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After a holiday season last year that saw some of the deepest pre-Christmas price cutting in decades, the savvy shopper might think it best to wait until the last minute to scoop up bargains this year.

But there’s considerable evidence that’s neither a smart move for those seeking discounts nor the best way to stay on budget.

Consumers may have gotten addicted to deep discounting after the deals they got last year, but retailers have largely learned their lesson. They are doing everything they can to avoid a repeat of the hangovers that showed up in their earnings reports. Stores have pared inventories, lowered their starting prices and added lower-cost products to their lineups.

FINDING BARGAINS: Plan purchases ahead of time to find best deals

The major retailers reporting sales this month showed lackluster August sales, but the Commerce Department numbers out Tuesday showed an uptick in overall retail sales. So shoppers scanning the aisles for half-price sales in December are likely to be disappointed unless consumer confidence and spending take another dramatic dip.

No one knows yet for sure what the holiday season will bring for retailers, but retail strategist John Long predicts early discounting that will level off closer to the holiday.

“By offering better value and sharper initial pricing, there will be less of a need for retailers to go to 60% to 80% off,” says Long, a partner at retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates. “There will be discounting earlier, but you won’t see the deep discounting.”

Kevin Sterneckert, director of retail research for consulting firm AMR Research, says retailers are coming up with new ways to avoid price slashing. He cites the example of Sears, which has announced that its salespeople will search the Web and match competitors’ prices. Sears isn’t “discounting or marking down in the traditional sense,” he says, but taking a “a very different retail approach.”

But what if you buy a seemingly well-priced gift in September, and the retailer knocks $100 off the price in December?

Some retailers offer “price-match guarantees.” If you find a lower price at BestBuy.com or in a Best Buy store for the same brand and model during the exchange and return period, they will match that price. Sears will go one better and match it plus give you 10% within 30 days after purchase.

Few retailers recommend the practice, but you could also try returning the item and buying a new one at the lower price. But pay close attention to return policies — which often don’t reach back to September for holiday purchases — and restocking fees.

Along with the likelihood deals won’t get better as the holidays get closer, there are financial reasons why you shouldn’t wait until the last minute. That said, there are also some pitfalls associated with early-bird shopping.

Here are five things to consider:

1. Set a budget.

No matter when you shop, set a budget, make a list and stick to it. Don’t allow yourself second thoughts about whether you’re being generous enough. Gerri Detweiler, a personal finance adviser at Credit.com, says one of the greatest gifts anyone can give their family is “saving for emergencies and the future.”

2. Pace yourself.

If you do all your shopping in December and use credit cards, you’ll get a doozy of a bill in January. Detweiler says credit agencies’ “phones start ringing off the hooks” in mid-January from people who overextended themselves during last-minute shopping. By pacing yourself throughout the fall, you’re less likely to break the budget.

3. Avoid deadline shopping.

Shopping while under deadline pressure can lead to bad (read: costly) buying decisions. Even if you stick to a well-thought-out and on-budget shopping list, stores may well be out of whatever’s on your list, and the alternatives may not be as appreciated or affordable.

4. Be organized.

If you start shopping early, keep a careful accounting of what you’ve spent and what you bought. It can be as easy to forget how much you’ve already gotten the kids as it is to forget you’ve almost broken the budget. Detweiler recommends putting all receipts in an envelope beginning with the first holiday purchase and keeping a careful accounting of spending on the outside.

5. Get plugged in.

So you don’t have to wait for — or hope for — big sales to be announced, sign up for e-mail or even text-message promotions from the retailers you are most likely to buy from this season. And sign up for or check balances on rewards programs offered by debit and credit cards. There might be a free gift or deep discount available.

Retailers are doing fewer across-the-board sales in favor of targeted promotions, says Scott Grimes, CEO of Cardlytics, which works with banks to customize retail promotions to what customers are likely to buy. That way stores get better responses to their pitches, and consumers are more likely to get offered something they might actually want.

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