Before you head into the final stretch before the holiday rush, when stores lose all subtlety in the ways they push gift-buying, you may wonder whether to pass up November bargains in the hope that some prices will keep falling.
Last year, most customers who waited until the final days before Dec. 25 found empty shelves instead of bargains because stores had sold most of their stock, and so didn't have to cut prices to clear out holiday merchandise.
This year, most stores are heading into the holidays with only a little more inventory, so again few are desperate. But many are discounting holiday goods earlier than last year because shoppers remain cautious.
Generally, "retailers are going out with their best prices of the season around the Thanksgiving week," says John Long, a retail strategist at Kurt Salmon Associates.
Here are some tips for timing your purchases this year.
— FLAT-PANEL TVS: Particularly for lower-priced TV models, the time to act is now through Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, analysts say.
In years past, it would have been Black Friday. But retailers already are slashing prices to move a mounting glut of TVs. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer, discounted a 26-inch Vizio LED HDTV from $298 to $198 last weekend, for example. And a 55-inch Vizio LCD HDTV TV that had been selling for $1,098 dropped to $898 as part of a two-day sale.
Don't hold your breath for discounts on the latest and greatest, though. For 3-D and TVs that connect to the Internet, shoppers will have to wait until after Christmas for discounts, according to Craig Johnson, president of retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners.
— COMPUTERS: Both low-end and high-end laptop computers are cheapest around Black Friday. Look for the deals on laptops offered online by manufacturers such as Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., recommends Dan de Grandpre, editor-in-chief of dealnews.com.
Anyone looking for ultra-cheap laptops should also check Wal-Mart, office superstores and Amazon.com, he says.
— HOT TOYS: If you want the season's hottest toys, buy between now and Black Friday because many retailers, including Toys R Us and Wal-Mart, have already discounted some of them. Wal-Mart has cut prices on WowWee's Paper Jamz Guitar and Mattel Inc.'s Loopz electronic memory game. And prices can even rise on the hottest toys by mid-December as supplies dwindle, analysts say.
— CLASSIC TOYS: If you're in the market for evergreen toys like board games, however, definitely wait until after Thanksgiving week for better deals. But don't expect 70 percent off on Dec. 26, either. That's because stores want to be ready for post-Christmas shoppers bearing gift cards, says toy analyst Chris Byrne.
— CLOTHING: Many stores may cut prices on key clothing items like sweaters and jackets up to 50 percent this weekend and next, says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for market research firm NPD. That's earlier than usual, but merchants are still trying to clear out a backlog of cold-weather items after an unseasonably warm autumn.
He says stores aren't expected to cut prices any further for Black Friday weekend, but they may deepen discounts to 70 percent after Dec. 26. Just beware that you may not find the color or size you need.
Regardless, a lot depends on the weather. If it warms up, stores will have to discount cold-weather items even more, says Tom Jacobson, managing director of pricing and profit optimization strategy at Accenture. Overall, "stores are really focusing on sticking to their (discounting) plans," he said.