From high prices and high interest rates, here’s how to earn your badges and become the optimal holiday shopper

(Emily Wright/Washington Post illustrations; iStock)


Running into childhood nemeses in your hometown grocery store. Making sure the turkey isn’t dry. Watching the Cowboys lose again on Thanksgiving Day. The holidays are stressful enough without the added burden of navigating the year’s biggest shopping period as high costs strain our wallets.

The rules of holiday shopping are a little different from seasons past. In 2021, shipping delays and supply chain logjams made it difficult for retailers to keep stock on their shelves, which led to lackluster deals and long delivery windows.

This year, the opposite is happening. To avoid a repeat of last year’s supply issues, retailers did their holiday ordering early and in bulk. But that effort ran up against historically high inflation — ballooning the price of food, gas and other household essentials and forcing consumers to pull back on discretionary spending, including on electronics, apparel, homewares and furniture. Now, many of the nation’s largest retailers are left with excess inventory and even more pressure to clear shelves.

That’s where you come in, dear consumer. These woes are your gains. Sales are earlier this year, and stores are discounting a wider range of merchandise. However, be warned that there may be some unexpected terrain: return fees and high shipping costs.

But rest assured, we’re here to help you find the best deals, make earth-friendly choices and keep your stress in check. Here’s how to earn your badges and become the optimal holiday shopper:

Though economic uncertainty can have a chilling effect, many consumers consider gift-giving a necessity. There are ways to make it work and shop smarter.

  • Make a budget, know what you want to buy and where. This will help you avoid impulse purchases.
  • Track prices so that you can spot a good deal when it happens. Keep an eye on the bigger retailers: Target, Walmart, Amazon, Kohl’s and Gap all warned this year that they had excess inventory and were offering aggressive markdowns to clear it out.
  • Use online tools. Google is your friend here. If you search a specific product, a feature should pop up on the right showing how much the item is going for at different retailers. Websites like CamelCamelCamel and Keepa are helpful when tracking prices on Amazon, and they give insight into an item’s price history. Plus, it’s easier to compare prices and use coupon browser extensions (more on this further down), which automatically populate discount codes as you shop.

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Between picking up gifts, groceries and holiday decorations, efficiency and productivity are key to coming out of the shopping season unscathed. An easy way to secure this badge is to take advantage of “omnichannel” shopping options — curbside pickup, and buy online and pick up in store — meant to make the process seamless no matter the point of purchase (in-store, or by phone, app or desktop). These are time and money savers — no more getting in and out of the car, browsing the aisles or making impulse purchases.

Most of the nation’s largest retailers offer these services, as do many local stores in hopes of staying competitive. Most major retailers don’t charge for curbside pickup as long as customers meet an order minimum, generally at least $30. Sam’s Club has a $4 fee for customers who don’t have the premium membership, Sam’s Club Plus.

If making a few bucks on purchases and unlocking special discounts is worth relinquishing some privacy, consider signing up for a benefits or cash-back service. Companies like Rakuten, Ibotta, CouponCabin and BeFrugal track your shopping and browsing habits and, in return, give back 1 to 10 percent — sometimes more — of what you spent.

Some services also let you connect your credit card, so you can score some cash when shopping in person. Rakuten sends a lump sum every three months, either via check or PayPal deposit. Others, like Dropp and Swagbucks, will pay you in gift cards or points. Websites like Honey and Coupon Cabin offer unique discount codes. Fetch has an option to donate the cash back to a charity.

But be careful with these browser extensions. They can entice you into spending more than you intended by dangling a hefty rebate.

The U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS — there aren’t many other options when it comes to mailing gifts. With the holidays comes seasonal surcharges and possible delivery delays. So, being prepared is key to earning this badge.

Early is always better — especially for the Postal Service, which is the cheapest of the services even after raising rates every six months. It should take two to five days for the mail service to deliver a package this holiday season, but you can pay more for faster delivery. The prices for first-class package service — the Postal Service’s standard product — begin at $4.80 and increase with the weight of the parcel. The maximum weight is 13 ounces, so think of this service for small electronics and pieces of clothing. For larger parcels (up to 70 pounds), try priority mail, where prices start at $9.90. You’ll save money if you bring your own box.

But if you’re tight on time and not worried about a surcharge, FedEx and UPS are your best options. Rates for both services vary by package size, delivery speed and shipping distance. UPS is slightly cheaper, with a medium-size box — big enough for some clothes or a shoe box — starting at $14.95, compared with FedEx’s $15.70. A large box, which can fit a soccer ball or blender, starts at $19.60 at UPS and $24.20 at FedEx.

When it comes to return policies, change is afoot. We’ve already seen the slow disappearance of return labels with online orders. Now, free returns are also on their way out. High gas prices — which surged above $5 a gallon over the summer — and climbing labor costs have pushed retailers to make a change that some industry academics and executives have advocated for years: charging for a return label or adding a restocking fee. Returns have always been costly for retailers, especially for apparel, experts say.

Anthropologie, Zara, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Crew are among the retailers charging restocking fees and/or for return labels. That said, making returns at brick-and-mortar locations remains free.

So, make sure to read the retailer’s return policy before purchasing. You should also think carefully before mailing a present or ordering something for someone online. Pay attention to the return window at stores — if you’re sending the gift three weeks before Christmas, make sure the retailer doesn’t have a two-week policy. Also, ask yourself: Does the recipient live near one of these stores? Do they have a way of easily getting there? If not, and you’re concerned they may not like what you buy or that it may be the wrong size, consider sending a gift card instead.

Another great option is ordering from a local business, so you won’t have to worry about mail-back returns.

An easy way to secure this badge is to avoid fast fashion brands, whose garments are often made with synthetic materials that are bad for the environment. These companies also produce an overwhelming amount of waste. Consider buying higher-quality clothing, which has a longer life span when cared for properly. Also consider shopping at thrift or consignment stores and hunting resale platforms like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist.

If your mode of transportation is a car, as opposed to walking, biking or taking public transit, shopping online can be better for the planet than shopping in stores. But it’s important to make a few adjustments, experts say. First, try bundling your orders. The fewer delivery trips to your house, the better. Second, steer clear of fast delivery. Earlier delivery dates often require items to be transported by plane and in less-efficient delivery routes, including trucks that are probably not full.

We know the holidays are about giving to others and spending time with loved ones, but it’s important make time for yourself. Lucky for you, inventory backlogs and shifting consumer interests have expanded the items on sale this year.

Natalie Kotlyar, a retail analyst for accounting, tax and financial advisory company BDO, said she’s seen an “unprecedented” number of promotions for health and wellness products this year. Some items you’ll probably find among holiday promotions: shampoo, vitamins, soap, makeup, face masks.

“It’s for all of us — the consumer — to feel good about ourselves … and then to also gift that to someone else,” Kotlyar said.

Jacob Bogage and Allyson Chiu contributed to this report. Editing by Robbie Olivas DiMesio and Karly Domb Sadof.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly included Nordstrom in a list of retailers that charge for returns. Nordstrom does not charge a restocking fee or for return labels. This story has been corrected.