The days of lining up to shiver outside big box stores in the predawn hours on Black Friday are over for most Americans. Of those planning to shop this year, a projected 80% will do at least some of their shopping online to take advantage of holiday deals.
With consumers financially better off than they were last year, analysts are expecting a high-octane season even as retailers remain vexed by supply chain snarl-ups, labor shortages and surging inflation. They will spend $785, on average, on gifts, according to NPD Group's Holiday Retail Outlook. That's more than 13% higher than last year and 6% more than 2019.
Most retailers kicked off the season early, with many wheeling out holiday inventory before Halloween. Total U.S. retail sales jumped 1.7% in October, the U.S. Commerce Department reported last week, even as consumer confidence hovered at a 10-year low amid rising gas, grocery and electronics prices.
Popular items are likely to be in short supply and sell out sooner, experts say, so making key purchases will require patience, persistence and flexibility.
"It might just be a strange shopping season, a little bit less predictable but not necessarily more cutthroat," said Claire Tassin, retail and e-commerce analyst at Morning Consult.
Here's five tips for more successful holiday shopping, starting with Black Friday weekend:
Start early - like, right now
If there's anything specific and nonnegotiable on your wish list, like a hot toy or gaming console, act now. There's no guarantee you'll be able to snag it later and nothing to be gained by waiting, according to Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights.
"Anything you absolutely need that's specific, get it," Schreiner said. "Does it have a specific style, color, size that you need to give to somebody? Now's the moment to go buy those things. The prices have already started to come down."
Many Americans jump-started their holiday shopping in October, spending more than $72.5 billion online, Adobe reported, up 8% from last year. Toys sales are up 50% from last year, while spending on video games and gift cards climbed 20%.
The swell of demand is causing shortages to crop up months earlier than usual. Online "out of stock" messages exploded 250% in October compared with the year-ago period, with shoppers seeing more than 2 billion of such warnings, according to Adobe. Electronics had the highest out of stock levels, followed by jewelry, apparel, home, garden and pet products.
Don’t expect a glut of blockbuster deals
Black Friday and Cyber Monday are great times to make purchases that don't have as many specifications, like TVs, laptops, video games and clothing, Schreiner said. Americans are projected to spend $36 billion online from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, according to Adobe, making up about 17% of the entire holiday season.
Inflation has forced many businesses to pass increases onto customers. At the end of October, prices had climbed about 2% across all categories Adobe monitors, Schreiner said.
There's still going to be some deals, just fewer of them, she said, "and in general, prices are going to be a little higher than you would have expected.
Retailers also are grappling with skyrocketing shipping costs, a byproduct of the supply chain tie-ups and labor shortages choking freight movers.
"For retailers, that means that it's harder to have the right items on their shelves and in their warehouses, and harder to do as deep of discounting as consumers would typically expect on Black Friday and Cyber Monday," Tassin said.
Research before you buy
It's important to study your options if you want a good deal, according to Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst at DealNews.com.
"Before adding something to your cart, be sure to check other retailers to make sure you're getting the best price available," Ramhold told The Post in an email. "If there are particular items you're shopping for, be sure to look into them ahead of time so you'll know what the normal price is and be able to tell at a glance if it's a deal or a dud."
Taking the time can pay off: Retailers are increasingly willing to price match, Schreiner said, as well as offer curbside pickup and other conveniences that can cut down the shopping chaos.
"In a world where things are likely to be out of stock, there's a lot of value in getting on those apps, finding your product, lining it up, and then and going to get it curbside or in store," Schreiner said. "It's a lot faster to open a different app and try and find the thing you're looking for or open a different webpage than it is to drive . . . and go see if it's at the next store over."
Best Buy, Home Depot, Kohl's, Target, Walmart, Macy's and J.C. Penney all have some form of curbside pickup this holiday season. And check hours: Unlike previous years, Target, Walmart and Best Buy will all be closed on Thanksgiving.
That's partially because so many people are shopping online, Tassin said, but it also reflects a shift away from the midnight openings that were once a Black Friday hallmark: Since 2018, roughly 50% of consumers oppose keeping stores open on Thanksgiving, according to Morning Consult.
"The impetus to go to the store is less attractive than it used to be, and for retailers to need to be open on Thanksgiving is less attractive," Tassin said. "It also doesn't look great in our current climate to have your staff working on holidays."
Be flexible and brace for delays
Although in-store-only offers are a thing of the past, store crowds are expected to far surpass those of the past two years, Ramhold said. Be prepared for parking issues, long lines and longer checkout times. Bring your face mask, just in case, since many stores still require them for shoppers.
For those shopping online only, compare deals and be prepared to take what you can get, Ramhold said. Given the season's pared down inventories, it "may be a question of what you're willing to pay rather than finding the lowest price."
Shipping delays will be tough to avoid no matter where you shop, Ramhold warns, as few industries are immune to the current challenges. And the closer the holidays get, the more pronounced the backups are likely to be.
Be persistent, but have a backup plan
If you struggle to lock down a key item on your list, don't lose hope. Between bargain-hunting and backup options like gift cards, there's always something to be found.
And if you're set on something particular, keep checking. You never know when a retailer will get new a shipment, Tassin said, and you'll miss out if you don't ask.
“In some of these key sectors that have been more impacted already, it’s not necessarily that the items don’t exist. It’s just a matter of getting them to the right store, to the right place,” Tassin said. “Because of that unpredictable timing of inventory, you could be refreshing your browser in the middle of December and find that what you want has come online.”