5 tips for smarter holiday shopping

Experts offer secrets to scoring special sale items, buying safe products and making money while you shop.

By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- For some people, the thought of holiday gift shopping invokes dread, frustration, even disgust. And for good reason.

It's not a particularly pleasant experience to fight through large crowds of aggressive bargain hunters, contending with messy stores and clueless employees just to get the gift list squared away by Christmas.

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But a little bit of early preparation can help mitigate some of the madness -- and possibly even turn this annual ritual into something enjoyable, say industry experts.

So whether you plan to join the midnight throng on Black Friday, or hit the stores at a saner hour, a good gameplan will help you save money and score those hard-to-find deals.

Here's what the experts had to say:

Divide and conquer. Get a friend, spouse or sibling to help you on big shopping days, said Britt Beemer, retail analyst and chairman of America's Research Group.

That will make it easier to take advantage of different sales that are going on at the same time, especially on Black Friday and over the Thanksgiving shopping weekend.

"This is going to be the biggest year ever for early-bird deals on Black Friday," Beemer said. "I am telling shoppers to get up early and divide and conquer. You go to one store and send your husband to the other."

Another helpful tip: Call stores ahead to find out how many units of a particular product that you desperately want are in stock.

This is a particularly good idea if you're after what merchants call "doorbusters," the special deals they offer only for the first few hours on sales days. On Black Friday, it's not unusual for people to line up in front of stores as early as 4:00 a.m. to bag these special low prices on the season's must-have items.

"Retailers don't always share that information, but sometimes the employee will give you a heads up that the product could sell out in an hour after the store opens."

Buy "safer" toys. After millions of toys were recalled this year because of safety concerns, many parents will want to make sure that they buy safe toys for their kids.

Before purchasing a toy, Beemer suggested that consumers ask a store employee if the manufacturer of that toy has had any recalls in that particular collection.

"You can use the information to decide if you want to pick up another toy instead," he said.

Some retailers have implemented specific measures in their stores and online to help parents purchase safe toys. Toys "R" Us stores will have new Safety Boards in all of its stores featuring up-to-date product safety information, including recall notices.

Additionally, the retailer has set up a Web site - www.Toysrus.com/Safety - to help consumers easily find product safety and recall information. Consumers can also sign up for an email product recall notification system at that Web site.

Don't throw away expired coupons. Retailers offer plenty of discount coupons during the holiday season as a means to get shoppers to return to their stores, many of which expire in 30 days.

But Beemer said shoppers should hold on to the coupons even if they've expired.

"Ask the store if they will honor the coupon anyway," he said. "Chances are they will, because retailers know they're in for a difficult holiday season and they need to register every sale to meet their year-end targets."

Make money while you shop online. Some Web sites like Ebates.com give customers two to five percent of their money back, in the form of rebates on their online purchases.

Ebates gives customers exclusive offers and free shipping deals from more than 800 online retail chains, including Nordstrom (Charts, Fortune 500), Target (Charts, Fortune 500) and Gap (Charts, Fortune 500).

Edgar Dworsky, consumer advocate and editor of Consumer World, said Ebates is like an online shopping mall. The company gets 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," he said.

Users set up an account on Ebates and shop via any of the merchant links. After the transaction is completed, the retailer notifies Ebates and the company will put money back into your account, as much as 25 percent, on all purchases.

According to Ebates, the company will mail users a check every quarter for the money earned, or transfer the money to a user's PayPal account.

Don't rush to buy the flat-panel TV. Instead, wait to score an even better deal on a TV or a computer in the last two weeks before Christmas.

Last year's glut of holiday inventory for flat-panel televisions forced retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City to set deep discounts early in the season so that they wouldn't get stuck with excess merchandise after Christmas.

However, it's a different scenario this year. Flat-panel TV supplies are tighter and retailers also have better managed their holiday inventory in order to preserve their profits.

At the same time, retailers know that consumers this year aren't as comfortable spending on big-ticket purchases as they were last year, Beemer said.

"While electronics sellers are desperate for sales, they also want to make profits. They will refrain from making the deep price cuts until the last 10 days," Beemer said. "And that's when the real deals on TVs and other items will come out."

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.