Five Ways to Avoid Holiday Mall Madness

Long lines. Mobbed stores. Endless lists.

The holiday shopping season is upon us, along with the stress that comes with it.

Santa may have an army of elves, but you don't.

So, on "The Early Show on Saturday Morning," Consumer Correspondent Susan Koeppen shared suggestions to help you save your sanity as you seek the gifts you want to buy.

There's a smart way and a not-so-smart way to shop, and Koeppen filled viewers in on the best times to do hit the stores, and the path to the best deals.

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Best Time to Shop

Avoid crowds by shopping during stores' early and late extended hours. Yes -- shop the night before the big sale. Shop after 6:00 the evening before a sale is advertised to begin. Many retailers program their registers the night before, so the sale may already come up in the registers.

Getting the Best Deals

• Do your research on items, comparison shop. Take store fliers with you and ask for competitors prices.

• To buy NOW (in November): grills, outerwear, TVs, jewelry, over-the-counter health products.

• To buy LATER: Clothes (buy closer to Christmas), linens/bedding (but at white sales in January).

Finding Discounts at Favorite Retailers

Sign up to receive e-mails from them. The National Retail Federation (NRF) anticipates an extremely promotional holiday season, and many sales may only be offered to a retailer's most loyal customers. Be vigilant about searching for holiday promotions in newspapers and on their websites, as well.

Gift Cards

• 57 percent of Americans say they want a gift card.

• Swap gift cards (at PlasticJungle.com, for instance).

• Make sure you register or they register the gift card in case it gets lost.

Return Policies

• Ask about extended return periods.

• If you don't like a gift you get, don't take it out of its original packaging.

• The NRF says returns fraud will cost retailers $3.7 billion this holiday season.

NRF's Top Tips for Shopping on a Budget

Smart shoppers come prepared when they hit the stores for their holiday shopping trip extravaganza, but some, believe it or not, need a bit more help navigating their way around the holiday season. For those that are planning on shopping on a budget this year, here are a few tips from our resident expert Dan Butler, Vice President Retail Operations:

• Spread out your holiday purchases throughout the year-or at least throughout the holiday season. Shopping last minute often results in making additional purchases you don't need because you are feeling rushed and frenzied.

• Make a list of absolutely everyone you need to buy for and how much you plan to spend on them before visiting any store or website, and stick to it.

• Sign up to receive e-mails from your favorite retailers. NRF is anticipating an extremely promotional holiday season and many sales may only be offered to a retailer's most loyal customers. Be vigilant about searching for holiday promotions in newspapers and on their website as well.

• Use the Internet to compare prices and products before setting foot in a store. Not only will you save time by researching ahead of time, you'll also save money on gas by not driving all over town!

• Save yourself the guesswork and buy gift cards, especially for babysitters, newspaper carriers, doormen, teachers and other recipients of smaller-value gifts. Gift cards are a great way to let gift recipients choose what they want and it's an easy way to stick to a budget.

NRF's Top Tips for Smart Holiday Shopping

• Shop after 6:00 p.m. the evening before a sale is advertised to begin. Many retailers program the registers the night before, so the sale may already come up in the register even if they have not changed out signs on the selling floor yet. *Ask the associate in advance for any possible upcoming sales, especially on big ticket items.

• Prepare a list to use while you are shopping. Make sure to include alternative selections in case you are unable to find some of the items on your list.

• Avoid crowds by shopping during stores' early and late extended hours.

• If you are looking for specific advertised items, take the complete ad with you so that you don't end up in the wrong store looking for a specific price.

• Staple a gift receipt to the merchandise tag in case it needs to be returned or exchanged. Keep your original receipts with any warranty paperwork for the life of the warranty.

• Remember when gift shopping you are buying for someone else's wants and needs, not your own. But don't be afraid to take full advantage holiday promotions treat yourself to something nice!

• Shop safely! Watch your personal belongings at all times including handbags and purchases. The stores are not responsible for any lost items so be careful, especially at the register when you can get easily distracted by the transaction itself.

• Save yourself the headache: let the charity group at the mall wrap your gifts for you. This will save you a lot of time and free you up to do other things on your holiday to-do lists.

• When shopping online, have your credit cards and address book handy. Many websites have timed windows to complete a transaction, so you need to have shipping information at your fingertips.

• When walking through the mall or down Main Street, wear comfortable shoes! You'll be walking on a lot of marble, concrete and tile.

• Only buy gift cards from reputable retailers, not through online auction sites. Gift cards sold through online auction sites may be counterfeit or have been obtained illegally.

• Make sure you have personal credit card information available at home in the event you lose a credit card while shopping. *Important back up information includes customer service phone numbers, PIN numbers and account numbers.

• Be vigilant. Make sure to stash your cash in a safe place within a wallet while shopping. When paying with cash at the register, only pull out of your wallet what the amount totals, not the entire stash. This also applies to personal items you carry through the stores, including shopping bags and purses.

• When parking in a large parking lot, make sure to keep all items in the trunk of the car and out of sight. It also helps to park near a light if you know you it will be dark by the time you are done. Mentally locate the nearest security office or officers in case an emergency occurs you can easily track down appropriate personnel.