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How to Survive Holiday Shopping

From high prices and high interest rates, here’s how to earn your badges and become the best holiday buyer.

(Illustrations by Emily Wright/Washington Post; iStock)

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Meet childhood enemies in your hometown grocery store. Make sure the turkey is not dry. Watch the Cowboys lose again on Thanksgiving Day. The holidays are stressful enough without the added burden of navigating the biggest shopping time of the year as high costs strain our wallets.

The rules of holiday shopping are a little different from past seasons. In 2021, shipping delays and supply chain bottlenecks made it difficult for retailers to keep inventory on their shelves, leading to poor deals and long delivery windows.

This year, the opposite is happening. To prevent a recurrence of last year’s supply problems, retailers ordered early and in bulk around the holiday season. But that effort has come up against historically high inflation — sending the price of food, gas and other household essentials skyrocketing and forcing consumers to cut back on discretionary spending, including on electronics, clothing, household items and furniture. Now many of the nation’s largest retailers find themselves with excess inventory and even more pressure to empty the shelves.

This is where you come in, dear consumer. These misfortunes are your gains. Sales are earlier this year, and stores offer discounts on a wider range of merchandise. However, be aware that there may be unforeseen costs: high return costs and shipping costs.

But rest assured, we’re here to help you find the best deals, make eco-friendly choices and keep your stress under control. Here’s how to earn your badges and become the best holiday shopper:

Although economic uncertainty can act as a deterrent, many consumers view freebies as a necessity. There are ways to make it work and shop smarter.

  • Make a budget, know what you want to buy and where. This will prevent you from impulse purchases.
  • Track prices so you can spot a bargain when it happens. Keep an eye on the biggest retailers: Target, Walmart, Amazon, Kohl’s and Gap have all warned this year that they have excess inventory and are offering aggressive markdowns to eliminate it.
  • Use online tools. Google is your friend here. If you are looking for a specific product, a feature should appear to the right showing the price of the item at different retailers. Websites like CamelCamelCamel and Keepa are useful for tracking prices on Amazon, and they provide insight into an item’s price history. Plus, it’s easier to compare prices and use coupon browser extensions (more on that below), which automatically populate discount codes when you shop.

Between gift picking, grocery shopping, and holiday decorations, efficiency and productivity are key to emerging from the shopping season unscathed. An easy way to get this badge is to take advantage of “omnichannel” purchasing options – curbside pickup, online purchase and in-store pickup – intended to make the process seamless regardless of the point of purchase (in-store, by phone, app or computer). It saves time and money – no more getting in and out of the car, browsing aisles or making impulse purchases.

Most of the nation’s largest retailers offer these services, as do many local stores in hopes of staying competitive. Most major retailers don’t charge for curbside pickup as long as customers meet a minimum order, usually at least $30. Sam’s Club has a $4 fee for customers who don’t have the premium membership, Sam’s Club Plus.

If making a few dollars on purchases and unlocking special discounts is worth giving up some privacy, consider signing up for a perks or cashback service. Companies like Rakuten, Ibotta, CouponCabin, and BeFrugal track your shopping and browsing habits and, in turn, give back 1-10% – sometimes more – of what you spent.

Some services also allow you to connect your credit card, allowing you to earn money when shopping in person. Rakuten sends a lump sum every three months, either by check or PayPal transfer. Others, like Dropp and Swagbucks, will pay you in gift cards or points. Websites like Honey and Coupon Cabin offer unique discount codes. Fetch has the option to donate the money to charity.

But be careful with these browser extensions. They can entice you to spend more than expected by offering you a significant discount.

The US Postal Service, FedEx, UPS – there aren’t many other options when it comes to sending gifts. With the holidays come seasonal surcharges and possible delivery delays. So being prepared is key to earning that badge.

Early is always better – especially for the postal service, which is the cheapest of the services even after increase rates every six months. It should take two to five days for the Postal Service to deliver a package during the holiday season, but you can pay more for faster delivery. Prices for First Class Parcel Service – the standard product of the Postal Service – start at $4.80 and increase with package weight. The maximum weight is 13 ounces, so consider this service for small electronics and clothing. For larger packages (up to 70 pounds), try Priority Mail, where prices start at $9.90. You will save money if you bring your own box.

But if you’re pressed for time and don’t worry about a surcharge, FedEx and UPS are your best options. Prices for both services vary based on package size, delivery speed, and shipping distance. UPS is slightly cheaper, with a medium-sized box — big enough for some clothes or a shoebox — starting at $14.95, compared to $15.70 for FedEx. A large box, which can hold a soccer ball or a mixer, starts at $19.60 at UPS and $24.20 at FedEx.

When it comes to return policies, change is afoot. We have already seen the slow disappearance of return labels with online orders. Now, free returns are also on the way out. High gasoline prices – which have jumped above $5 per gallon over the summer – and rising labor costs have prompted retailers to make a change that some academics and industry executives have been advocating for years: charge a return label or add a fee restocking. Returns have always been costly for retailers, especially for clothing, experts say.

Anthropologie, Nordstrom, Zara, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Crew are among the retailers charging restocking fees and/or return labels. That said, returns to physical stores remain free.

So be sure to read the retailer’s return policy before purchasing. You should also think carefully before sending a gift or ordering something for someone online. Pay attention to the return window in stores – if you’re sending the gift three weeks before Christmas, make sure the retailer doesn’t have a two-week policy. Also ask yourself: Does the recipient live near any of these stores? Do they have a way to get there easily? If not, and you’re worried they won’t like what you’re buying or it won’t fit, consider sending a gift card instead.

Another great option is to order from a local business, so you won’t have to worry about returns in the mail.

An easy way to get this badge is to avoid fast fashion brands, whose clothes are often made with synthetic materials that are bad for the environment. These companies also produce an overwhelming amount of waste. Consider buying better quality clothes that last longer when cared for properly. Also consider shopping at thrift or consignment stores and researching resale platforms like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist.

If your mode of transportation is the car, as opposed to walking, biking, or public transit, shopping online can be better for the planet than shopping in-store. But it’s important to make some adjustments, experts say. First, try to group your orders. The fewer home deliveries, the better. Second, avoid fast delivery. Advance delivery dates often require items to be transported by air and less efficient delivery routes, including trucks that are unlikely to be full.

We know the holidays are about giving to others and spending time with loved ones, but it’s important to take time for yourself. Luckily for you, inventory backlogs and shifting consumer interests have expanded the items on sale this year.

Natalie Kotlyar, retail analyst for accounting, tax and financial advisory firm BDO, said she’s seen an “unprecedented” number of promotions for health and wellness products this year. Some items you are likely to find among the holiday promotions: shampoo, vitamins, soap, makeup, face masks.

“It’s up to all of us – the consumer – to feel good about ourselves…and then gift it to someone else,” Kotlyar said.

Jacob Bogage and Allyson Chiu contributed to this report. Editing by Robbie DiMesio and Karly Domb Sadof.

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