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Ready, set, go: Some holiday shoppers get a head start

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
Becky Gaar, 57, likes to buy holiday gifts for the familiy several months early to get the best deals and selection.
Becky Gaar, 57, likes to buy holiday gifts for the familiy several months early to get the best deals and selection.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Companies are offering holiday promotions in stores and online earlier this year, retail consultants say
  • Some shoppers say early holiday shopping helps them manage bills and locate the best deals
  • National Retail Federation: About 18 percent of people start holiday shopping before September
  • Some shopping experts say last-minute shoppers can still find great deals
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(CNN) -- 'Twas three months before Christmas and Becky Gaar was on the hunt for a Disney Princess Magic Rise Oven for her 6-year-old granddaughter.

Soon that toy oven, along with other presents for family and friends, were neatly labeled and stashed away in her bedroom.

Gaar represents a group of organized consumers who shop for gifts many months before the holiday season. They even comb post-Christmas sales for gifts for the next year.

The early birds who stockpile gifts for family and friends say there are plenty of perks to buying before Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when discounts traditionally begin for the holiday shopping season.

Early shoppers say they are more likely to find the popular items they want in stock. They can compare the best bargains without deadline pressure to buy. They don't have to fret about whether an order will ship in time for Christmas. During the tough economic times, early buyers can sometimes score deals and discounts that may not be available during the holiday shopping rush.

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Gaar, 57, of Loganville, Georgia, said looking for bargains in advance helps her control her Christmas spending.

"If I see something cute, I'll go ahead and get it -- that way you don't have that huge bill right at Christmas," Gaar said.

Early buyers are a minority when it comes to holiday shopping. About 18 percent of shoppers start purchasing gifts before September, according to the National Retail Federation, a retail advocacy organization. In comparison, about 34 percent of consumers start shopping in November, the group said.

Holiday sales are expected to improve this year, according to the federation. The group reported that U.S. consumers plan to spend an average of $688 on holiday-related shopping, compared to about $681 last year. Most holiday gift-givers will spend the largest portion of their budget on presents for family and friends.

Retailers are also responsible for luring in consumers with earlier holiday sales this year. Traditional shopping events such as Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving that has become a major online shopping day, are being supplemented with online holiday sales around Halloween and on Thanksgiving, said Noam Paransky, a manager and retail specialist at the global consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates.

"The retailers are trying to be more promotional," Paransky said. "They are tempting the consumer to make the purchases, whereas they hadn't been tempting purchasers that early before."

A National Retail Federation survey found 88 percent of online retailers said they would launch their holiday promotions by the second week of November.

Over the past few years, some stores have been trying to stir up Christmas excitement as early as July. Sears, Target, Kmart and Toys "R" Us have offered "Christmas in July" sales. QVC, a company specializing in shopping via television, doled out holiday discounts and specials this summer. Other online sites have provided free shipping to encourage customers.

Retailers are also making returns easier for early shoppers by extending the return period, several retail consultants said.

While some shopping experts advise buyers to wait until Black Friday for electronics and gadgets, other items such as apparel can be accumulated throughout the year.

It was August when Kathryn Finney, author of the blog The Budget Fashionista, picked up some Italian men's shirts for each of the males in her family. The shirts were marked down to $30; they typically cost well over $150, she said. Finney advises shoppers to look for apparel when seasons shift, a time when many stores try to clear their inventory.

"It's what people refer to as opportunistic buying," Finney said. "You are able to get the things the people want, and you get [them] at a price you can afford, so everyone is happy."

Doug Fleener, president of Dynamic Experiences Group, a retail consulting firm, said some of the deepest discounts are reserved for the heavily marketed holiday sales after Thanksgiving.

"If you are willing to get out and fight the crowds, you just can't beat some of the prices," he said. "Those are by far some of the lowest prices you will see during the year."

Despite the possibility of finding bigger savings at the last minute, some shoppers say they prefer their early gift shopping traditions. For more than 10 years, Liz Dolan, a 54-year-old nurse in Michigan, said she and some of the women in her family have dedicated a weekend trip in October or early November to shop for Christmas presents.

It's a family event where the group purchases gifts together. Then they return to the hotel room, where they wrap the gifts. She said the early shopping weekend may be an opportunity for the women to bond, but it also removes the hassle and stress during the already-busy holiday season.

"I really think if you shop in December, and you're really in a hurry, you may tend to just buy something," she said. "When you start early, you have more time to think about what is actually the perfect gift for the person."

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