In this report
Overview

Hassle-free shopping

Tips to help you—and your finances—survive the holidays

Last reviewed: December 2011

Are you prepared for holiday shopping, with its long checkout lines, sold-out must-haves, credit-card snafus, and gift-wrapping marathons? Not to worry. We compiled our best shopping advice to help you get through your gift list in the smoothest and least-costly way. Read on for ways to accentuate the jolly and eliminate the folly.

Mapping a strategy

Come up with a number

Decide how much you'll spend, then add a bit more to that figure. Surveys by the Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted before and after the holidays have found that Americans typically spend more than they expected. After the 2009 holiday season, for instance, shoppers said they spent $811 on average—16 percent more than they had planned.

In your spending estimate, include the holiday tips you give to service providers such as a house cleaner or dog groomer, as well as gifts for party hosts. Remember, too, often overlooked expenses like wrapping, packing, and postage. Allow about 10 percent of your total holiday budget for those costs and for last-minute reciprocation for that person you left off your list—who didn't forget you.

Savvy secret

Amazon.com has a "wish list" button that you can add to your browser toolbar to create a convenient online shopping list. When you find an item that interests you anywhere on the Web, click on the button and it will be added to your Amazon wish list, complete with links to the original Web pages. No surprise, the system also flags items on your list that you can get for less on Amazon.com.

Downsize in style

If this year's budget is smaller than last—or your recipient list has grown—you're probably looking for high-quality, lower-priced alternatives to old standbys. For wine, check out Consumer Reports' Best Buys, most for $10 or less. (Ratings available to subscribers.) One zinfandel we found—Old Moon (2009)—costs just $6 and is sold at Trader Joe's. Three 2009 shirazes—Alice White, the Little Penguin, and Yellow Tail—retail for about $7. If you're uncomfortable giving inexpensive wine as a gift, serve it in a carafe at your holiday table.

Savvy secret

Use old maps, the funny pages, and even old scraps of fabric for inexpensive, novel gift wrap. Another budget-stretcher: Assume you'll be able to regift a few items.

Plan your time

For a more efficient buying excursion, try shopping alone. And forgo the ordeal known as Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. As our columnist Tod Marks noted last month, attempting to snag a door-buster bargain on Black Friday can be an exercise in frustration, with little chance of a rain check for that missed deal. Don't worry: You'll probably find similar sales later without the throngs.

Savvy secret

Night owls catch the worm as often as early birds during December, when many chain retailers extend their hours and sometimes offer "flash" in-store sales at odd hours. For example, last year 14 Macy's stores, mainly in the northeast, were open 83 consecutive hours, from 7 a.m. on Dec. 21 to 6 p.m. on Dec. 24, while other outlets stayed open until 2 a.m. Toys 'R Us stores had a similar promotion, opening at 6 a.m. on Dec. 21. Of course, the Internet is open around the clock.

Check the Web first

The Web is a great tool for comparison shopping whether you buy online or prefer a local store. Our recent survey of electronics shoppers found that those who went to price-comparison websites were happier with the price they ended up paying whether they bought online or in a store. (Ratings available to subscribers.)

Some retailer websites will tell you whether an item you want is in stock at a particular store. Many retailers, including Best Buy and Sears, will let you purchase an item online and pick it up at a local store, saving you shipping fees.

Savvy secret

In our recent survey, consumers found shopping for electronics at Walmart.com a more satisfactory experience than shopping in a Walmart store. (Ratings available to subscribers.)

Launching the hunt

Shop at highly rated retailers

In Consumer Reports' December cover report on where to buy electronics, Amazon.com, BHPhotoVideo.com, Crutchfield.com, and Newegg.com all received strong marks across the board from readers who responded to our annual electronics retailer survey. Those four were also standouts for shipping and home delivery. Overall, online merchants did better than walk-in retailers, even for big-ticket items like TVs. For walk-in stores, independent retailers topped our Ratings, which are available to subscribers. Apple Store, Costco, and Staples also got high scores.

A separate survey of computer buyers found more overall satisfaction with online vendors than with walk-in stores. (Ratings available to subscribers.) A mere 2 percent of computer shoppers who dealt with online retailers thought they ended up paying more than expected for their purchase. In contrast, more than half of walk-in buyers spent more than expected. Among the highest-rated walk-in stores for computer buyers were the Apple Store, Micro Center, and Costco. (See Where to buy with a smile for more retailers with high scores in our reader surveys.)

Savvy secret

Newegg.com was the only retailer in our electronics-shopping survey to receive top marks for price. Crutchfield.com stood alone among online retailers for having top-of-the-line customer service.

Try your hand at haggling

Just 13 percent of the electronics shoppers in our latest survey said they tried haggling for a better price at walk-in stores. But those who did saved an average of $82. Shoppers saved a median of $105 on televisions, $53 on digital cameras, and $43 on DVD/Blu-ray players. Four in five hagglers successfully negotiated the price of their purchase at HHGregg, P.C. Richard & Son, and independent walk-in stores. At Best Buy and Sears, at least three in five hagglers shaved dollars off the prices they paid. Hagglers for computers were successful more than half the time; the median saved was $103.

Savvy secret

Though few try, online shoppers can also haggle for a discount. Our electronics survey found that nearly three of five were successful in scoring a price break. A third of them negotiated with a retailer by phone vs. 29 percent through e-mail messages and 13 percent by online chat. Two-thirds of computer buyers who negotiated directly with manufacturers got a lower price.

Closing the deal

Pay with cash

Shoppers who use credit cards spend more on holiday gifts than those who don't, we've found in surveys. In the 2009 holiday season, for example, those who used credit cards spent an average of $896 for gift purchases, considerably above the total average gift expenditure of $811. Stores don't have to pay a transaction fee for cash purchases, as they do with debit and credit cards, so you might be able to get a discount if you pay with cash, particularly on big-ticket items.

Savvy secret

Lord & Taylor still accepts personal checks in its branches. And if layaway appeals to you, Kmart, Sears, and Walmart have programs.

Use your plastic with care

Most shoppers will use credit cards for at least some of their purchases. Try to resist the temptation to charge more than you can afford or you'll be nursing a debt hangover long after the holidays are but a memory. While using a debit card might help you stay within your budget, you could be subject to fees for debit transactions that some banks are introducing. Besides, federal law offers stronger consumer protection to credit-card users. For one thing, if you report your credit card stolen and someone uses it, you're liable for only $50. With a debit card, your liability for unauthorized transactions is limited to $50 if you report them within two business days of the date you learn of the transactions. After two days, your liability can climb to $500 or more. Visa and MasterCard have "zero liability" policies that go beyond the federal law. They will usually exempt debit cardholders from liability if a bank investigation confirms a transaction was fraudulent.

Take the bait for a store credit card and its one-time extra savings only if you're buying something expensive and know you can pay the balance on time and in full. Store credit cards typically carry interest rates of 20 percent or higher. To avoid lowering your credit score, don't apply for more than one store card in a season.

Savvy secret

While it's rare, some merchants might charge you a fee to pay with a debit card. If you're confronted with that situation, refuse to pay the fee and report the merchant to your card issuer.

Nix the warranty

Our years of surveying consumers have confirmed that extended warranties for most electronics and household appliances aren't worth the money. Those items usually don't break during their warranty period, and if they do, the average cost of repair isn't much more than the cost of an average warranty. And extended warranties often have loopholes, such as not covering problems caused by wear and tear.

For computers, however, a plan that extends technical support and coverage for repairs might make sense if you or the person you're giving it to might need hand-holding when the free factory support expires, usually after a year. And a plan that covers theft or accidental damage might be worth considering for a laptop, netbook, or tablet you'll use on the go. Nearly a third of computer buyers we surveyed purchased a service plan. They spent more on a warranty for laptops (about $157) than for desktops (about $140).

Savvy secret

If you think you have to buy a warranty, make sure you understand its terms, particularly which years it covers and how it differs from the standard warranty that comes with the product. Some extended warranties overlap with the standard ones. And some credit-card providers—notably American Express—offer extended warranty protection on products purchased with the card.

Ship free

Online shoppers can stay on budget by taking advantage of free shipping offers, many of which are listed at FreeShipping.org. The site also sponsors Free Shipping Day (www.freeshippingday.com)—Dec. 16—one of the last opportunities for online shoppers to get free shipping from popular retailers for delivery by Dec. 24. Merchants who have signed on include the Apple Online Store, Bed Bath & Beyond, Cabela's, eBags, Kohl's, Lands' End, REI, Zales, and Ghirardelli and Godiva chocolatiers.

Savvy secret

If you're sending something via the U.S. Postal Service and want it to reach its destination by Christmas, note these deadlines (for shipping within the U.S.): Parcel Post, Dec. 15; Express Mail, Dec. 22; Priority Mail, Dec. 21; and letters and cards, Dec. 20. Check www.usps.com for shipping deadlines to other countries and military addresses.

Thinking ahead

Make returns easy

You should consider the possibility that your gift might need to be returned. Our holiday surveys have found that less than half of adults usually give gift receipts, half don't check a walk-in store's return policy before buying, and more than a third don't check online retailers' policies.

Including a gift receipt is a courtesy for your gift recipients, and most retailers offer them. Stores usually allow 90 days to return most items but might have shorter periods for electronics, software, CDs, and DVDs. Retailers often impose a restocking fee for electronics—typically 15 percent of the product's cost. But Sears also charges restocking fees for sporting goods and other merchandise.

Savvy secret

Retailers sometimes extend return deadlines during the holidays. Electronics bought at Walmart usually must be returned within 15 or 30 days for a refund, for example, but if you buy between Nov. 15 and Dec. 25, the clock doesn't start ticking until Dec. 26.

Where to buy with a smile

Ready to hit the stores? The retailers lsited below earned high scores for overall shopping experience in surveys by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. Independent walk-in stores also got high marks.

Electronics

Personal advisers at Crutchfield.com will help with your order. BHPhotoVideo.com was noted for selection. Newegg.com scored tops on price.

Computers

Amazon.com and Newegg.com got shoutouts for selection. Apple.com was praised for selection and service.

Small appliances

Amazon.com and QVC.com were noted for easy checkout and good shipping policies. Independents stood out for service.

Big retailers

Costco and Dillard's got high marks for product quality. Dillard's was also praised for service and checkout speed.

Note: survey results are representative of subscribers to Consumer Reports or ConsumerReports.org but may not be representative of U.S. adults.


This article appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

Posted November 2011 — Consumer Reports Money Adviser issue: December 2011