The holiday shopping season is — finally! — upon us.
This year, the window between Thanksgiving and Christmas is six days shorter than it was last year, prompting a scramble among already antsy retailers. Many began rolling out Black Friday deals weeks ago in hopes of locking in early sales.
Retailers have also become more creative in how they structure and roll out discounts. Analysts say finding the best deal is no longer confined to waiting for Black Friday doorbusters. It increasingly means scouring social media, monitoring your phone or PC for "flash sales," and consistently comparison-shopping whether buying in-store or online.
"Retailers aren't holding back this year," said Casey Runyan, managing editor of sale-tracking website Brad's Deals. "All the rules have been thrown out the window."
There's a lot at stake: Americans are expected to spend roughly $730 billion this holiday season, up about 4% from last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
Here are five strategies for shoppers trying to score the best deals.
1. Have a game plan
First things first: Know what's going to be on sale, Runyan says. She suggests looking through retailers' circulars and Black Friday deals, which are often available online days or weeks in advance. There is likely to be overlap, particularly for popular items like Instant Pots and Ninja blenders, so make note of which retailer is offering the best — and most convenient — deals.
Can't find a particular circular? Runyan says to look to last year's Black Friday deals for clues. Sites like BradsDeals.com, BlackFriday.com and Nerd Wallet often have catalogs of previous years' promotions.
"We see so many promotions get repeated year after year," she said. "If something was on sale for a good price last year, there's good chance it'll be on sale for a good price again this year."
It's also important to note, she said, when certain sales will begin. Retailers are increasingly offering staggered deals — which means that not all Black Friday markdowns will be available right when stores open. Keep a list of what you'd like to buy and when, and act accordingly.
2. Shop while the turkey is roasting
"If you can only shop one day of the year, make it Thanksgiving," says Michael Bonebright, a consumer analyst for DealNews.com.
Most major retailers, including Walmart, Target and Best Buy, begin offering their Black Friday doorbusters online on Thursday, which means you can log in and finish your shopping in the time it takes to bake a pie.
You're more likely to land the day's deals as there is less competition. An estimated 27% of U.S. consumers plan to shop on Thanksgiving Day, compared to 70% on Black Friday and 64% on Cyber Monday, according to Shopify, which provides e-commerce services to more than 1 million retailers.
Online sales on Thanksgiving are expected to grow 20% this year — compared to 14% growth for the entire season, according to Adobe Analytics. In all, consumers are expected to spend $4.4 billion online on Turkey Day, $700 million more than they did last year.
3. Make your phone your sidekick — even in-store
Sure, you're used to comparison-shopping on the go, but analysts say your phone can come in handy in other ways, too.
"If you're going into a brick-and-mortar store, check to see if they have an app," Runyan says.
Retailers, she says, have gotten more creative about where — and how — they dole out exclusive deals. Target's Circle app, for example, frequently offers in-store coupons for specific items, while H&M gives app-users a 15% discount in stores and online. Amazon, meanwhile, has begun rolling out Alexa-only deals that shoppers can access from Echo devices. (Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and chief executive, owns The Washington Post.)
While you're scrolling through your phone, she says, it's also worth checking brands' social media accounts for exclusive coupons on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
4. Consider what you're buying, and when.
Not all holiday shopping days are created equal.
Analysts say there are certain days to score the best deals — as long as you know what you're looking for. Adobe Analytics, which analyzed trillions of U.S. transactions at the country's largest retailers, offers these guidelines:
Black Friday, Nov. 29: Shop for appliances (with average markdowns of about 9%) and sporting goods (6%)
Sunday, Dec. 1: Toys (2%) and computers (18%)
Cyber Monday, Dec. 2: Televisions (19%)
Tuesday, Dec. 3: Furniture and bedding (10%), and tools and home improvement (6%)
Friday, Dec. 27: Electronics (27%)
Looking for something off that list? Try waiting until Cyber Monday, analysts say, when many retailers extend blanket discounts on just about everything. Target, for example, historically has offered 15% off everything that day, "which means a toy that's 30% off on Black Friday may suddenly get an extra 15% off on Monday," said Bonebright of Deal News.
But, he added, don't fret too much. "In general, if you're shopping in the week around Thanksgiving you're going to get a good deal," Bonebright said. "Try not to stress about it."
5. Don't be afraid to wait
The deals are beginning earlier than ever, but that doesn't mean you have to rush to lock them in. In fact, says Rob Garf, vice president of retail strategy and insights at Salesforce, you may be able to score even-deeper markdowns by waiting.
"Holiday shopping has become a game of discount chicken," he said. "Retailers are offering deals earlier and earlier, but consumers are waiting longer to see if they can outsmart them at their own game."
Specifically, he suggests adding items to your online shopping cart — and waiting.
"When you put a handbag and a T-shirt in your cart and leave it there, chances are it'll trigger the retailer to email you a personalized promotion," he said. "The retailer knows what you're eyeing and wants to get you to buy."
The stakes are likely to get even higher right before Christmas, he said, when retailers often offer additional promotions for online orders you pick up in stores.
This article was written by Abha Bhattarai, a reporter for The Washington Post.