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The savvy side of holiday shopping

Think of your final thoughts from last year's holiday shopping

season: Next year, I will stick to my budget

and get my shopping done early.

With Christmas still six weeks away, now is the time to live up

to those promises to reduce shopping stress and be budget-conscious.

The key to being a savvy holiday shopper is to spend more time planning

before you hit the stores and shopping smarter once you get there.

The following tips can transform your holiday shopping style:

Have a plan and spread your savings. Make one shopping list

for each person you're buying for, establish a budget and stick to it. And

decide in advance how you'll pay for each gift, i.e., cash, credit, savings.

Be flexible and be patient. Supply for the season's "hot gifts"

doesn't always meet demand, so be sure to have more than one or two gift

ideas for each person on your list. Also give yourself plenty of time to shop. If

you buy out of frustration or desperation, you risk spending more than you

intended and may end up dissatisfied.

Spread your spending. Most monthly household budgets don't

include holiday gifts. An easy way to keep your December budget in

line and credit card bills within limits is to start your planning early and

spread the gift-buying over as many possible paychecks as possible. Begin

your shopping as early as possible to reduce the financial strain.

Put yourself in a position to save. Head to where you're most likely

to find discounts and good deals on quality merchandise.

Shop at off-peak times. Fighting crowds can be downright

frustrating. Take advantage of special extended shopping hours and visit malls at

off-peak hours.

Set up "power-shopping" sessions.

Block out a chunk of time, such as an entire Saturday or a

weekday evening, arm yourself with your holiday shopping plan and stay

focused. By power-shopping, you can get a lot accomplished and save time in

the long run. Shoppers with kids should get together with a friend and split

the day in half. While one power-shops, the other baby-sits, then switch.

Know your store types. When planning your holiday strategy,

know what different stores offer and where the store's merchandise falls on

the value spectrum. Here are a few guidelines:

• Branded stores carry in-season merchandise of a single brand.

While their selection may be broad, during the holiday season they offer little

discounted merchandise.

• Many manufacturers that run branded stores also operate

outlet stores. Shoppers can snag great bargains on previous seasons'

merchandise and in some cases even current merchandise. Last year's sweater

may look a lot like this year's but can be had for a fraction of the price.

• Department stores offer a wide variety of brand-name

merchandise, typically at full-retail prices.

• Off-price stores are similar to department stores and sell

quality, brand-name merchandise. However, items are often old at reduced prices.

• A discount store buys in bulk so it can sell merchandise at

low prices.

• Warehouse stores offer good deals on a variety of products,

but brand selection is limited.

• Clearance centers, an offshoot of a mainstream retail

store, sellsholdover merchandise at deep discounts.

• Traditional specialty retailers offer many brands of one or two

categories (i.e., music, books or shoes).

Do your homework. Heavily advertised sale prices aren't always

the best bargains. Sometimes shopping at discounted stores with everyday

discounts can result in better deals. Shoppers may be busier today than

ever before, but it's not difficult to do some quick comparison shopping, such

as reading catalogs or calling key stores for particular items in stock.

Shop for value, not necessarily price. Focus on items' value, not

their price tags. Look for quality fabrics or timeless styles. Think about

durability. Keep in mind hidden expenses, such as dry-cleaning for clothes,

or batteries and maintenance for toys and appliances.

Give practical gifts. What's great about practical gifts is that they

are inexpensive for the buyer and very useful for the recipient. For the

music lover in your family, a box of blank audiotapes will come in handy.

Give a piece of unfinished furniture to the Mr. or Ms. Home Improvement

on your list. And the family photographer will appreciate photo albums,

photo boxes and film.

Follow these tips and you're setting yourself up for success: stay on

a budget, plan your gift-buying strategy, get your shopping done early

and, most importantly, enjoy the holiday season.

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