It's that time of year, and as serious shoppers know, only the strong will survive. Some of you are preparing to brave the mall at 5 a.m. for rock-bottom bargains. (No, we don't think it's at all ridiculous to wake up that early to catch some steals and deals. In fact, we understand.) But before you step out of the house to buy your loved ones a few guilt-free gifts, check out these eight need-to-know shopping tips from the experts.
Tip 1: Make a List and Budget It Twice
"Estimate the costs of not only gifts, but of the entire holiday season, including cards, stamps, gifts for teachers, tips for postal workers and doormen, and various other expenses," says finance and debt expert Todd Cook. "Cut down and revise your list to make it fit into your budget. When you add everything up, make sure it doesn't exceed your overall spending limit and try to include a cushion for unexpected items or price fluctuations."
Tip 2: Do Your Research
Expand your sources beyond newspaper flyers, as there is a lot of information available on the Internet days—maybe even weeks—ahead of time. "Web sites like BlackFridayAds.com clue shoppers into what will be on sale at major retailers like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Toys R Us on Friday morning," says Kim Danger, a family savings expert and author of 1000 Best Baby Bargains. "A quick check online on manufacturer and retailer Web sites, or coupon Web sites like Coupons.com before you go out can yield substantial additional savings on all types of products."
Tip 3: Shop Co-Op
You can cover more territory faster by shopping in a group, says Eva Yusa, shopping expert for the Chicago-based comparison shopping site, ShopLocal.com. Split up, sending co-shopping pals to different stores with everyone's wish lists in hand. "That way, when one person finds that special item, he or she can buy it for someone," says Eva. "You can learn from other shoppers, too," Eva says. Message forums likes on ShopLocal.com feature comments from consumers on where to find bargains, what's hot, shopping secrets and more.
Tip 4: Delegate
"Decide who—in your family or group of friends—will shop for each recipient," says Brad Stroh, national consumer spending and debt expert. "On days like Black Friday, this can help ensure you get to priority sales and stores, and make sure no one doubles up."
Tip 5: Be Size Wise
Shopping for a glamorous new outfit to get decked out during the busy holiday party season? Before you make a purchase, carefully measure your bust, waist and hips. Odds are, on a busy shopping day like Black Friday, trying something on is near impossible with long lines at the fitting room. "Keep in mind there is no standard of sizing in the apparel industry," advises Phyllis Brasch Librach, president and founder of a specialty retailer selling plus sizes. “The tag in two garments can read the same size, but on a critical measurement, like the waist, you may be surprised to find up to four inches difference between two manufacturers."
Tip 6: Price Match and Find Discounts
Shopping and finance expert Fatima Mehdikarimi reminds shoppers to take advantage of stores with price-matching policies. "Many stores will match and sometimes beat a competitor's lower price," she says. "Don't run from store to store for the best price. Save time and ask a store manager to price match."
Tip 7: Make Friends
They say it's good to know people in high places. That couldn't be more true when it comes to holiday shopping. "Befriend the sales staff at your favorite stores," advises Dara Fleischer, founder and editor of FashionJunkie.com, an online style source for serial shoppers. "They'll often suggest gift ideas you would have never thought of and will call you first when there's a special promotion." They'll even put items aside to hold it for you so no one else snags it, Dara adds.
Tip 8: The Online vs. In Line Debate
"Many retailers will run the same sale on their featured products online or in the retail location, while others even offer 'online only' incentives," says Cyla Weiner, owner of an intimate apparel and swimsuit boutique. Shopping online will reduce your time standing in line and searching for parking spaces, so if that's an option, make that your first stop.