The Washington Post

Shop now and head off the holiday rush

Lining up for Black Friday at a Toys “R” Us in Fairfax. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

First in a four-part series on how to save this holiday season.

Come Thanksgiving Day, it’s always a question: Will you be in line well before midnight to buy a door-busting bargain on Black Friday?

For those who don’t like crowds, it has never been easier to have your shopping done before the big day (or night) rolls around.

“My advice to people is, start paying attention early,” said Jody Rohlena, senior editor of ShopSmart magazine. “Retailers are trying to get you into the stores, not for just one day, but for the whole holiday season.”

That’s great advice if you’re not after the five products meant to lure you into a store at the stroke of midnight on Black Friday. With stores offering holiday price matches beginning this week, and free shipping options from Wal-Mart, Target and other major retailers, it’s easy to beat the rush and skip Black Friday this holiday season.

Go now

The shopping season is starting earlier, with Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Toys R Us rolling out deals for the entire period, not just one day or even one month. That means deals will change from week to week, and using price guarantees and shipping promotions at the right time will help you save big. “We’re seeing a lot of really good sales that extend through the holiday season that go up until the very last minute,” Rohlena said. “But they’re starting now.” So pay attention to fliers, online prices and the timing of purchases. There’s no reason not to start shopping now, before the rush.

Use the price matches

Retail experts are excited about competitive price matches. Target and Best Buy are matching prices offered online by rivals including Amazon and Wal-Mart. The goal is to convince shoppers that they can get everything they need at the lowest price at one location. “They are trying to combat showrooming, which is when people come to the store, look at items and then call them up on Amazon,” Rohlena said. Target’s price match, for example, runs through Dec. 16, and with online prices fluctuating daily, the these deals can change from day to day. But not all price matches are equal, and keeping track of the sales can be complicated. If all of this seems like too much of a bureaucratic nightmare, do what Rohlena suggests: Visit for price comparisons.

Free shipping

Last year, 92.5 percent of online retailers offered free shipping for a portion of the holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation’s It’s expected to be the same this year. There are retailers including Nordstrom, L.L. Bean and that always offer free shipping with no minimum purchase. But for holiday shopping, many stores are offering free shipping and guaranteeing items delivered before Christmas if you purchase before Dec. 17. Rohlena recommends looking at to find out whether your favorite retailer is offering free shipping or to learn about promotions on select items.

Gift card cop-out

For the giver and for the recipient, this season may be the worst time to give a gift card. For the recipient: Because of the holiday price-matching programs, many retailers are expected to lose money on some big-ticket items that are priced lower elsewhere. That means November and December is the best time to look for sales (not January, after you’ve received your gift card). Although gift cards are great options for those hard-to-shop-for people, you might be doing them a disservice if you wait to give them their gift card Dec. 25. For the giver: You’re not getting a good deal on gift cards unless you buy in bulk at select stores offering promotions. Deals are easier to find on products during the holiday season, so encourage recipients to take advantage of generous return policies instead.

Don’t commit to layaway

You’ve already missed Toys R Us’s reservation program for its Hot Toys list, but luckily, that’s not a bad thing. Rohlena recommends forgoing programs that lock you into a purchase a few months after you sign on the dotted line, and that includes layaway. “I would argue that you shouldn’t commit too early to a layaway program,” Rohlena said. “You might cut yourself off from another sale or bargain. It’s better to be a smart and informed shopper and keep up with ads.” Of course, you lose the guarantee of the must-have toy being under the tree.

Coming next week: What not to buy this holiday season.

TTHE BOTTOM LINE Many stores are offering holiday price matches that begin now, not after Black Friday, so there’s no need to wait for the rush. Start shopping now and take advantage of free shipping and the friendly retail competition that’s sure to benefit you.

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