Panicky holiday shopping is both dumb and self-defeating

by Alexis Leondis

Hey, calm down! Ignore all those frantic experts who are urging consumers to tackle holiday shopping earlier than usual due to supply-chain issues and shipping delays.

The idea that all, or even most, shopping has to be completed as soon as possible this year is overkill. The only real beneficiaries are retailers and their bottom lines.

Sure, there may be low stock for certain items. But all that means is that it’s smart to be opportunistic about grabbing specific, cherished goodies that might fly off the shelves. Think of a particular Lego set that your child has her heart set on. Most holiday gifts don’t actually fall into that category.

Rushing to complete all holiday shopping out of fear of things becoming unavailable is likely to backfire.

Research shows that in an environment where perceived scarcity looms large, consumers are less thoughtful about their purchases. They buy more than they need and spend more than they ordinarily would.

In addition, if shoppers buy too early in the season, the pain of payment often recedes so that as the holidays near, they wind up adding more to the pile of gifts than they had intended. It’s much like diners who pay for high-end meals in advance, and then tend to spend on extras such as wine or specialty items when they get to the restaurant, according to Charles Lindsey, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo.

Shoppers can also miss out on some of the best deals if they buy most of their holiday items too early. It’s true that some retailers have bumped up their promotions. Amazon.com provided discounts in early October, for example. Target Corp. launched savings offers on Halloween, and Walmart Inc.’s first round of deals is kicking off now. But Black Friday and Cyber Monday are still when the biggest savings are likely.

Procrastinators, rejoice! Christmas falls on a Saturday this year, so even bigger deals may come the week leading up to it, according to Marshal Cohen, chief industry adviser of the NPD Group, which provides market data for retailers.

Some retailers may offer price matches to make consumers more comfortable about buying early. So, if an item is listed for a lower price at a competitor later on, they’ll be made whole. Beware, though. Retailers often have exclusions such as blackout periods on Black Friday, when price matching won’t be available.

Also, if rebates are any guide, consumers who think they’ll avail themselves of the price-matching guarantee usually don’t, meaning that buying early is likely to cost them money.

For high-end shoppers, where the luxury market already plays on a sense of limited inventory and exclusivity, anxiety about nabbing holiday gifts could lead to even more needless spending. Still, sales are expected to be limited and any discounting may just be for out-of-season merchandise.

Shoppers who just can’t tune out the holiday warnings should consider a gift card. That way, they’ll be able to spend what they want, when they want, hassle-free.

 Alexis Leondis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering personal finance. Previously, she oversaw tax coverage for Bloomberg News.