Terri Avellone shows her stash of Christmas presents at her home in Longwood, Fla., on Nov. 14. Avellone is among the 52 percent of consumers who have already started their holiday shopping this year. - McClatchy News Service

Early birds get out even earlier

Terri Avellone usually celebrates Thanksgiving before starting serious Christmas shopping. But this year, she couldn't resist the sales.

Stores such as Kohl's had "crazy racks of things on clearance," in October, said Avellone, 50, a Longwood, Fla., homemaker who already has three-quarters of her holiday shopping done. "I just started thinking, 'Wait. A couple months away, it will be Christmas.' I decided to start then."

The holiday shopping season has started earlier than ever, as Americans take advantage of big discounts long before Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Almost 53 percent of consumers started stocking up for the holidays in early November, a National Retail Federation survey released last week showed.

Walmart began offering layaway Sept. 16, a month earlier than last year. Target aired its first holiday ad of 2012 in October. Until then, a spokeswoman for the retail federation said the group doesn't remember ever seeing a Christmas-themed commercial before November.

Toys R Us even encouraged parents to start playing Santa early with a program requiring a 20 percent deposit by Halloween to reserve hot items.

Black Friday has traditionally been bargain-hunters' big day. But retail experts say a wave of promotions and trends have lessened its oomph.

Stores are offering Black Friday discounts earlier as they compete for scarce dollars from consumers still anxious about spending. And smartphones have made it easier for people to tackle their Christmas lists piecemeal, said Craig LaRosa, a Boston-based retail consultant.

"I'm sitting in the dentist's office waiting, I'm shopping," he said. "I'm waiting for the kids at soccer practice, I'm shopping."

The same trend was evident earlier this year as children headed back to school. Almost 48 percent of parents surveyed by the retail federation said they'd begin buying clothes and supplies several weeks in advance. Last year, only 42.4 percent planned to start that early.

Early birds face a major danger, warned Megan Donadio, a Kurt Salmon retail analyst. If people have more time to buy, chances are good they might overspend.

"If you start spending in October, it's very easy to get to December and forget about the purchases you made," she said.

Marla Martin of Casselberry, Fla., a longtime early Christmas shopper, said she sticks "to a pretty good budget" by paying cash.

Following her usual custom, Martin picked out presents throughout the year, then went on an afternoon-long shopping excursion this past weekend. She hopes to have all her gifts bought by Thanksgiving.

"I think it's less stressful," said Martin, 52.

Shoppers who keep their eyes open for discounts, she said, don't need to bother with Black Friday or down-to-the-wire sales.

And with retailers such as Toys R Us matching competitors' prices this year, she said, shaving the bill has become easier. For example, Martin saved $10 on an Inkoos glow-in-the-dark plush animal at Toys R Us by asking the retailer to meet Target's lower price.

Avellone said she has spent $660 but saved more than $1,200 through a combination of sales and coupons. Even so, Avellone enjoys the festive atmosphere of the mall at Christmas, so she saved a little bit of her shopping for December.

"I'm going to chill now and coast," she said.

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