It’s that magical time of the year when we pull on cozy sweaters, sip pumpkiny hot drinks and think entirely too much about buying more stuff. This holiday season, thanks to inflation and the ripple effects from the ongoing pandemic that have disrupted the global supply chain, we’re thinking about shopping even more than usual.
There is no reason to panic buy, but everyone can shop a bit smarter. If you — like the majority of Americans — plan to do your buying online, we’ve got you covered. Shopping online can save you money on gas and help avoid crowded stores, while also making it easier to compare fluctuating prices and see who has what in stock.
Here are a few tips to make sure you get your loved ones what they want, or at least a really nice picture of it.
– Shop now to leave more time for deliveries
“Shop now, shop online,” says Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School.
The logjam stretches from overseas factories to container ships, rail lines, trucks and all the way to store shelves. The end result is that products of all kinds will have unpredictable arrival times this year. To play it safe, order what you need now instead of waiting for sales. Most stores advertise their big holiday discounts early, and some offer the prices in advance. In addition, some are expected to offer fewer discounts this year, so there’s even less reason to delay.
Cohen says that big stores are going out of their way to ensure that online inventory matches what they can actually ship, removing items they don’t think they can’t get out in time. But check your tracking numbers after you order to spot any shifting shipping timelines and avoid stores you don’t trust.
If you’ve waited too long and you’re worried about shipping, you can use a service like Shipt to have someone find what’s in a store for you the same day.
– Find gifts that are in stock
There’s a lot of guessing about what, exactly, the impact of supply chain backlogs will be on specific holiday gifts. The reality is, some doodads might be hard to find, while other whatnots will be in plentiful supply. Smaller stores may struggle with staffing and products, but bigger chains can try to buy their way out of the problem by doing things like chartering their own container ships.
That doesn’t mean you have to skip smaller stores: Just do a little extra research. If you’re trying to shop local, send an email or call to double check their inventory and ask whether they have the product in hand yet. Some stores are selling products they expect to have in hand soon, but you’ll want to know how big of a risk you’re taking.
If you’re set on something specific and can’t find it at a smaller place, check the big players. Walmart, Target and Amazon are using their market power to ensure delivery of products first, including hiring their own container ships. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Because prices are going up, spend time comparison shopping. Try a tool that looks at inventory across sites like Google Shopping or a browser plug-in like Honey, Capital One Shopping or Rakuten to find lower prices.
– Don’t shop from brands you can’t confirm are real
Just because it looks like a product you want and has a competitive price doesn’t mean you should click buy. Shady third-party sellers are rampant on Amazon, Walmart, Google and in social media ads. The companies often buy from cheap overseas wholesalers like AliExpress, slap on a fake brand name and make a quick webpage using a service like Shopify. The quality can range from “fine” to “forgot to add buttonholes,” but the bigger risk in ordering from one of theses sellers now is the shipping times.
Double check what the third-party seller or social media brand is before buying something. Another option is to shop only at stores you know don’t rely on third-party sellers. If you’re suspicious, do a reverse Google Image search of the product, or track down its website and look up the store address on a map.
Check out this guide for more ways to tell the real brands from the fakes.
– Shop local without going outside
Big-box retailers have the upper hand this year, and that’s even more of a reason to try to support your local businesses. If you’re not able to go in person, you can do some local shopping online. Start with your chamber of commerce and see whether it has a directory of nearby stores, or follow favorites on social media to learn about what’s in stock. If you use Google Shopping, you can select Available Nearby and Smaller Stores, but it misses a lot of options. There are tools like Locally.com and Live Buy Local for looking in some areas as well. If you want to support local bookstores while shopping online, try Bookshop.org.
– Just give them a photo of the thing … really
It’s true that opening an envelope to find a picture or homemade drawing of a Play Station just doesn’t hit the same. But if you can’t find something specific, or prices have all been hiked up, consider stalling and buying it in a few weeks or a month when shelves are fuller and prices drop.
The most in-demand products aren’t missing — they’re just backlogged and slowly making their way to their destination, says Cohen. That means there might be a glut of goods rolling in after December and throughout 2022. While companies have always had big sales in the new year, that could be even more extreme this time around as they try to move products that they already paid for.
“The goods that arrive really late are going to have to be sold, and that’s when this conservative discounting will shift into heroic discounting,” says Cohen.
Replacing gifts with pictures is not recommended for young children unless you have a great plan to explain why Santa’s workshop is magical but also at the whims of a global supply chain slowdown.