Tips for braving (and saving) this holiday shopping season

Published Nov. 25, 2014


Years past, at the dawn of modern retail's favorite season, two kinds of holiday shoppers crawled out from the consumer masses:

• The organized, meticulous buyer checking off everyone on their list before the neighbors even pondered decking the halls.

• And — the category so many of us embrace — the proverbial procrastinator shopping for a blouse for his wife and toys for his kids before rushing home Christmas Eve to set out a tray of cookies for Santa.

Then came the lure of Black Friday deals, which soon morphed to Black Friday weekend, including Thanksgiving Day. Now a flurry of "pre-Black Friday" events both online and at the malls beckon, purporting to offer even deeper discounts to early birds.

No wonder it's sparking confusion over how to find the best sales: Shop early, shop late or shop often? If you ho-ho-hold on to your money now, will you have to pay more later when the gift-buying urge finally strikes?

The best strategy may be combining the best of both shopping archetypes: Be on the lookout for deals throughout the weeks, but leave some of your shopping list open to capitalize on late-season bargains.

Think of the proverbial tortoise: slow and steady wins the race.

Here's some advice from the retail trenches:

Be flexible: Gone are the days when you could count on Black Friday as the single biggest day to save and then fill in the rest of your gift-buying later.

Dave Brennan, marketing professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence, says retailers evolved after 2008 when they were stung with huge year-end inventories and had to liquidate at very low prices. Now, their goal is to string out narrower promotions throughout November to better manage their inventory.

"This year was the quickest move into the holiday spending period we've ever had," Brennan said. "Right after Oct. 31. … the ads were running."

To capitalize on unexpected sales, shoppers have to be flexible. Brennan recommends they draft two lists: one with must-have items for family and friends and another with preferred items that they can substitute if a great promotion comes along.

Buy now; get the discount later: If you notice a Black Friday advertisement for a must-have item on your list and believe it could be in short supply, you may want to buy it now and use a "price rewind" tool offered by some credit cards, like Citi and Discover.

Brad Wilson of Brad's Deals, which aggregates coupons and shopping deals online, advocates price rewind as a great savings strategy. The hitch: Make sure the item you buy is the exact same one in the ad (comparing serial numbers). Once Black Friday arrives, you can use your price rewind service to file a claim and get credited for the difference between your purchase price and the sales prices.

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Insist on free shipping: "Holiday sales are so competitive that you should never have to pay for shipping," Wilson says. "If a certain retailer won't ship something for free, keep looking — another certainly will."

Carpe dealem: … or seize whatever is Latin for "deals." Retailers want to stand out from the competition by timing their marketing pitches on different days. Macy's, for instance, last week touted its biggest one-day sale of the season (technically two days). At least until the next biggest sale of the season.

Don't get frozen out: Beyond the frenzy over Disney's Frozen, there are few, if any, must-have toys this season. But if your 13-year-old nephew is keen on a hot video game or you have your eye on a trendy J. Crew hat, buy sooner rather than later or you could regret the delay, advises Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation.

Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, which monitors shopper spending patterns, echoed that strategy. One reason he says the waiting game may backfire this year: Not only are retailers heavily promoting early to move merchandise, but there also are reports of West Coast shipments getting delayed moving through the ports. That means there may be some shortages come December.

"When something is on sale, you need to buy it then," Martin said. "If you wait for a better deal this year, you'll either end up with a lesser-quality product or you'll be out of luck."

Do you feel lucky? November door-buster sales and "power hours" aside, retailers still tend to keep "a few tricks up their sleeves" with late-season deals, Grannis said.

"As you get closer to the end of the season, the discounts are deeper. … That's just the nature of the retail business," she added. "But that doesn't mean the product is still going to be there."

Clothes can wait: Many stores tout Black Friday weekend clothing sales, but those are often the same seasonal sales that run periodically through the year. If you're shopping for a sweater for your sister or a tie for Dad and aren't particularly brand-sensitive, discounts often elevate toward the 60 to 70 percent range in the waning days of the season.

When later is better: Gift baskets that contain perishable items, most board games and other surplus gifts are often marked down dramatically as retailers inch closer to Dec. 25 and want to reduce their inventory.

Get on their radar: Sign up as a member online with big retailers like Walmart or Target. Often retailers only require an email address to send sales alerts.

Gift cards still rule: Popular as ever, they're the ultimate fallback when you have neither the time nor creativity to find the right gift.

Learn poker: Just like retailers, shoppers also have evolved. "They've come to expect promotions and they wait longer for them," said Brennan, the University of St. Thomas marketing professor. "The question is who is going to blink first? The consumer or the retailer."

Contact Jeff Harrington at or (813) 226-3434. Follow @JeffMHarrington.