1. Know when to pull the trigger. You'll find great deals on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, on low-end electronics. But if you're looking for brand names, you may want to wait until closer to Christmas. For the past few years, says Dan de Grandpre, editor in chief of Dealnews.com, prices on high-end, brand-name TVs have dropped as Christmas approached, and Dealnews.com expects the same trend this year. Prices at moderate-price clothing retailers, such as Aeropostale and The Gap, are more likely to fall as Christmas nears than at higher-end department stores. Expect steep discounts on toys in the two to three weeks prior to Christmas -- but not necessarily in the seven days before the holiday. If you're looking for a specific item or a shirt in a certain size or color, you might want to grab an interim markdown and not wait until inventories run low.
2. Be wary of retailers' tactics. Stores know a lot about how your mind works, and they're prepared to manipulate you to increase sales. For example, the merchandise that gets prime position at eye level or on displays at the end of an aisle is the stuff they most want to sell, tempting you whether you need it or not, says L.J. Shrum, chair of the marketing department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "Doorbuster," "one time only" and "going out of business" sales are designed to persuade shoppers to buy now or forever mourn a missed opportunity. Another tactic is to offer extended warranties, many of which aren't worth it, says de Grandpre. "You're buying insurance for something you're not likely to have to get fixed."
3. Watch for Web deals. E-tailers have their own playbook. Expect a surge of e-mails this year, not only on Black Friday and Cyber Monday but on Thanksgiving Day and the following Sunday, says Chad White, research director of Responsys. Enticements include countdown clocks, discounts of 30% or more and free-shipping offers. But free shipping is a deal only if the total cost of your purchase is less than you could find elsewhere. For example, Amazon.com offers "super saver shipping" on eligible purchases totaling $25 or more. But adding a $10 DVD you don't need to a $15 order just to take advantage of free shipping probably isn't worth it.
4. Deploy your smart phone. Use your phone to access coupons and load applications that let you compare prices on the spot or get more information on a product. Apps such as RedLaser (for the iPhone) and ShopSavvy (currently available for the iPhone, Android phones and some Nokia models) allow you to scan an item's bar code with your phone's camera to retrieve product reviews and prices from other retailers. And if you walk into a store or mall that supports the Shopkick app for the iPhone, the app will automatically alert you to in-store discount offers.
5. Get in under the wire. Eleventh-hour shoppers, rejoice. You could e-mail a virtual gift card as late as Christmas Eve. Plus, under new federal rules, gift cards cannot expire for at least five years from the purchase date, expired cards must be replaced free if they have money on them, and a recipient who uses a card within a year can't be charged a dormancy fee.