(Real Simple) -- Consult this handy calendar of what gifts to purchase, when -- courtesy of consumer-retail experts.
October 28 to November 9
On and around the weekends before and after Halloween, some merchants tout "early Black Friday" sales with select "door busters" (like off-brand electronics marked down by about 30 percent) aimed at early-bird shoppers. Don't get too excited. Often these items are the sites' standard weekly specials, rebranded to fit the holiday-shopping season, says Brad Wilson, the founder of the deal site BradsDeals.com.
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Make the purchase only if the item meets two criteria: It's discounted by at least 20 percent, and you were planning to buy it anyway. Both weekends, you can find information about these sales by scanning ads in the Sunday newspapers or by checking your favorite retailers' websites. But wait until the following Monday to make purchases online. By then competitors may have matched prices or even started a price war.
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November 25 to 27
Black Friday is traditionally the biggest shopping day of the season for brick-and-mortar stores -- less so for online purveyors. But massive general-interest sites, such as Amazon.com, host special Black Friday events throughout the weekend, along with "lightning deals," price reductions that are offered for a short time period (last year a $230 video camera was marked down to $110).
Be vigilant about sussing out these sales (which typically appear on the home page): Discounted items are often available for only a few hours or until they're sold out.
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Cyber Monday is hyped for good reason: This is the day to go online to score any type of product from the brands you like. Most merchants -- from low-end to upscale -- want in on this action, and the deals tend to be broad, as opposed to discounts on specific items. You could find sitewide specials of 30 or even 40 percent off, says Dan de Grandpre, the CEO of the deal-roundup site DealNews.com.
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Last year, for example, BananaRepublic.com offered 15 percent off all purchases, and UrbanOutfitters.com knocked 40 percent off men's and women's outerwear. Old Navy, Kate Spade New York, Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, and Barneys New York also hosted sales.
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December 21 to 24
Now is the time to scoop up big-ticket items, like televisions, furniture, and fine jewelry. As Christmas nears, merchants often discount premium items that haven't moved. Prices continue to drop as the holiday gets closer, but so will the selection. And remember: Even if you land an amazing deal, you might have to pay for overnight or two-day shipping, which could wipe out some of your savings.
If you prefer brick-and-mortar stores, be sure to check out these Christmas shopping tips before hitting the mall.
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