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Why Holiday Shoppers Are Starting Early This Year

Kimberly Palmer

If you think you're hearing jingles earlier than ever this year, you're not imagining it. In fact, some retailers started launching their holiday sales back in October. And consumers, who are eager to spend while sticking to budgets, are happy to get a head start.

"The Black Friday season is earlier than ever on both the retailer side and consumer side," says Brad Wilson, founder of BradsDeals.com and BlackFriday2012.com, who notes that traffic on his Black Friday site was up 45 percent in October. "Retailers are climbing on top of themselves to put out an earlier ad," he adds.

[Read: Creative, Budget-Friendly Gifts for the Holidays.]

The coupon site RetailMeNot.com has coined a new term for the so-called "Christmas creep"--OctoNovemCember. In a survey of 1,000 parents, it found that four in 10 said they started their holiday shopping before November, and just 12 percent said they would wait to shop until Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. One in three said they would be completely done with their shopping by Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Kristen Nelson of RetailMeNot.com attributes that shift to consumers' desire to plan their budgets in advance and parse out expenses over the months leading up to the holidays. "Because of that, retailers are starting early with promotions to take advantage of that consumer who's already checking off items now," she says.

A holiday shopping survey from the consultancy Accenture similarly found that shoppers are balancing a comfort with spending more than they did last year with the desire to be financially responsible. The survey found that about half of shoppers said they planned to increase their spending by $250 or more.

"Shoppers are being more disciplined, but they're also looking to spend more," says Chris Donnelly, managing director of Accenture's Retail practice. "If people are planning to only spend a certain amount of money, you want to get them early," he adds.

[Read: 10 Questions That Will Help You Earn More Money.]

Here are five more trends spotted by retail experts this season--and how consumers can use them to their advantage:

1. Black Friday is increasingly meaningless.

Last year, retailers set records in their efforts to open early for Black Friday. In fact, some of the biggest retailers, including Toys 'R Us, Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy, opened their doors as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes were cleared, at midnight or earlier on Thanksgiving itself. But this year, the story is completely different: Because sales are starting so early, in October and November, Black Friday will feel more like any other shopping day.

"The importance of Black Friday has been diluted. It no longer serves as the true starting line for the holiday season," says Donnelly. He predicts that the day will only become less important in the coming years, as more people shop online at all times and retailers offer multiple rounds of discounts starting in early fall.

Consumer tip: Shop when you see discounts, instead of waiting for Black Friday. While some items, including electronics, will continue to see heavy markdowns on that day, many other products will go on sale beforehand.

2. Big retailers have launched price-matching policies.

At Target, if shoppers present a lower price for certain items from competitors (including Amazon.com and Walmart.com), Target will match that price. The offer extends through Christmas Eve. Best Buy will also match prices on identical products sold through local retailers (but not through competitors' websites).

Wilson says he expects more retailers to offer such deals, but he worries that the many rules and restrictions in place will result in customer confusion and disappointment. Since it's the first year for such policies, he says, "We might see horror stories about customers expecting one thing and getting another."

Consumer tip: Aggressively take advantage of matching policies, but read the fine print carefully, since exclusions apply.

3. Retailers are trying to fight "showrooming."

The term "showrooming" refers to shoppers using bricks-and-mortar stores to try out products and ask knowledgeable salespeople questions before they head home (or to their mobile device) to make their purchase through an online store. The practice is convenient for the shopper but costly for the retailer, who pays for all the overhead and expertise without making a sale.

According to the Accenture survey, more than half of shoppers say they plan to showroom this season. Donnelly says retailers are responding by offering exclusive products that aren't available online or that can't be easily compared (such as an exclusive version of a television or DVD player), offering lowest prices, and offering better service, such as generous return policies or delivery assistance.

Consumer tip: If you do plan to "showroom," make sure you're considering more than just the price. While online retailers might offer lower prices, they can lack the service that often comes with in-person purchases, and that extra expense might be worthwhile.

4. It's harder to compare prices.

Partly as a result of retailers' efforts to prevent "showrooming," it is harder to make apples-to-apples price comparisons this year. Wilson also notes that waves of staggered sales, such as three or four separate discounts over one weekend, can also make it more difficult for shoppers to figure out how to get the best deal. "It's confusing for consumers, but that's the point. [Retailers] are trying to obscure the ability to clearly make decisions," he says.

Consumer tip: Use all the tools at your disposal, including price-comparison websites and apps (such as RetailMeNot.com, BradsDeals.com, and PriceGrabber.com) to fight the challenge of comparing prices.

[Read: 10 Signs You Shop Too Much.]

5. More people are shopping on the go.

Tablets, smartphones, and other mobile devices continue to gain steam as a shopping tool this year. The Accenture survey found that one in four shoppers plan to use such a device to buy holiday gifts this year, up from 17 percent last year. The ease of comparing prices is one reason why. The RetailMeNot.com survey noted that younger Americans were even more likely to use their mobile devices while shopping.

Consumer tip: Mobile devices are another tool that can help you find the best deal. Don't hesitate to pull one out while browsing aisles to figure out whether the best deal is online or right in front of you.

The bottom line: The holiday season has already kicked off, and retailers have released many of their best deals. That means you can plan your purchases around your own budget and convenience, instead of holding out for the day after Thanksgiving.

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