As worries about a recession spook spending, retailers are nudging shoppers to Web sites with promises of steep discounts. That's in contrast to past years, when ordering gifts online was touted as a way to save time and circumvent crowded malls.
"Everything's taking a back seat to price. Retailers are very conscious of what consumers are going through," said Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for Shop.org, the online unit of the National Retail Federation.
Getting the most out of sales will mean knowing your options, however. So before you embark on your holiday shopping, keep these five points in mind.
1. GET IN ON THE DEAL
Dealnews.com publishes an annual Black Friday Guide, a roundup of price-checked deals, promotions and online specials. The guide covers categories including electronics, toys and apparel.
CyberMonday.com, a unit of Shop.org, aggregates online holiday sales from 600 companies. Shop.org gets a percentage of sales made through the site.
Another way to find out about deals? Try opening those pesky e-mails from retailers. They often include coupon codes and alerts to online-only deals, said Kurt Peters, publisher of Internet Retailer.
The trade publication's recent survey of 174 Web retailers, including those that operate stores, found nearly half were boosting the number of monthly e-mails they send compared to a year ago.
2. WHEN & WHERE TO BUY
Some retailers even post Black Friday sales online a day early on Thanksgiving, he said. And the biggest discounts may be available yet sooner.
Once brick-and-mortar stores advertise their Black Friday deals in newspaper circulars in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, online-only stores such as Amazon.com immediately start trying to beat the offers, de Grandpre said.
For select doorbuster items on Black Friday, however, you may have to rise early and head to the mall with the rest of the pack.
If you still have shopping to do after Black Friday, many retailers have online sales on the "Cyber Monday" after Thanksgiving weekend.
Cyber Monday sales vary. Some may last a week, others may feature a different item or category each day for a week and yet others might have deep discounts on items for just a few hours. Last year, 28 percent of online retailers had partial day sales, according to Shop.org.
3. ONLINE-ONLY STORES
Before buying gifts at major chains, check online retailers such as Overstock.com, Amazon.com and Buy.com, which often offer the same or similar products for cheaper.
Some lesser-known online retailers de Grandpre suggests: NewEgg.com, 6pm.com and SmartBargains.com.
If you find a deal at an online retailer you're not familiar with, de Grandpre suggests checking with the Better Business Bureau at bbb.org. The group rates businesses based on the volume of customer complaints it gets and how quickly businesses respond to them.
If a business has an "unsatisfactory" rating, it may be your cue to click away.
A point to keep in mind when buying online is to stick to your shopping list. Many online retailers try go for the up-sell at check out, suggesting other items or package deals.
Online retailers collect sales taxes only from customers in states where they have a physical presence, whether it's a store, their headquarters or a warehouse.
If there's no physical presence in your state, then a sales tax isn't collected. The easiest way to find out if you'll be taxed is to put items in your basket and get a price tally before checking out.
The savings on sales taxes can be considerable on big-ticket items, so many consumers chose to go online for certain purchases, according to Craig Shearman, with the National Retail Federation. The group supports federal regulation that would require all merchants to collect sales taxes, regardless of whether they have a physical presence in a state.
5. SHIPPING & WRAPPING COSTS
Most retailers plan to offer shipping deals this season, but the terms of the deals may differ from last year, according to Shop.org. One-fifth of retailers surveyed say they're passing higher shipping costs on to customers by requiring them to spend more to qualify for free shipping. Another 11 percent plan to cut back on unconditional free shipping.
That means mailing gifts yourself may be cheaper. If your package is particularly heavy, though, a flat shipping rate may benefit you. If a company offers a gift-wrapping option, that could save a few dollars too.
Carefully weighing shipping and wrapping costs "save $5 or $10 with every gift," said Davis of Shop.org.