When Should You Shop During the Holiday Season?

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When it comes to holiday shopping, the early bird may get the worm, but he will likely pay more for it. In reality, the early bird would, in most cases, get the same worm for less money if only he could show some patience.

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"Black Friday creep has grown over the years, expanding to include almost the entire month of November," DealNews consumer analyst Julie Ramhold told The Motley Fool in an email interview. "Many retailers are using the earlier timeframe to lure shoppers in, but early deals often aren't worth your time."

If you had to pick one day to shop, Ramhold's employer suggests Thanksgiving. That's the day in 2016 when it posted 20% more Editor's Choice deals than it did on Black Friday. The holiday itself -- a day when many brick-and-mortar retailers are not open -- also beat Cyber Monday when it came to deals, with 31% more.

DealNews defines an Editor's Choice deal as a prodcut "that is priced so low that we haven't seen it at that price before, and if we have it's a rare discount," or a discount from a store that rarely offers discounts. While that standard is by no means perfect, it's a fairly good indicator of when the items on your list are likely to go on sale.

Shopping like a pro

It's clear from this information that starting early is a mistake. Ramhold called the pre-Black Friday offers "filler deals, just there to entice eager shoppers." But DealNews says there are better days to buy some items. DealNews examined last year's data and came up with some guidelines for what day to buy which item. Of course, these are just guidelines based on past data.

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  • Thanksgiving: Most electronics (cameras, headphones, speakers, iPhones, TVs), movies, video games, home and garden items, shoes, and beauty supplies.
  • Black Friday: Android devices, tablets/iPads, toys, and clothing.
  • Cyber Monday: Laptops, travel, and the kitchen and shoe deals equal those on Thanksgiving.

"The really notable bargains are significantly better the closer we are to Thanksgiving, and in recent years, Thanksgiving has had deals that were on par, if not better, than those on Black Friday itself," Ramhold said.

Don't buy just to buy

No matter your deal-detecting system, it makes sense to have a budget and a list of what you're looking for to help keep yourself on financial track.

Also be aware of how stores operate. Stores trumpet major sales on a percentage basis, but it's important to know what the item normally sells for. For example, a shirt that normally sells for $10 may seem like a good deal at 60% off, but if the sticker price has been changed to $30 so that the 60% off gets the price to $12, you're not actually getting a bargain.

It's easy to get swept up in the mania of the shopping season. A budget and a lot of research can protect you from yourself. Be smart about when you buy, but be smarter about how much you spend in total.

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