We're breaking down the holiday shopping hype to reveal a few secrets most retailers would rather keep quiet. So, if you view holiday shopping as sport, this news could really step up your "A" game. Better still, you won't have to brave crowds of crazed deal-hunters to cross items off your list. Just check out our list, next.
If you suspect everyone (but you) is getting up at 4 a.m. to score freebies the Friday after Thanksgiving, you may be right. An estimated 195 million Americans do make Black Friday a part of their holiday tradition. But it turns out those no-cost doorbusters that lure customers into camping overnight in store parking lots are about as elusive as a rooftop Santa sighting. They simply aren't free. Sure, you can get a "free" gift card or "free" dryer, but you have to purchase a certain dollar amount or a specific product first. We're sure there are a few good deals to snap up, but it's clear retailers are still making a profit, so don't count on any handouts -- unless you're willing to pay up.
Instead of early morning caffeine-fueled crowds, opt for Cyber Monday. Since 2005, this catchy moniker has been encouraging people to do their shopping online the Monday following Thanksgiving. It also means plenty of price dropping and free shipping -- especially if you follow businesses on Twitter and Facebook, where they often offer special coupon codes. There are even websites that aggregate sale information from major retailers, such as CyberMonday, and BlackFriday. Of course, if you scout online stores on a regular basis, you can find plenty of deals during the holiday shopping season -- Cyber Monday or otherwise.
Want to step out of the big box retail experience? Try Small Business Saturday on for size. The event, which is held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, got its start in New York City and encourages consumers to frequent local, independent stores. But even if you decide to shop local retailers on another day of the week, you'll still see a lot of benefits: personalized attention, unique products and a relaxed pace. Plus, nearly 70 percent of the money going into the till of a local store goes back to the community in paid taxes, employee wages and more.
Love the sales, but not the crowds? Don't shop during high-traffic times. Avoid the 9 to 5ers who zip into stores on their lunch hours or right after work, and skip Saturday mornings and afternoons, which are notorious for attracting throngs. Instead, buy online and have your purchase shipped to the store for in-person pick-up. You'll save time and shipping expenses (most stores offer this service free). Plus, you won't be tempted to buy impulse items as you walk through the store. Plan to retrieve your items mid-week and during off-hours. You'll have plenty of elbow room.
Retailers put lots of useless trinkets in the checkout lane in hopes of having you pick up some impulse purchases. And if you don't bite, the cashier will be happy to point them out to you. Thwart them by sticking to your budget. Resist the urge to add a few $3 or $5 items to your tally. The cost will add up, especially if you carry the debt into the New Year. (Why pay $3 for a stocking stuffer when you can pay $25 in fees and interest?) Make your money decisions before you ever enter the store. That way, when you're bombarded with "buy, buy, buy" messages, you'll be ready to say, "no, no, no."
When budgeting funds for each person's gift, remember to factor in the cost of wrapping paper or gift bags. These decorative elements can add big bucks to your holiday expenditures. Better yet, pass on the expense altogether by taking advantage of our favorite word of the season: free. As an incentive, many stores offer free gift-wrap. Others allow charities to wrap gifts for donations -- often for less than it would cost you to buy wrapping paper, tape and bows.
We heart retailers who make life easier. Several Wegmans and Fred Meyer's grocery stores offer supervised babysitting services, complete with indoor gyms. Ikea and other furniture stores offer free childcare with hands-on crafts and activities. We know it's part of a wily ploy to lure us into buying their wares, but we still feel compelled to applaud stores for taking the (adorable, pint-sized) headache out of our shopping experience. It's a great way to do a little holiday shopping, or at the very least, check the shopping list in peace and quiet.
The season's most popular toys are like buying a new car. The value drops as soon as you drive off the lot. Or in this case, as soon as Dec. 26 rolls around. If your local shops are sold out of the "it" toy, resist the urge to pay triple the price online. And don't bother trying to order it from the manufacturer directly. Most intentionally undersupply the season's most advertised toys to drive demand.
If, however, you do manage to find this year's hottest toy on sale, but don't want to battle crowds, try this: Hit the store after 6 p.m. on the eve of the sale. According to the National Retail Foundation, lots of retailers program their registers the night before, locking in the next day's sale price. Who knows? You may get lucky.
You splurged on the pricey porcelain star for the top of your tree, but would rather have the cash. Return it. And, don't worry that it's a seasonal item. Most stores will take holiday items back long after the holiday passes. You'll be in the clear if you've kept your receipt. But even if you don't have the proof, you can still get store credit. Want another hot tip for big ticket items like flat screen TVs? Research a retailer's return policy before you buy. If it offers free returns for 30 days, snag all the deals you want. You can always return them if a better one turns up.
Dreaming of a debt-free New Year? Then don't be swayed by a store's in-house credit. Department store credit cards are notorious for staggering interest rates (often 20 percent or more) and promises of zero interest for what turns out to be too short a time. Instead, consider layaway. It can be a great way to split the pain of big-ticket price tags. And, there's something to be said for not carrying debt into the New Year. Just keep in mind that layaway may tempt you to overbuy. Plus, you can't always put sale items on layaway. Your best strategy will be to create a realistic budget that details how much you want to spend on each person, as well as a few unexpected interlopers -- like the office Secret Santa.
HowStuffWorks learns about the Icelandic tradition of jólabókaflóð or the Christmas Book Flood. Iceland is the most book-loving country in the world.
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- Belsie, Laurent. "HDTV: Want a Great Deal? Move Fast." (Nov. 9, 2010.) The Christian Science Monitor.http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/2010/1109/HDTV-Want-a-great-deal-Move-fast
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- Lazarony, Lucy. "Store Credit Cards: Flashy Perks, High Rates." (Nov. 6, 2010) MSN.com.http://moneycentral.msn.com/content/banking/creditcardsmarts/p55860.asp
- National Retail Federation. "Black Friday Verdict: As Expected, Number of Shoppers Up, Average Spending Down." Nov. 29, 2009. (Nov. 6. 2010). NRF.com.http://www.nrf.com/modules.php?name=news&op=viewlive&sp_id=841
- National Retail Federation. "Online Shopping Tips." (Nov. 6, 2010). NRF.com.http://www.nrf.com/modules.php?name=Pages&sp_id=883
- ReJournal.com. "Wegmans to Open Store in Prince George's as Giant, Safeway Move to Hold Dominance." (Nov. 6, 2010). ReJournal.com.http://www.rejournal.com/NY/sections/news/NYNews.aspx?newsID=10542
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- Snopes.com. "Black Friday." (Nov. 8, 2010) Snopes.com.http://www.snopes.com/holidays/thanksgiving/shopping.asp
- Yahoo.com. "Best Holiday Sales in Four Years Expected as Consumers Return." Nov. 2, 2010. (Nov. 6. 2010) Yahoo.com.http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Best-Holiday-Sales-In-Four-ibd-1406056345.html?x=0