the rebate site gets a commission. To thank you for using the portal, the rebate site shares the revenue from the merchant with you.

Since rebate sites represent hundreds of merchants, it's easy to find vendors you trust and click through to them. You can make a few extra dollars on your purchases just by changing the starting point of your search. When you buy an item, your purchases are automatically logged, and you're on your way to extra savings.

Rewards sites can pay in points, cash (paid via a vehicle like PayPal) gift cards or other perks and promotions. Consumers can even earn revenue without actually buying anything. Sites like Swagbucks.com and QuickRewards.net pay visitors to take surveys, sign up for special offers or watch marketing videos. The nature of the compensation a shopper receives will vary from site to site.

This is an extra layer added to the online shopping experience, but once you get into the habit of checking out your favorite rewards sites before you shop, you can save money while still buying from the familiar companies you know and trust. The whole thing is pretty slick, seamless and hassle free.

If you think this bold, new world of online shopping and saving is just right for you, we'll offer up a few savvy tips on the next page.