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Taking the Pain Out of Holiday Shopping

How Shop Smart For Holiday GiftsThe holiday shopping season has a well-known calendar of events: Black Friday leads to Cyber Monday, which soon leads to a frenzied rush for an ever-decreasing stock of Christmas goodies. Customers plan around this schedule, waiting in line to get the best shot at doorbusters, marking their calendars for the best sale days and scouring advertising circulars for the best deals.

But the tried-and-true method has some serious problems. To begin with, it's hard to get into the Christmas spirit when you're battling crowds, scurrying to sales, and counting pennies. To make things worse, the best deals, or doorbusters, that stores use to get you in the door, are always the first items to run out, which leaves you panicking to find an equivalent gift that is inevitably more expensive.

With all the rush for deals and battle for bucks, it's no wonder that the holiday season is one of the most stressful times of year. But with a little bit of strategy and some advance planning, there are several ways that you can save a few bucks without losing your mind.

The Real Holiday Shopping Season

The first step for sane holiday shopping lies in getting a feel for the actual holiday season. While Black Friday doorbusters are a strong incentive to get customers into stores, they aren't the only deals in town. What's more, planning ahead can help you get great prices without getting in line at 3 a.m.!

One strategy for beating the crowds is doing your shopping before they show up. Many retailers program their computers and cash registers with sale prices the day before a sale. Although they won't have their sale signs out until the actual sale begins, you might find that the deals are already in effect as early as 6 p.m. the night before.

Sales also often last a lot longer than expected. While many shoppers plan around being the first person in line on Black Friday or the first person on line on Cyber Monday, sometimes the best deals happen a week later. Retailers order massive amounts of stock in preparation for holiday shopping; if products don't move fast enough, they will often continue to drop their prices. Even if you miss a great Black Friday deal, keep your eyes open for further reductions in the first week of December.

Comparison Shopping

With many retailers manipulating prices over the holidays, it can be hard to determine the best price for a particular product. Luckily, several sites -- including Amazon, PriceGrabber, BlackFriday.com, and Shopzilla -- can quickly give you an idea about who has the best prices for a particular item. What's more, discount and used-product sites like eBay and Half.com can help you find great deals on new or new-ish products.

As every online shopper knows, Internet savings can be quickly wiped out by shipping and handling fees. Some retailers offer free or reduced price shipping on larger orders, which gives you a major impetus to buy all your gifts from the same company. Alternately, Amazon is now offering Amazon Prime, a premium shipping service. For $99 a year, Amazon Prime users get unlimited two-day shipping, while one-day shipping only costs $3.99 per item. Best of all, the program comes with a one-month free trial, which can cover all your holiday gift giving.

Several of the major online retailers, including Amazon, Walmart and Best Buy, are offering free shipping on purchases anyway, this holiday season, in a desperate plea for your spending dollar.

You can also use comparison shopping to save yourself a lot of stress. Many retailers offer price matching, in which they agree to match the best price of their competitors. If you can find one of these retailers, you might try bringing in an advertising circular from a rival store. While other shoppers are fighting over a great deal at Walmart, you could be breezing through Best Buy -- and getting the same deal.

The Smart Phone Is Your Friend

While planning ahead is key, it never hurts to be a little flexible; after all, you never know when a great deal will cross your path. Unfortunately, unless you really know your merchandise -- or have been a contestant on The Price Is Right -- it can be hard to tell if a sale item is actually a great deal. Luckily, the same sites that you use to research at home can also be accessed from your smart phone. If you program your phone ahead of time with a few comparison sites, you can quickly decide if that sale item is a great bargain or a big bust.

There are even specialty apps like ShopLocal Mobile, which can tell you if an item is available for a lower price at other stores in your area. For that matter, some recent smart phones even have barcode scanning apps. In a matter of minutes, you can use them to scan a UPC symbol and search the Internet for a better deal.

Study Marketing Trends

Every season, certain products really fight for consumer attention. This year, for example, television prices are expected to plummet, as are gaming systems. By reading Consumer Reports and similar publications, you can plan your shopping list around presents that will capture attention without emptying your wallet.

The holidays are a stressful time, and even the best planning and preparation won't make shopping easy. But with a little bit of research and a tiny bit of strategy, you can fill your stockings and keep your holiday spirit!

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