Holiday Shopping and Inflation

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We have tips for getting around higher prices this holiday shopping season.

If it feels as if the holiday shopping season started earlier this year, that’s because it did. In the past, it traditionally started today — on Black Friday. But this fall, retailers began trying to lure shoppers earlier: Amazon, Best Buy and Target, for example, started offering deals tailored to the holidays or Black Friday in October.

One culprit behind the shift is inflation. With prices for food, energy and other goods up nearly 8 percent from last year, consumers are worried about paying too much. But retailers want customers and have tried to convince the public that their products are affordable. An earlier shopping season, with special promotions, can help get more shoppers in the door.

“If people are cautious about spending, they’re more likely to spend when they see a sale,” said my colleague Nathan Burrow, who covers deals for Wirecutter, the Times-owned product recommendation site. “And retailers are obliging.”

The timing of sales is just one example of how inflation is warping the shopping season. Today’s newsletter will be a guide to what consumers can expect and how they can deal with higher prices, with help from Wirecutter.

You will probably see a lot of signs boasting of price markdowns if you go shopping today. But that does not really mean you are getting a good deal.

“Not every sale is going to be worth your time,” Nathan said. “Yes, there are sales that can actually save people money. But sometimes there are sales that are not all they’re hyped up to be.”

In some cases, items are perpetually or frequently on sale — to the point that the lower price might as well be the regular one. Prices for video games, for example, are so routinely cut that some thrifty gamers exclusively wait for sales. A Lifehacker article captured the sentiment, telling people to “stop paying full price for video games.”

Inflation has also complicated matters. Consider a mundane item: a two-pack of tape measures at Home Depot, now on sale for $25. This two-pack, whose price Wirecutter has tracked since 2018, was on sale for $20 in previous years. So is the $25 price tag truly a deal? It is, compared with the $45 it was selling for a few weeks ago, but it is still higher than it was a year or so ago, thanks to inflation.

Inflation means consumers can expect similar scenarios with a range of products this year.

Still, deals do exist. Nathan has tips on finding good ones in the coming weeks. First, comparison shop: Now that retailers post their prices online, it is easy to browse different outlets to find the best deals. You can also use trackers, like CamelCamelCamel and Honey, to find recent price cuts.

Nathan also recommended setting a personal budget for a set number of items — a wish list — and a separate slush fund for impulse purchases. This not only limits how much you spend but can also push you toward finding good deals, since you know that your total is limited.

“This is very basic,” Nathan said, “but it can save you money.”

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
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P.S. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November a national “day of thanksgiving” 159 years ago tomorrow. (It officially became the fourth Thursday in 1941.)

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Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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