Holiday shoppers are often time-pressed and cash-strapped. Here are some insider tips on "when to shop, how to pay, how to avoid huge shipping costs and how to ensure that if, after all that good planning, the gift needs to be returned, the proper receipt is in hand," said Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports.
Here are eight tips to help you survive the holiday shopping season!
Avoid Midnight Madness sales, which can be high-risk propositions with deep discounts on a limited number of hot ticket items. Sales are first come, first served, which could mean hours of waiting in line or leaving the store empty-handed. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and the following Cyber Monday are the days when merchants get serious about sales.
For hot products that might be in short supply, it's best to buy as soon as you see them. And shop in the morning when crowds tend to be light and before the merchandise has been picked through. The early morning is good for the web too, when retailers sometimes offer special savings.
Use several shopping "bots" to compare product prices at dozens of retailers. Better known bots include BizRate, Google Product Search, Buy.com, Shopping.com, Shopzilla and Amazon.com. If possible, sort by price, because bots often put retailers that pay a fee at the top of the results page.
Find deals at sites like SheKnows Rewards, FatWallet, Slick Deals and more, or do a web search for "coupon code" and the name of the store.
Sign up for the newsletter from your favorite stores. Not only will they let you know about the latest products and sales, they often will provide subscriber-only discounts to their email readership.
With many recent bankruptcies and store closures -- which have impacted even big chains like Circuit City, Mervyns and Linens 'n Things in recent years -- be especially mindful of a store's stability before purchasing a gift card.
Banks aren't necessarily a better place to buy gift cards -- not just because of recent financial turmoil, but bank cards are more likely to expire and tack on fees than cards offered by individual retailers.
Some cards depreciate in value if unused. (When giving a gift card, it's wise to pass along the receipt, too, in case the card is lost and needs to be replaced.)
Gift exchanges do happen, so be prepared by providing a gift receipt. That will ensure that the recipient gets a proper store credit. Purchases made in November and December are often eligible for extended return or exchange privileges.
For the best deal for both recipient and giver, before buying something, be as sure as possible that your gift is the right one. Why? Someone returning electronics gear -- even in an opened box -- might have to pay 10 to 15 percent or more of the purchase price as a "restocking fee." Computer software, music CDs, and movie DVDs generally can't be returned or exchanged for another title once the seal is broken.
Shoppers who are entitled to a rebate should act fast. Four out of 10 people eligible for rebates forget to collect the necessary paperwork, follow the wrong procedure or simply wait too long to file.
What you will typically need is the product serial number, a sticker or label from the product or package, an original receipt, the UPC code cut from the carton and an official form. Follow the directions and fill out the form completely, and mail it off -- ideally within a week of your purchase. (Note that if you remove the UPC code from any packaging, you will not be able to return or exchange that product.)
The deadline for free holiday shipping from major retailers generally expires about a week before Christmas.
Keep in mind that ordering one-day service can add $20 or more and does not typically guarantee delivery within 24 hours. The arrival date is calculated from the moment the package is shipped, so factor in two or three days of processing time (unless otherwise stated). Read the fine print before rushing a delivery.
Most products don't break during the first three or four years of ownership, Consumer Reports research shows. If breakage does occur, the repair cost is typically about the same as the warranty cost.
For added protection at no extra cost, make your purchases with a credit card. Consumers can extend the manufacturer's original warranty free for up to one year with most gold and platinum cards.
SheKnows.com editors contributed to this article.
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