Given the shaky job market, holiday budgets are tighter this year. According to a survey by PriceGrabber.com, 53 percent of consumers are planning to spend less on gifts. Retailers are anticipating greater demands during the holiday season because of higher-than-expected Halloween purchases this year, says Ken Burke, the founder of MarketLive, which does E-commerce research. Already 30 percent of those surveyed have begun their holiday shopping, with 22 percent having started in October. So to avoid the winding lines and sold-out merchandise, here are 10 tips to save you time and money as you kick off your holiday shopping:
1. Comparison-shop online
Left with excess inventory last year, retailers are going to sell fewer items in stores this holiday season. As a result, more people are going to go online for research, price comparison, and convenient shopping, says Burke. In PriceGrabber.com's survey, 70 percent of consumers said they're planning to research and comparison-shop online for the holidays. One way to do that is through sites like ComparisonShopping.com, which aggregates product search results from the 10 leading websites for price-comparison shopping, including BizRate, PriceGrabber.com, NexTag, and Shopzilla. These sites have vendor prices, reviews of vendors and items, and product descriptions. Also, visit FreeShipping.org, which provides free shipping coupon codes for more than 1,710 stores. Other websites have threshold free shipping, where shipping doesn't cost anything after a minimum purchase; Amazon.com, for example, provides free shipping for members whose purchases are over $25.
2. Homemade gifts, cards, and wrapping paper
Get crafty. Homemade gifts and cards are not only affordable but also fun projects for you and your friends or family to do together. Clip craft stores' weekly coupons, or visit cheap art supply websites, such as CheapJoes.com, to save on supplies. Instead of buying expensive cards and wrapping paper, make them with colored paper and art supplies. You can put your kids to work with craft ideas from KidsCraftWeekly.com. If you aren't so artsy, buy homemade artwork, jewelry, and clothing at Etsy.com, as well as unique art supplies, says Michelle Madhok, an online shopping expert and founder of shopping websites SheFinds.com and MomFinds.com. If you're a baker, recipe sites like Epicurious.com have a plethora of seasonal recipes from cookbooks, chefs, and home cooks. Holiday-themed treats are tasty and inexpensive gifts for your friends and family members with a sweet tooth.
3. Shop at a discount
Not surprisingly, half of those surveyed by PriceGrabber.com plan to shop at discount stores this year. Those include Marshalls, T. J. Maxx, Tuesday Morning, and Filene's Basement, which sell overstocked brand-name and designer clothing at a discount. There are even more discount options online at sites with massive inventories like OverStock.com and SmartBargain.com, Madhok says. When shopping, keep your cellphone or PDA handy to access ShopLocal.com. The website compares the price of the item of the local store you're visiting with the prices at retail stores nearby. If the store you are shopping in has a policy of matching a competitor's price, you get immediate savings. Just as important as where you shop is when you shop. PriceGrabber.com found that 79 percent of those surveyed planned to make a purchase on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving). Madhok says you should be on your computer at midnight before Black Friday for special online deals. She also recommends signing up for your favorite stores' E-mail newsletters, as well as following their Twitter and Facebook fan pages, because they provide special discount news.
4. Make a pocket shopping guide
Planning ahead can save you in the end. Make a list of people, and then prioritize. This list will also be your gift shopping budget for the holidays. You can even share your holiday gift lists with family and friends online at KeepandShare.com. For budgeting tips, go to Mint.com and check out its easy budgeting tools. Now carry the list and budget with you on your shopping sprees, and stick to it!
5. Group gifts
Focus on buying for close friends and family, and minimize the number of gifts for acquaintances and coworkers. Also consider buying one large gift that several people on your list can enjoy. "Group gifts are great," Madhok says. "I'd rather get one great gift for my family than 10 little gifts." Groupon.com, with the apt slogan "collective buying power," provides bulk discounts. You can sign up at Groupon.com for E-mail alerts of sales going on in your area, such as restaurant or beauty salon discounts, which make ideal gifts to share with family or friends.
6. Online coupons
Consumers can simply point and click to find online coupons for the product of their choice. Most of these coupon sites provide a coupon code to be used on a retail store's website. During the online checkout, type the code under the "promo" or "coupon code" heading to receive the discount, Madhok says. On most of these websites, you can register to receive daily or weekly E-mails of coupon specials. PriceGrabber.com found that 39 percent of those surveyed plan to use online coupons to purchase their presents. Such sites as Coupon.com, SmartSource.com, and CouponMom.com are popular for consumers looking for a bargain. Madhok recommends RetailMeNot.com, a crowd-source coupon site where users find and share coupons from more than 40,000 online stores. She also says to look out for cash-back options with your bank. For instance, at BankofAmerica/additup.com, you can receive up to 20 percent cash back on purchases at about 300 retailers. For the holiday season, she said some retailers are doubling their cash-back incentives.
7. Gift exchanges
Gift exchanges are a great way to save money and get some fun treats for yourself. Throw a Secret Santa party with coworkers, friends, or family. Also, White Elephant is a fun way to exchange humorous gifts. Everyone buys and wraps one gift—it can even be something fun and cheap you already own. Then each person selects a gift or steals from another person with an already opened gift.
Madhok refers to regifting as "gift recycling" and says it is easy not only on the wallet but also on the environment, as you are reusing items rather than throwing them away. Avoid the dreaded fruitcake this year, and go for gifts, preferably less personal and unused, such as gift cards, jewelry, candles, picture frames, and housewares.
9. Budget for yourself
Now after all of your generosity, don't forget to reward yourself. Along with your gift list, budget how much you'd like to spend for yourself. It's best to decide what you'd like early on, so you can spend time looking for it at the lowest price. If you have a specific gift in mind, you can go to sites like ShopStyles.com, for clothing and fashion accessories, or PriceSpider.com, for electronics, and select items you like. Then the website will send you E-mail alerts whenever your selected item goes on sale, Madhok says.
10. Sum up the whole, divide by seven
Since you know how much you plan to spend on gifts, divide your shopping budget by seven. That's how many Saturdays you have from the beginning of November until Christmas. Just enough time to put these saving tips to the test.