While early birds might have an easier time securing free shipping deals and comparison shopping, last-minute shoppers aren't entirely out of luck. In fact, many retailers save their best deals for last, and with the ease of mobile shopping and bar-code scanning technology, even shoppers with only a day or two to spare can find discounts.
[In Pictures: 10 Ways to Avoid Online Scams]
Here are seven ways to get the best deal possible on gifts, even if you're just getting started:
Take advantage of technology. From mobile shopping to apps that let you compare prices on the go, technology gives shoppers an advantage. Bar-code scanning capabilities on price-comparison apps such as Pricegrabber make it easy to quickly discover if the same item is available for less nearby.
Get free shipping. You'll need at least a day or two of wiggle room to make this a possibility, but most retailers offer some form of free shipping around the holidays. Sometimes, you have to search to find it, by plugging in the name of the retailer and the words "free shipping" or "promo code" into a Web search. Be sure to take this extra step even if you're rushing; it can save $10 or more.
Make use of retailers' last-minute deals. Some stores, such as J. Crew, have been offering a string of enticements that seem to only get sweeter as the holidays approach. Be sure to check retailers' home pages for any coupon codes to use at checkout.
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, the 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.)
[In Pictures: 10 Ways to Save on Food Costs]
Resist retail pressure. Last-minute sales and rapid turnover of merchandize are just a couple of 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.
Develop relationships. While salespeople often look harried, especially this time of year, befriending them can work to your advantage. They can help you find coupons and discounts, and in some cases, even match prices from other stores.
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 than planned, or plan to meet a friend for coffee so you have a firm ending to your shopping spree.