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Research pays off in getting holiday deals

Shoppers leave a mall after Christmas shopping recently.
Shoppers leave a mall after Christmas shopping recently. - Mark Goudge

Coupons, online deals, in-store sales help keep the bills down, says personal shopper

Stealing a Christmas tree from a Lady Foot Locker goes off without a hitch for under-appreciated – and sloshed – moms Carla, Amy and Kiki in Hollywood’s A Bad Moms Christmas.
In real life, though, out-of-control holiday shopping excursions often come with massive financial hangovers in late January and February.
And the cold reality for many people sets in a few months after Christmas when the bills arrive.
“Our busiest time of the year is the third week of January to March because people are looking for ways to handle the statements that are coming in the mail,” said Jeff Schwartz, executive director of the Consolidated Credit Counselling Services of Canada, which helps people navigate through the bills.
Early indicators show retailers in Atlantic Canada are expecting a robust holiday shopping season this year with Black Friday deals stretched into a week-long sales events and sophisticated, online marketing techniques used to boost store revenues.
“(Retailers are) cautiously optimistic,” said Jim Cormier, the Retail Council of Canada’s Halifax-based director for Atlantic Canada. “You’re seeing the economies of the Atlantic Canadian provinces – and especially the Maritime provinces – rebounding.”
This is the make-it-or-break-it time for many retailers.
“They call it Black Friday for a reason,” said Cormier. “It usually takes 11 months of the year for retailers to get into the black. From late November to the end of December is an important time of the year for many retailers.”
In A Bad Moms Christmas, the trio of rebellious moms decide to just say “No!” to the obsessive need to create Norman Rockwell-esque Christmas perfection. In a moment of drunken self-indulgence in a shopping centre food court, they put a screeching halt on their excessive, guilt-laced gift buying.  And in typical Hollywood style, the results wind up being a strange hybrid of the drunken college party and teen angst.
The real secret to emerging unscathed from holiday shopping, though, is much simpler.
“Make a budget before you go,” said Cormier. “Have a plan. You can do your research before you even go into a store.”
That’s exactly what second-year Saint Mary’s University student Sarah Westhaver does as a smart, personal shopper for seniors and parents in late November and early December. With an ad on Kijiji and referrals from satisfied customers, the 19-year-old picks up a bit of extra money at Christmas by saving her customers time and money. She charges them 20 per cent of their shopping budget and handles everything.
“I do it for a lot of seniors that can’t go out and shop for themselves … for the grandchildren … and middle-aged people 35 to 40 years old with kids.
“They give me an amount of money and I look for the best sales. There are a lot of websites that you can look at to get sales and, for grocery shopping, collect coupons.”
Think Groupon.com.
In November, the deals-and-coupon-shopping website had deals like personalized, soft-cover Dinkleboo Christmas story books for kids for only $6, or 76 per cent off the regular price. A Turtle Beach Ear Force X32 wireless gaming headset was going for about $54, or 61 per cent off the regular price of about $137. A $30 lunch for two at Stayner’s Wharf Pub & Grill in Halifax was selling for 53 per cent off, or only $14.
Even though these seem like good deals, shopping experts warn would-be bargain hunters to beware and check out competitors’ prices.
A Barbie Dreamhouse was advertised on Groupon in November at about $219, or 17 per cent off the regular price of almost $265. That was a good price. But the savings were not quite as huge as many consumers might expect when compared to what the competitors were offering. At The Source, the same little girl’s dream toy was listed online, at www.thesource.ca, for about $230 and Wal-Mart was offering it for about $240 on its website.
According to Westhaver, going online and comparison shop is a must for deal hunters, whether it's for Christmas gifts or picking up the groceries for the turkey or ham dinner with the family. She's always scoping out the deals at sobeys.ca, superstore.ca, and walmart.ca and checking out the weekly fliers and deals at No Frills. The savings can add up.
“One time, I got a turkey for $5 with a $10 coupon at Sobeys,” she said.
In another deal, she was able to scoop up a Power Rangers action figure toy for about a third of its regular price.
Failing to comparison shop during the Christmas shopping season can be a costly mistake.
“The biggest mistake is seeing the sale signs and going straight for that and thinking that’s the best price you can get,” said Westhaver.
It’s a lesson she learned the hard way. A few years ago, Westhaver walked into a store, saw big, bright yellow signs advertising a sale, and snatched up a pair of shoes. They seemed like such a deal.
“A few days later, I went into another store and saw they had them for $20 less,” she said.
In its online Holiday Survival Guide at www.consolidatedcredit.ca, Consolidated Credit Counselling Services reminds those struggling with their finances to put the gift-buying binges in check by remembering Christmas isn’t primarily about the gifts.
“Focus on experiences, not gifts,” states the agency's guide. “You probably can’t remember the majority of the gifts you gave or received as a child. You may however, have fond memories of events or family traditions that you treasure.”
A great way to avoid getting caught up in the holiday hoopla, clever merchandising and constant bombardment of marketing messages is to prepare an old-fashioned shopping list.
“Make a shopping list and stick to it,” said Schwartz. “Go in with a budget. Keep your shopping on track.”
But it’s not just about the price tag.
Gifts, unfortunately, sometimes miss the mark. What the giver thinks is an ideal gift might be met with, well, a ho-hum reaction by the person receiving it. When that happens, being able to return the item can be important, especially when shopping online.
“Can you return that item and, if you can, what will be the cost of returning it? Will there be a $40 fee? You want to make sure the terms and conditions are something you understand,” said Schwartz.
Online shopping can also be fraught with perils as fraudulent websites. Schwartz advises consumers to only do business on websites they trust.
A solid strategy for the use of credit cards is especially important during the shopping frenzy. For many people, credit cards offer up an irresistible temptation to spend more money than they can afford. They buy on impulse.
That’s the down side.
Those people should limit themselves to using cash or debit cards to keep their spending in check, said Schwartz.
But there is an upside to using credit cards. These are essentially free loans for those people who religiously pay off their balances.
“If you’re using your credit card and paying off the balances, then there are advantages in using your credit card,” said Schwartz. “There are rewards – cash back, gas or travel points. There’s a level of organization for managing your purchases … and often there’s a level of insurance (on purchases). I’ve seen them add up to a year of warranty on top of the manufacturer’s warranty for using a credit card.”

 

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