As Christmas Approaches, Last Minute Shoppers Can Score Big

Jean Chatzky
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Posted: Dec 22, 2011 12:01 AM

You have three days or so to get your holiday shopping wrapped up, and if you're feeling like you haven't even gotten off the starting block, you're not alone.

Lucky for procrastinators, there are some great deals out there -- and stores are catering to your schedule in these last few moments before Christmas. Here's what you should know before you open your wallet:

-- It's time to go offline.

Free shipping deals are over, for the most part. Most online retailers required an order by Monday or Tuesday if you wanted to ship standard and receive the item by Christmas, and most free shipping offers expired at that point as well. If you want to order online and get your purchase in time, you're going to pay a pretty penny for expedited shipping. Not worth it, in my opinion -- you're better off hitting the brick and mortar stores at this point in the game.

-- Check out return policies.

There are reports that shoppers are already having buyer's remorse and heading back to the store with items they bought during Black Friday sales that were, at the time, deemed too good to pass up. It could happen to you -- or, despite your impeccable taste, the person you buy for could want something different -- so always check out the return policy before making a purchase.

The National Retail Federation says that 83 percent of stores are keeping their return policies the same as last year (and, for the record, it says it has not heard about this surge in returns. The NRF predicts returns will be on par with last year). But some retailers, like Amazon, have different return policies for different products. Electronics are typically under stricter rules. For the most part, your deadline is likely to fall sometime in January, with some big-box stores, such as Target, extending to 45 or 90 days. No matter what, always keep the tags and packaging intact and try to give recipients a gift receipt.

-- Don't panic.

Stores are making it easy to shop in these next few days. Toys R Us will be open 24/7 until 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Fourteen Macy's stores are doing the same thing, staying open constantly between today (Wednesday) and 6 p.m. on Saturday. Twenty-seven other Macy's outlets will be open until 2 a.m. this week. Other stores, like Sears, Target and Kohl's are staying open until midnight in some locations. You still have time to buy the presents you need on your own schedule, even if you're working late or in the retail business yourself.

-- Get ready for deals.

Nope, you didn't miss them. Kathy Grannis, director of media relations for the NRF, says that retailers "usually use the final two weeks before the big day to push more promotions for holiday shoppers. We will definitely see some great last-minute deals this week, up through late evening Christmas Eve." The key, though, is to not undercut those deals by scrambling and buying something you can't afford or wouldn't normally splurge on because you're rushed to get it wrapped and under the tree.

Which brings me to ...

-- Don't blow your budget.

No matter how much time you have left before Christmas, a budget is a budget -- don't give yourself a holiday hangover or a New Year's worth of debt by going over yours. My favorite tip to save money is to take a rundown of what I've already purchased before I leave the house to go shopping, so I don't double up. I sometimes spot the perfect gift over the summer, and then forget about it until I go digging. And don't forget to continue to take the time to comparison shop -- it only takes a few minutes to plug your purchase into an online comparison app, and that will give you a good idea of the prices you'll see, even when you're doing your real purchasing offline. You can find and print coupons online, too.

-- Skip presents for yourself.

As I said, the deals are out there -- but they're also not going anywhere. We'll see lots of deals after Christmas, and January has a boatload of bargains as well. Video games, jackets, large appliances and bikes tend to go on sale then.

With Arielle O'Shea

(Jean Chatzky is financial editor of NBC's "Today" show, a contributing editor at More magazine and the author of "Money 911." She recently launched the JeanChatzky Score Builder in partnership with smartcredit.com. Check out her blog at jeanchatzky.com and follow her on Twitter @jeanchatzky.)