NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The holiday season is upon us, and this year shoppers will spend an estimated $804.27 on gifts and celebrations, according to the National Retail Federation.
Shoppers will be active in-store and online, with more shoppers than ever in history — 44% — opting to do the majority of their shopping via the Internet. No matter when or where consumers shop, however, they're all looking for good deals. The good news is, they're out there.
Here's a look at when to find the best bargains during the 2014 holiday season:
Shopping before Thanksgiving
Early-bird shoppers have already been hitting bricks-and-mortar and online stores hard this year, according to the National Retail Federation. Approximately 40% of consumers began their holiday shopping before Halloween, and a further 40% planned to start in November. The majority of shoppers — 51% — said they shop early to avoid crowds, while another 44% said the deals and promotions found early in the season are "too good to pass up."
"The joke is that Christmas starts right after Halloween, but this year we saw people shopping in early October — well before Halloween," says David Beazley, CEO of Strongbark, an online social shopping site.
Retailers are happy to take your money any time of year, so sales have been starting earlier in the season for several years. The bargains are so good right now that Black Friday and Cyber Monday may actually see a slight downturn.
"Both of the shopping holidays are going to be diluted this year because of the deals going on right now," Beazley says. "Many people who waited until the last minute to do their shopping last year either found that their packages didn't make it to the door in time or what they wanted was sold out. They're not going to make that mistake again."
Shopping on Black Friday
Anyone who doesn't want to wake up at 3 a.m. or get trampled in crowds can rest easy with their decision to sleep in and shop online instead.
"Black Friday is still going to be big this year for the door-buster deals we've come to expect, like $10 TVs and $5 guitars," Beazley says. "But in terms of overall sales it may be more like a 'Light Gray Friday' because people are already taking advantage of the great deals that are out there now."
Of course, some people just enjoy the excitement of Black Friday, says Clare Levison, a CPA, personal finance expert and author of Frugal Isn't Cheap: Spend Less, Save More and Live Better.
"To some degree, Black Friday has become its own holiday tradition. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but there are people who love getting in there for the whole experience," Levison says. "Others hate it, and for them it doesn't matter how good the deals are, they're going to wait until the crowds die down."
Levison cautions that shoppers should hit the stores at a time they can enjoy themselves. If you hate the Black Friday experience, the $20 you might save just isn't worth it.
"If you're miserable when you're out shopping, it takes the enjoyment out of the gift-giving process. Sometimes it's worth it to spend a few dollars more and have a nice experience," she says.
Shopping on Cyber Monday
"Consumers are getting smarter, doing more research not just on price but on quality of deals and promo codes," Beasley says.
No one shops online anymore and expects to pay full price. But retailers have learned that keeping prices low all the time doesn't really play well with the psyche of the American consumer.
"People want to see they are getting a deal," he says. "Retailers have learned that consumers will abandon their shopping carts if they can't get a discount."
On Cyber Monday this year, consumers will likely find deals on par with those available on Black Friday.
"This year you're going to see retailers offering discounts the entire weekend," he says. "The promotions aren't going to disappear after one day."
Nowadays Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday are all lumped together into one big shopping extravaganza. The discounts will be fairly consistent all three days, according to Scott Pollack, head of business development at data platform SumAll.
"It's a shopping weekend as opposed to shopping day," Pollack says.
Rest assured, you're not going to see an item for $200 one day and $100 the next, Levison says.
"Retailers can't get away with that. The differences may be $5 or $10 at most."
Shopping at the last minute
Last-minute shoppers will find deep discounts on holiday-branded merchandise and food, Pollack says.
"Holiday-themed stocking stuffers, candy and toys will be discounted by as much as 75% the day before Christmas," Pollack says. "Retailers are looking to clear that inventory and have it out of there by the end of the week."
But items that have a longer shelf life, such as electronics and clothing, won't see week-of-Christmas sales any better than those on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
"There will be some discounts the day before Christmas if you can stomach the crowds, but you take the chance that the item you wanted will be gone," Beasley says.
Everyone knows that if you wait too long to buy a particular item, it may be gone by the time you make it to the store. What people fail to consider is that you may end up spending more to get a less-desirable replacement.
"You put yourself in a position where you're scrambling to find something, and you end up having to settle for an item you really didn't want at a much higher price tag," Levison says.
Savvy shoppers who don't mind the last-minute rush should start looking online now for the items they want, comparing prices and scouting deals.
"If there's something you've had your eye on, you kind of know what the price is and what a good deal looks like. Maybe you will need to wait until the last minute to pull the trigger, but maybe you don't," she says. "When you see it's a good price, get it."
Not sure where to look for the best deals? Keep up with the stores you frequent by signing up for email alerts on sales and discounts.
— By Kathryn Tuggle for MainStreet