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Associated Press
Black Friday sales aren’t the only way to save on holiday gifts anymore. Shoppers can already find deals in stores.

Saving cash without Black Friday rush

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 now, and free shipping options from major retailers, it’s easy to 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.

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, but fluctuating prices mean 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: Go to www.pricegrabber.com 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 Shop.org. It’s expected to be the same this year.

Retailers including Nordstrom, L.L. Bean and Zappos.com 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 www.freeshipping.org to find out whether your favorite retailer is offering free shipping or to learn about promotions on select items.

Gift card cop-out. For both the giver and 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’ 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.

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