Five insider tips to smarter holiday shopping
Experts offer secrets to help beat the crowds, save money and even make a few bucks while you shop for this year's gifts.
By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Large crowds. Messy stores. Hard-to-find merchandise.

Welcome to the annual ritual of holiday shopping and all that it entails.

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It's no wonder that somewhere in that experience harried shoppers typically forget that the gift-buying tradition should also be about having some fun.

Retail industry experts swear that consumers can enjoy themselves in the weeks ahead provided they work out a method to apply to the shopping madness.

One positive sign for both retailers and consumers is the recent pullback in gas prices, which appears to have upped consumers' enthusiasm to shop. The evidence is last month's strong sales numbers from chains such as J.C. Penney (Charts), Nordstrom (Charts), American Eagle Outfitters (Charts) and other specialty retailers.

This is key for the retail industry as merchants gear up for the crucial fourth-quarter selling period which accounts for as much as 50 percent of retailers' annual profits and sales.

Retailers, no doubt, approach the competitive holiday season very seriously.

Eager to steal each other's sales, some mall operators are even planning to open their doors at midnight on Black Friday, or the day after Thanksgiving which traditionally marks the holiday season.

Mall managers say they expect hundreds of early-bird buyers to take advantage of the midnight opening in hopes of bagging the elusive T.M.X Elmo and other hot products.

Whether you plan to join the midnight throng or hit the stores at a saner hour, experts say having a gameplan goes a long way to help save money and score those hard-to-find must-have items.

CNNMoney.com spoke to a few experts to get their insider tips on how to shop smarter this holiday season.

Shop after 6 p.m. the day BEFORE the big sale. In other words, if the ad says the storewide holiday discounts kick off on a Wednesday, don't wait until Wednesday to rush to the store.

"Usually the special discounts get put into the system after 6 p.m. the day before and you can beat the crowds," said Dan Butler, vice president of retail operations and merchandising with the National Retail Federation.

However, not all large stores follow this practice. Therefore, it's really up to consumers to try their luck at whatever stores they're keen to shop during the sales blitz.

There's nothing wrong about a "me-too" gift. Why make gift-giving all about others? You deserve a gift, too, especially if you're committing yourself to hours of elbow-to-elbow battle for those discounted cashmere sweaters.

Said Butler, "Perfume gift sets that come with bags and other add-ons make an ideal me-too gift. People give away the fragrances and keep the bonus gifts for themselves. You're still getting something without spending extra on yourself."

Pause and investigate before you click "Buy." This applies if you're doing your gift shopping on the Internet, said Edgar Dworsky, consumer advocate and editor of Consumer World.

"This is a little trick to help save money," said Dworsky. Essentially how it works is when you get to the checkout on an etailer's Web site and you're prompted to enter a coupon or promotions code, this signals that there are extra discounts available on that product.

Dworsky said he usually takes phrase used by the merchant, such as "promotional code", and enters that phrase and the name of the merchant in Google to see if there are any discount codes available.

Two places to directly look for discount codes, without searching the Internet, is to use couponcabin.com or fatwallet.com

"You can get the discount coupon code for the product from these sites and now use that at checkout to get additional discounts or even free shipping in some cases," he said.

Make money while you shop. Said Dworsky, "Some Web sites like Ebates give customers two to five percent of their money back on purchases.

Ebates gives customers exclusive offers and free shipping deals from more than 800 retail chains, including Target (Charts) and Gap (Charts). Dworsky said sites such as Ebates get a commission every time a consumer clicks through to a featured retailer.

"But they also share the money they make from the referral by refunding some of the cash back to consumers on their purchases," Dworsky said.

Ask for the "hidden" discounts. All's fair in love and Christmas shopping. So don't be shy about getting friendly - within limits - with the store staff, said Britt Beemer, retail analysts and chairman of America's Research Group.

"Ask an employee about any unadvertised coupons or sales going on that week," said Beemer.

Many retailers now offer special discounts and coupons exclusively as part of their loyalty programs.

"You won't know about these unless you sign up for the program. So make sure to ask at the checkout about these discounts as well," Beemer said.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.