How To Master Your Holiday Shopping List

Shoppers looking for the best deals will find them now – or much later.

Holiday gift with ornaments
By + More

Early-bird shoppers who like to make their holiday lists and cross them off before the first frost of the season are in luck – retailers are ready for you. And they're already offering some of the season's best deals.

"There's no reason to wait until Black Friday," says Michael Vivio, president of Cox Target Media, which operates the coupon provider Valpak. "If people wait, they'll miss out on the early deals," he says. That's good news for traditionalists, too. Even though many retailers (including first-timer Macy's) have announced they will open on Thanksgiving, there's no need to replace feasting with shopping because the deals are already out there.

This year is complicated by a shorter shopping season. Thanksgiving comes late, which means there's only four weekends between Black Friday and Christmas Day. "It's the shortest possible shopping season," says Brad Wilson, founder of BradsDeals.com. "It's going to make it harder to squeeze everything in, so [shopping] will creep into early November in a way we don't usually see."

[See Skip the Store: Buy These Items Online to Save Time and Money.]

That shortness is one reason why retailers have launched their holiday marketing campaigns earlier than ever. In mid-October, Kmart started its holiday-themed television spots, complete with layaway information. Sephora already released its limited edition holiday set of makeup, which includes $145 of merchandise for $45, along with other package deals. Target sent a "Cyber Monday in September" email to shoppers.

That's an even bigger jumpstart than last year, which was also notably early, says Trae Bodge, senior editor for the coupon website RetailMeNot.com. According to a RetailMeNot survey conducted in late August and early September, about four in 10 consumers say they started holiday shopping in September. This year's soft back-to-school season also contributed to the early holiday promotions, Bodge says, since retailers were eager to unload inventory that was still on the shelves from August and early September.

If you're ready to start shopping and snag some of the season's best prices, here's a six-part guide from top retail and savings experts:

1. Mix in-store shopping with online deals.

Retailers will increasingly offer "hybrid promotions," or deals that combine in-person and online discounts, Wilson says. For example, you might see a deal online and then get a $10 coupon to spend in the store. Apps for mobile devices, including ones from BradsDeals, PriceGrabber and RetailMeNot, also make it easier for in-store shoppers to find the best deals in real-time, while they shop.

[See: 10 Ways Companies Annoy Customers.]

2. Shop late – very late.

If you're not going to be the early bird, then you might as well be the night owl. "One of the best ways to shop is last minute. You can get some of the best deals," Wilson advises. That's because retailers give huge discounts on items that haven't yet sold as Christmas approaches. If they noticed that they're still carrying a large inventory of a certain type of television, for example, they'll make deep price cuts. Those mega-deals come the day or two before Christmas as well as right after Christmas.

3. Time your purchases.

In addition to the broad advice to shop early or shop late, consumers can benefit by planning to make specific types of purchases based on the calendar. According to research by Savings.com, the best deals on electronics come during the first half of November. Discounts on toys and games for children hit during the first week of December, followed by deals on home gifts and décor during the second week.

4. Think accessories.

iPhones are pricey presents, which is why Vivio recommends gifting iPhone accessories instead. You can dress up an old phone with a new carrier case, shell or earbuds.

[See: 10 Dangers of Mobile Banking.]

5. Make a list early.

"If you have a list and a budget, it will help you stick to spending what you planned instead of overdoing it, especially when you're shopping early – it's easy to lose track of how much you purchased when purchases are spread over a two-month period," says Jon Lal, founder of BeFrugal.com.