BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Timing is everything when it comes to holiday bargains.
Many may mistakenly believe that either Black Friday or Cyber Monday offer the unbeatable deals of the season. For many items, that will be the case, but sometimes either shopping earlier or waiting until the last minute can be far kinder to your budget.
The Web site DealNews.com, for example, compared prices and found that waiting until the third week of December was ideal for toy shopping. Comparing prices throughout the lead-up to Christmas it saw Bigfoot the Monster drop 40% in price, the LeapFrog Leapster Explorer sell for 31% less and Pillow Pets decrease 52%.
Waiting until the last minute doesn't always produce stellar savings, however. Christmas creep may be annoying, but the earlier-and-earlier push for holiday shoppers can sometimes be a boon for the budget conscious.
A survey by National Retail Federation and BIGResearch found that more than half (52%) of online retailers began holiday promotions before Halloween, up from the 40% who planned to do so last year. Another 37% will begin marketing by mid-November.
"Consumers today are far from one-track-minded when it comes to finding holiday gifts," says Pam Goodfellow, consumer insights director for BIGresearch. "These days, most people want to shop around all season long."
For a shopping season that may be, at best, average, more sales and promotions are likely to hit stores and online retailers early and often.
According to the NRF's 2011 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, holiday shoppers say they plan to shell out an average of $704.18 on holiday gifts and seasonal merchandise, down slightly from last year's $718.98. NRF is still forecasting overall holiday retail sales to grow 2.8% during November and December to $465.6 billion.
"Just when you think the U.S. economy is turning around, another factor comes into play that changes the game," says NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. "Persistently high unemployment, an erratic stock market, modest income growth and rising consumer prices are all combining to impact spending this holiday season. How Americans will react to shaky economic data is the question, but the good news for retailers is that shoppers have not yet thrown in the towel."
Each year, nearly 40% of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween, the NRF study found. Another 40% will begin shopping in November, 17% will hit the stores the first two weeks in December and 4.1% will procrastinate until the final two weeks of that month.
For those 80% of shoppers who will have started their shopping this month, what should they be looking for -- and when? The following are five things that make sense to buy now, rather than later in the holiday season:
When it comes to shopping for electronics, one can be forgiven for feeling like a gambler.
Take a video game console. Are pre-holiday offers the best way to go, or might Black Friday and Cyber Monday drop prices even more and throw in extra games or accessories as well? And, with the Xbox, PlayStation 3 and Wii all long overdue for a refresh, will there be buyer's remorse sooner, rather than later?
HDTVs fall into a similar area of risk. The good news is that with the early leak of Black Friday circulars (Wal-Mart - Stock Quote: WMT), for example, has already put most of its deals on Facebook, among them a Samsung 51-inch plasma TV for $498, marked down from $649), you may be able to take advantage of early season deals without regret.
"You'll see many TV sizes hit their lowest price point of the year later this month," says Lindsay Sakraida of Dealnews.com. "On average, HDTV prices fall 15% to 20% below the previous lowest price we had seen. In nearly every size category, prices dropped in the weeks leading up to Black Friday, so we should see notable TV deals before the holiday itself."
She cautions, however, that the best deals may be off-brand models. Top brand sets may not hit their pricing sweet spot until December, while bargain hunters can already start scooping up lesser-known sets at great prices.
To go along with that new TV, last year saw an abundance of early November deals on Blu-Ray movies, a trend that will likely continue this month.
Retailers don't underestimate the importance of holiday shoppers looking to self-gift.
Nearly 60% of surveyed consumers say they plan to take advantage of retailers' sales and discounts to make additional non-gift purchases for themselves and their families during the holiday season, spending approximately $130.
At the holidays, the various parties, family events and office gatherings can give one an excuse to update their wardrobe.
The closer we get to Christmas, sale prices will tend to focus more on gift items such as electronics and toys. But in November, season-ending clearance sales still populate racks ahead of forthcoming fashions. Fall clothing also sees its deepest discounts this month, as retailers shift their focus to winter apparel. That seasonal shift also bodes well for shoppers, as the winter shopping season typically kicks off with a boost of sales and percentage-reducing coupons.
No holiday would be complete without belt-busting meals.
To save money for Thanksgiving and the other holiday gatherings to come, start shopping now.
The annual tally of the costs associated with the holiday meal by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that a meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberries, pumpkin pie and basic trimmings has increased about 13% this year.
The group's 26th annual Thanksgiving price survey found that the average cost of this year's feast for 10 is $49.20, a $5.73 price increase from last year's average of $43.47.
A 16-pound turkey came in at $21.57 this year, roughly $1.35 per pound, an increase of about 25 cents per pound and about $3.91 per whole turkey compared with last year. Global demand is blamed for the gobble gouging.
As for other products, companies are not as hesitant to pass along the costs they incur, which had been the case through most of the recession aftermath, the group says.
Other items that are more expensive this year include milk, pumpkin products, peas, bread and cranberries.
Even for gatherings that are still weeks away, there is no reason to pass up Thanksgiving-related promotions to help bring the cost of these items back down.
Many grocery stores have already launched loyalty card programs where points accrued with purchase can add up for a free turkey. Taking advantage of this soon-to-end-deal, as well as similar coupons and rebates, allow you to freeze extra, free birds for upcoming dinners. Just keep in mind that the bird is only worth about $20, so don't overspend in your pursuit of one. If other family members have a card, split up purchases so you can score more than one turkey.
Just be careful when freezing and thawing. If you buy a fresh turkey, get one only one to two days before cooking -- and do not buy a pre-stuffed fresh turkey if you plan to freeze it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has additional safety tips and turkey advice here.
Thanksgiving-related sales can also provide the opportunity to stock up on cranberry sauce, canned vegetables and other goods that will keep without spoiling.
For dessert, don't pass up the deeply discounted (we've seen price cuts of 75% and 90%) remainders of Halloween candy that are possibly still lingering on shelves. Grab them while you still can. It may take some poking around to find items that aren't in the shape of skulls or bats, but if the only indication of Halloween is on the label, unwrapped candy on a serving tray will still make your guests happy.
Traditionally, January has had the reputation for being the best time to buy furniture.
There may be even more incentive to buy in November.
As family and friends gather at your home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year's Eve, the glad tidings of the season may be the catalyst for some housekeeping and redecoration.
According to DealNews.com, two years of data show that November featured the most furniture deals in general. Last year, it tracked 39% more home furniture deals in November 2010 than in January.
Buying your wedding dress -- or other matrimonial accessories -- in November may seem a bit unusual and hardly a "holiday" item.
But consider this: There are far fewer weddings in winter, which makes November a lead-in to the "slow season" that continues through January.
But even though demand slows -- and bargains increase -- the winter doldrums get a slight reprieve at Christmas, when there is an uptick in holiday-related marriage proposals.
Fewer shoppers mean lower prices, better selection and a potential advantage when it comes to negotiations.
Similarly, November may be a good month for the matrimonial-minded to start booking vendors for that June wedding, if they haven't already, before last-minute June brides and the newly engaged start snagging all the good reception halls and DJs.
If you're looking to save some cash on non-holiday-specific things as well, check out MainStreet's look at 10 Items That Cost Less in Winter!