Getting an early start on holiday shopping will be key to saving money and buying the best gifts this year, experts say.
"If there was ever a holiday season to buy early, this is it," said Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation.
That's because retailers have ordered less inventory for the holidays to avoid being stuck with an excess of unsold goods like last year. According to the National Retail Federation's October Port Tracker report, traffic at the nation's ports has scaled back to levels not seen since 2003.
"Retailers knew going in that consumers would be very price-conscious and frugal for the holiday season, so they've been planning accordingly," said Ellen Davis, vice president of the retail group.
The strategy may help merchants but could leave last-minute shoppers with slim pickings. It could also mean fewer steep markdowns.
"If there is any hot holiday item that emerges or any particular category that does well, it would be in many shoppers' best interest to make sure they buy that merchandise sooner rather than later," Davis said.
Do it yourself
Gift giving can be an especially challenging task if you're out of work. The key is to remain thoughtful without coming off as cheap.
"Get personal," Fernandez said. "Most people recognize that everyone's financially in a bind this year, so the expectations are really low."
Instead of turning to the dreaded practice of regifting your unwanted goods -- 2008 calendar, anyone? -- how about items of real value that you're ready to pass on, like an antique vase or an heirloom that's ripe for the next generation? You could also give an unused gift card or frequent flier miles.
Other gifts might be moderately priced but extremely thoughtful. Getting a book signed by the author doesn't cost any more than buying it off the shelf, but it turns an inexpensive gift into a special occasion. Photo albums featuring friends or family and their loved ones also make moderately priced but cherished gifts.
Teri Gahre, 51, said her holiday gift plans include making quilts and canning jams and jellies. Her favorite do-it-yourself present involves letting the recipient have some fun in the kitchen.
"I'll take a glass jar and in there layer the ingredients for brownies: flour, chocolate, nuts and brown sugar," said Gahre, a speech pathologist. "Then I'll tie that with a real pretty bow and attach to that the recipe."
You can also save a lot of money by scrimping on wrappings. Many stores offer gift boxes, tissue paper and ribbon behind the counter -- you just have to ask. Or you can be eco-friendly and wrap your presents in newspaper.
"Frugal has become fashionable, so I don't think anyone is going to expect a lavish, excessive Christmas," said Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "I don't think people owe any apologies for trimming back."