5 Early Shopping Tips to Beat the Holiday Rush

Shop early and enjoy your holidays!
Shop early and enjoy your holidays!
Jupiter Images/Thinkstock

Do you loathe doing battle with crushing crowds? Does the thought of circling your car in a parking lot in what seems like an endless race for a parking spot make you wince? Have you ever encountered a sold-out Elmo shelf only to silently berate yourself for not rising before dawn to beat the shopping competition? We're not suggesting that you start your holiday shopping in July, but our first tip is, yes, to start buying early -- preferably before the madness that is Black Friday. So let's get started on a plan.

Start Before Black Friday

According to a 2009 survey conducted by PriceGrabber.com, American shoppers are getting a head start on the holiday shopping season -- 22 percent of shoppers started their holiday shopping in October and 29 percent in November.

Not only is this tactic good for beating the crowds, but it's also a way to ensure that you get the gifts on your list. Many retailers have scaled back on their inventory as a way to avoid end-of-season overstock and unplanned markdowns. Once the popular items are gone, they're gone. In other words, the early bird gets the Twilight Barbie doll.

Shop from Home

Having nightmares about battling the crowds during Black Friday? Avoid the masses and do your shopping at home. It may seem outdated, but don't forget about catalog shopping. Sure, it'll add shipping costs to your holiday-shopping budget, but if you look for free shipping deals, you're not only saving time and gas (no transportation costs involved for you!) you're also saving retail shipping fees or a trip to the post office.

Shopping online isn't just for procrastinators -- about 28 percent of online shoppers under the age of 50 are more likely to have already started their holiday shopping than shoppers who don't use the Internet. Check out sites like retailmenot.com to see if they have any online coupons.

Pull up a chair and fire up the Internet, the stores await.

Shop in Unconventional Places

One way to avoid the holiday shopping rush is to avoid the places where people normally do their holiday shopping, like department stores, big-box retailers and malls.

As reported in the National Retail Federation's 2009 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions survey, most shoppers plan to shop at discounters this holiday season. Other stores consumers are likely to visit are department stores, grocery stores, clothing retailers and electronics shops. Instead, try to support local small business owners, craft fairs and thrift stores. You may find the crowds are thinner and the wares more unique.

If you've never heard of the store you're shopping at -- whether on Main Street or on the Internet -- consider checking with the Better Business Bureau. Not only will they give you a report on catalog companies, mail order, TV shopping networks and online retailers, they have good tips for safe shopping.

Avoid Shipping

The best possible shipping option is free, but when that's not available, there are ways to avoid high shipping costs.

Say you're sending gift cards this year. If you're rushed and ship it overnight mail, a $25 gift card just turned into a $50 gift. The solution? Send online gift cards.

If you must ship gifts, make sure you research shipping prices. Shipgooder.com, for example, gives you an easy way to compare the cost of shipping packages (from UPS, FedEx, DHL, and the U.S. Postal Service) yourself versus straight from the seller. You can also compare shipping costs by calling shippers' automated rate service number, just have the ZIP code, weight of the package and its dimensions handy:

  • U.S. Postal Service: (800) ASK-USPS (275-8777)
  • FedEx: (800) GO-FEDEX (463-3339)
  • UPS: (800) PICK-UPS (742-5877)
  • DHL: (800) CALL-DHL (225-5345)
Give Gift Cards

You really can't go wrong with giving gift cards - it's a one size fits all option. According to a 2009 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, more than 55 percent of adults polled would like to receive a gift card this holiday season, so take the hint.

There are two types of gift cards to choose from: retail gift cards and bank gift cards.

Retail gift cards can be used only at the store or restaurant where it was purchased.

Bank gift cards work like a VISA or MasterCard and can be used anywhere those cards are accepted.

Either type you choose, be wary of fees. Activation, maintenance, transactions and even inactivity can all eat away at the value of a gift card. Also ask about expiration dates. You wouldn't want your gift card recipient to lose out on her gift because she waited too long to redeem it.