5 Last-Minute Shopping Tips and Tricks

If you’re still hunting for gifts, use these ideas to save money and time.

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If you still have a few people on your shopping list, then you might be getting desperate. But don’t let that desperation lead to wasted money. Instead, use these five last-minute tips to find affordable gifts that you can’t wait to see people open.

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Take advantage of technology. From mobile shopping to apps that let you compare prices on the go, technology gives shoppers an advantage. “Probably the most important shift is how masterful shoppers have becoming at using technology to help them shop. From checking prices on their phones in the mall to ordering personalized candy online, this is the first year technology assisted shopping has become mainstream,” says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow.

Don’t be fooled by scents and sounds: Stores puff the holiday scents of vanilla and pine cones into the air this time of year to help you get in the mood to spend. A study by Eric Spangenberg, dean of the College of Business at Washington State University, found that certain scents—Rose Maroc in men's clothing stores and vanilla in women's—increased shopping time, number of items purchased, and amount spent.

Music also has an effect. Maureen Morrin, associate professor of marketing at Rutgers University, found that people who make unplanned purchases tend to buy more in the presence of pleasant background music. She also found that scent and music together decreased spending, perhaps because people felt put off by sensory overload. (Such overload may work at a store like Abercrombie & Fitch, which imbues its stores with a musky scent and pounding music, because its target market is younger and may enjoy the stimulation, Morrin says.)

The bottom line for consumers? Be aware of how sounds and smells might be affecting your tendency to spend, and if you think the ambiance is causing you to linger with an open wallet, head for the doors.

Resist retail pressure: Last-minute sales and rapid turnover of merchandize are just a couple of the strategies that retailers use year round to get us to spend more than we want to. But the best buying decisions aren’t made under that kind of pressure, which is usually fabricated. In fact, you can probably find even better deals after Christmas, so don’t be fooled into feeling like you need to make all your purchases now.

[For more money-saving tips, visit the U.S. News Alpha Consumer blog.]

Develop relationships: While salespeople often looked harried, especially this time of year, befriending them can work to your advantage. And according to Yarrow, they are often just as interested in forming the relationship, since they know it can lead to more sales. “This probably wouldn't work at Wal-Mart, but it does at department stores. Retailers want those relationships as well. They want consumers to feel connected with them,” she says. Then, you can ask them to ring up the items you want on the day it goes on sale.

Bring a list and a watch: Bringing a list with you while you’re shopping works just as well with holiday gifts as it does at the grocery store. As long as you stay focused on your list, it’s hard to get side-tracked by impulse buys. That’s also why you should either bring a stopwatch with you, so you don’t get carried away and spend hours longer at the mall then you planned, or plan to meet a friend for coffee so you have a firm ending tip to your shopping spree.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.