After shoppers have created their holiday gift lists, next is to make sure shopping is as hassle-free as possible. Consumer Reports suggests these tips for the savvy buyer:
¢ Time your buying. Don't fall for Midnight Madness sales, which typically offer discounts on just a few products. Sales are first-come, first-served, which could mean hours of waiting. For "hot" gifts that might be in short supply, consumers should buy as soon as they see them.
CR's experts advise shoppers to consider waiting for others while discounts mount. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and the following Cyber Monday are the days when many merchants get serious about sales. Online discounts are more prevalent, as are free standard shipping or deferred interest payments. Shop in the early morning, when crowds tend to be light, and when retailer Web sites are especially inclined to offer special discounts.
¢ Go online to save big. Use several shopping "bots" to compare product prices at dozens of retailers. Better-known bots include BizRate, DealTime, Google Product Search, MySimon, Shopping.com, Shopzilla, Amazon.com and Yahoo Shopping. If possible, sort by product price. (Bots often put retailers that pay a fee at the top of the results list.)
¢ Download coupons at FatWallet and DealTaker.com. Those sites also provide advance information about sales at many stores and reveal which products come with rebates and which merchants offer free shipping.
CouponCabin offers coupons plus discount or promotional codes, which boost savings. Store Web sites offers coupons and say what products are available at stores, so you won't waste a trip.
¢ Be leery of bank gift cards. They're more likely to expire and tack on fees than cards offered by individual retailers. Some cards depreciate in value from month to month if unused. If you give a gift card, pass along the receipt, too, in case the card is lost.
¢ Get a gift receipt. If recipients lack a receipt, they may be issued gift cards or store credit for the lowest price the item ever sold for, not necessarily what you paid. They'll also need a receipt for warranty service. Purchases made in November and December often are eligible for extended return or exchange privileges.
¢ Be sure your gift is wanted. A recipient returning electronics gear in an opened box may pay 10 to 15 percent 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.
¢ Apply for rebates. Four out of 10 people eligible for rebates forget to collect the necessary paperwork, follow the wrong procedure or wait too long to file. If you're entitled to a rebate, act fast. Getting a rebate typically requires the product serial number, a sticker or label, an original receipt, the UPC code cut from the carton and an official form. Rebates issued as debit cards, a growing trend, typically expire in 60 or 90 days.
¢ Avoid priority shipping. Using last year as a barometer, the deadline for free shipping from major retailers will expire about Dec. 18, though standard shipping might be possible for a day or two longer. Ordering one-day service can add $20 or more and doesn't 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.
¢ Say no to extended warranties. Most products don't break during the first three or four years of ownership. If breakage does occur, the repair cost is typically similar to the warranty cost. For added protection at no cost, buy with a credit card. The manufacturer's original warranty can be extended free for up to one year with most gold and platinum cards.
To learn about this season's best holiday gifts, go to www.ConsumerReports.org.