I'm writing this column on the eve of Labor Day, and chances are you've not yet celebrated Halloween as you read it. But if you think it's too early to begin your holiday shopping, think again.

The most important thing I learned last year was that shopping on a timetable (the holidays, in this case) isn't always productive. I bought my HDTV (a 42-inch Panasonic 1080p plasma) during a Veteran's Day sale at Sears.com, and the price went up the next day, never to sink to the same level until well into the new year. So my top holiday shopping tip is, if you see a great deal, pounce on it.

Of course, I wouldn't have known the price was good if I hadn't done some research earlier in the year. So my second holiday shopping tip is to start checking prices now so you'll be able to recognize a bargain when you see one.

Holiday Shopping Preparation
You probably don't have time to scour all the deal sites every day, so tip number three is to get on one or more good deal-site mailing lists (see my column "Top Sites for Bargain Hunters"), and sign up now, not the day before Thanksgiving. I was alerted to the Sears.com sale by e-mail from a Black Friday site, Black Friday Ads, that I'd signed up for in a prior year.

Other Black Friday sites with mailing lists include BlackFriday@GottaDeal.com and BlackFridayads.com. And check out some of the deal sites discussed in my earlier column, especially if you're serious about year-round bargain hunting. If you're not, the Black Friday strategy guide posted at Dealnews.com last year looked pretty sound to me.

Black Friday Ads is dormant most of the year. Michael Brim, who's responsible for most of the editorial content, says he started it as a high-school senior in San Jose, California (he's now a college senior) as a place to gather deal information scattered across multiple bargain-hunter sites and message boards.

Black Friday Ads and its competitors cater to holiday shoppers by sneakily obtaining major retailers' Black Friday special ads before they're published, but Brim doesn't believe in shopping on a timetable. For one thing, Black Friday isn't what it used to be: "I've seen better prices in April," he says.

When he wants a specific item, he has learned to be patient. "I wait for a good deal to come," he said. "I'll wait six months for the best deal if I have to."

The flip side of Brim's strategy is that when he does see a great deal, he pounces, even if he doesn't have a particularly strong need for the item at the moment. He once bought three Shuttle PCs in a single month because "it was such a good deal that I couldn't afford not to buy it." One of them ended up as a gift.

The tip here: Unless the recipient has specified an item, brand, or model, be ready to turn on a dime in your gift choices. That might not always be possible: Kids, for example, aren't usually big on delayed gratification--they want that Wii now! But you'll probably have lots of good options for a family member who has put a notebook PC on a holiday wish list.

This year, I'll be on the prowl for a good Blu-ray Disc player. But I, too, can wait six months if need be.

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