It’s the thick of the holiday shopping season, and as promised, I’m coming to you with some advice I guarantee you won’t find anywhere else.
Are you ready? First, you need to know that you’re smarter than they are. All the sales, the clever pricing, the guilt-trip inducing holiday ads, can’t turn you stupid. You are a smart consumer –that’s why you read this site and specifically, my consumer posts.
But it’s not universally true. The National Retail Federation said consumers went nuts during Thanksgiving weekend, breaking every sales record. Total spending over the four-day weekend reportedly came to $59.1 billion, up 12.8 percent from 2011.
Here are 5 holiday shopping mistakes retailers want you to make:
Declining to comparison shop.
Businesses hope you’ll leave your skepticism at the door and just buy everything you want, right now. You don’t have to be an Ivy league-trained economist to know how dumb that is, not to mention where it’ll get you.
Those unscrupulous merchants really hope you won’t download a comparison app to your mobile device and use it in their story. They hate those things, because you can instantly compare prices.
Putting off setting a budget.
This is the season of excess, after all. More food! More drink! More stuff!
Granted, this may be the first time holiday shopping season in a while that isn’t taking place in the shadow of a recession, but don’t look now — we have that little “fiscal cliff” to worry about.
Businesses hope you’ll throw caution to the wind and run up your credit card bills, but like I said before, you know better. I turn to my Mint.com iPad app to calculate my budget, and although Mint pays me to write these posts, I didn’t get paid to say that.
Seriously, set a budget.
Holding on to those gift certificates.
Stores love gift certificates. Why? Because redemption rates — sometimes also referred to as “uptake” rates — are low.
In some industries, it’s as low as 10 percent, which means the balance is lost or expires. And guess who keeps the money? That’s right, the company does.
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a gift card or gift certificate. But when you get one for the holidays, you have to think of it as a ticking time bomb. Get that thing to the store and defuse it as soon as humanly possible.
Gift certificates don’t appreciate over time; in fact, they depreciate by a few percentage points every year due to inflation. Redeem them. Now!
Shopping ‘till you drop.
This year, the traditional holiday shopping season started on Thanksgiving day (is nothing sacred?).
Next year, I expect Black Friday to give way to gray Wednesday, or whatever they decide to call it, and in 2014, maybe they’ll move it all the way back to Halloween.
At the same time, the busy post-holiday shopping season seems to be getting even livelier, with too-good-to-be-true year-end sales. My head is spinning! The consumption must end at some point, even though the companies selling you the merchandise wish it wouldn’t.
Whenever I hear Christmas carols piping through store speakers after the holidays, I wonder: Are they trying to tell me something?
The sooner you end the madness, the better. I try to wrap up all my holiday shopping before it starts, but then again, I’m a little obsessive-compulsive.
Do what I say, not what I do.
Forgetting to return those unwanted items.
Exchanges are a hassle. Businesses would prefer that you kept that gag tie your nephew bought, and which you’ll never wear (I’ve been there) so that they don’t have worry about store credit or returns.
To dissuade you, some merchants impose a restocking fee or neglect to offer a gift receipt, so that returns are either impractical or impossible.
If you don’t like your gift, bring it back and then spend the store credit on something you do like. Some businesses, if pressed, will accept a return without a receipt, but you don’t know until you ask.
By reading this article, you’ve already taken an important first step to surviving the holidays without going bankrupt. Don’t do what businesses want you to do. Do what’s right for you.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.