With the holidays turning the retail landscape into a battlefield--promo emails, door busters, and a gift list that needs more tracking than stealth drones--it's all too easy to get hit and watch your credit card bill balloon. But here are 10 stealth shopping tips to add to your holiday arsenal to help you save big money this season. (Searching for the perfect present? Check out The 2012 Men's Health Holiday Gift Guide
1. Hide Your Cookies
Don't worry, not the gingerbread kind. According to research by online privacy company Abine and the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, cookie tracking has increased by 11 percent in the last 5 months. What does that mean, exactly? "Companies frequently suggest items for purchase based on your searching behavior on their website," says Sarah Downey, privacy analyst and attorney at Abine. "They increasingly use this information to target us with different advertisements based on who they think we are. And your browsing history can affect the price you see on screen." Frequenting luxury addresses, like Lamborghini.com, could quadruple prices while you search for other merchandise. On the other hand, sticking to savings-oriented sites can lower prices by 23 percent. To keep cookies under control, install the free Do Not Track Plus software at Abine.com.
2. Track Prices Automatically
With retailers competing like game cocks, you can easily pay one price only to find out it went down a few days later. PriceBlink--a free add-on for most web browsers--automatically scans 5,000 retailers as you shop and lists competitor prices. Users reported saving around 17 percent before coupon codes. Even better: The program lets you name your own price, and once it drops to that level or below, you'll get an email notification.
3. Go Coupon Crazy
According to eMarketer estimates, just one hour of couponing can save you $100. Your move: Enter multiple discount codes as you check out online. "The key is to apply different types of discounts, like free shipping and a percentage off," says Don Batsford, co-founder of ShopGala.com, a deal site that offers more than 20,000 coupons and deals from 7,500 stores.
Here's a dirty little retail secret: Good things come to those who wait. "Sales before Thanksgiving are artificially bumped up," says Batsford. Why? "Retailers want you to see the dramatic Black Friday discounts." Waiting to shop cuts down on impulse buys, too. "Slash your shopping by a week and you'll save about 20 percent on your entire holiday budget," adds Batsford. (Novelty items and electronics are an exception because they sell out quickly.) Shop for soft goods, like scarves and sweaters, 4 to 6 business days before Christmas. Managers are going to move this seasonal inventory into the clearance section, dropping the price by an additional 25 percent. And if you prefer to shop online, know this: As of publication, 788 online merchants, including Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, and Under Armour, are all participating in "Free Shipping Day" on December 17. Check out the full list of participants here. (Stop spending too much money! Here's how to battle 4 Sneaky Retail Tactics
5. Tweet @ Local Businesses
Small businesses love social media. In fact, according to eMarketer research, you could save at least 20 percent by following a company on Facebook or Twitter. Unlike giant corporations, local businesses (especially if they are service-based) have more wiggle room when it comes to granting discounts. Say a few of your buddies want to buy craft beer: Send a message to the brewer and try to negotiate--you might just save up to 30 percent on a bulk order, says Darren Waddell, senior vice president of marketing at Payvment, a social commerce platform. Another trick: Look through expired Groupon offers in your inbox, then inquire whether the business can offer the same deal to you now. If they have done it before, they may still honor it, Waddell says. "Small business owners are always motivated to work with you," says Patricia Norins, shopping expert for Small Business Saturday, which is November 24. After all, their goal is to build a relationship with you--so play nice.
6. Shop While You're in Line
E-commerce is stealing thunder from Black Friday. "There is no such thing as downtime anymore," says Keith George, general manager for Gilt Man. "Mobile has changed Black Friday and flash-sale sites are coming up with door busters of their own to capture sales while people are standing in lines or in traffic." One example: Starting at 6 a.m. ET on Black Friday, Gilt will offer up to 90 percent off at certain times--which means you can snag a cashmere scarf for as low as $9. To double down on the excitement, the site will also offer "mispriced" designer goods for as low as $20 and $40. (Find a holiday knit that suits your style with our guide to The Best Sweaters for the Season
7. Keep Tabs on Your Spending
"In my experience, people surpass their budget by 20 percent," says Manisha Thakor, a Santa Fe-based personal finance expert. Not surprising, considering a third of holiday shoppers check out with unplanned items, just to meet free shipping qualifications, reports Forrester Research. Factor in that you're likely to pocket a little something-something for yourself, too--turns out, 60 percent of men inadvertently spend almost $300 on non-gift purchases, according to data from the National Retail Federation. Your move: Set boundaries and create a segregated account. Mint.com and most online bank accounts are equipped with alerts that ping as you approach a set limit. Slice, a free app for iOS and Android, tracks your online purchases and organizes all e-receipts in one place. Now you have no excuse when your math doesn't add up.
8. Carve Out a Booze Budget
The holiday season is stacked with parties--hell, you've probably already been to one since you started this sentence--which means you'll need to stock up on plenty of booze. Here's how to save: "If you love Bordeaux, look for lesser-known regions in the southern area of France," says Natalie MacLean, author of Unquenchable: A Tipsy Search for the World's Best Bargain Wine
s. Warm regions, like Chile and Argentina, are often more reasonable as well because of lower production costs. "Buying wine by the case, which is 12 bottles, can help you save money," says David Sokolin, president of Sokolin.com, an online wine merchant. "You're paying $4 per bottle to ship 6 bottles with an economy service. But when you get a case, shipping is less than $1 per bottle on the second set of six bottles." (For 12 bottles that will turn any occasion into a celebration, check out The Best Holiday Wines Under $50
9. Get the Total Package
'Tis the season for gift sets, but buying a packaged present isn't always the best deal. Seeing a higher quantity--i.e. 10 chocolate bars for $49--automatically makes you think you're getting a better deal than you really are, reports the Journal of Consumer Research
. "Time pressure makes calculating and evaluating these deals even more difficult," says study author Rajesh Bagchi, associate professor of marketing at Virginia Tech. Take a moment to break down all the components. (If you're choosing between two discounts at the store, focus on the unit prices of each item, which will tell you how much things cost per unit of measure. Discover 3 Ways to Recognize the Best Deal
10. Prevent a Financial Hangover in January
If you have to rely on plastic this season, at least use credit cards with a good reward program, says Carmen Wong Ulrich, president of Alta Wealth Management. Citi Forward, for instance, offers $100 gift cards if you spend $650, and Discover touts 5 percent cash back on all department store and online purchases through December. "If you don't have the best credit, avoid a card with a low limit," says Ulrich. "It will make you look maxed out and can lower your credit score," she adds. Ulrich recommends NerdWallet.com as a resource to learn about reward-driven card options. Don't want to deal with credit cards at all? Try SpreadSave.com, a social shopping site that gives you cash back on every purchase.
This may be the most wonderful time of the year--but not for your wallet. Holiday shopping will cost you almost $800 this year, according to the National Retail Federation. And although men are goal- and achievement-oriented creatures, they tend to spend more per transaction, according to Linda Tuncay Zayer, Ph.D., an associate professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago.