(MoneyWatch) The holiday shopping season is here and likely to get off to a fast start thanks to an unusually early Hanukkah and retailers anxious to get a jump on their competitors.
But while Black Friday fever can delude consumers into believing that you'll get the best deals, if you're just willing to do all your shopping until that magic date, holiday discounts are tricky. You are better off buying some things earlier; some later; and some in late December or January.
Here's when you'll find the best holiday bargains:
Now through late-November
Early November is the time to buy candy and cookware, according to Credit Donkey.
Candy, of course, goes on sale the moment that Halloween is over, so if you've got a kid with a sweet tooth, now is the time to stock up on sugar-coated stocking stuffers. See's Candy is also offering discounted prices on holiday gift baskets on its website and, if you're thinking about buying candy for corporate clients or for just a lot of relatives, it provides even better discounts for those spending more than $675.
Cookware and kitchen accessories -- from blenders to bowls -- typically go on sale in November too. The deals last through December, says DealNews, a bargain-hunting web site. It's one of the few times you can pick up a discounted item when you need it the most. And, if you've got an avid cook on your gift list, the cookware deals can allow you to get a leg up on holiday shopping. Deals2Buy, another bargain-hunting site, has scoped out discounts on cookware sets and nesting bowls. If you've got plans to make holiday goodies for friends and relatives, you may also want to check out the steep discounts on food storage sets.
Wedding needs. Naturally, you're probably not thinking about weddings in mid-winter, but that's exactly why the deals get better at this time of year, according to the editors at Credit Donkey. If you plan a winter wedding -- held between January and March -- you're likely to see discounts ranging from 10 percent to 25 percent on everything from hall rentals to photography services and limousines. But even winter weddings need to be booked a few months in advance, so now is the time to make the calls, if you're so inclined.
Be careful, about buying a wedding gown for nuptials that are many months away, however. Most gowns are not returnable -- even before they're altered. Indeed, many stores have brides sign a contract that obligates them to pay for the gown, even if they change their mind with hours of the purchase. So never put a deposit on a wedding gown unless you're 100 percent certain it's the dress for you.
Turkey. If you play your cards right, your turkey just might be free, thanks to supermarket giveaways that reward customers who spend between $200 and $400 this month. So stock up on the items you know you'll be using over the holiday season -- whether that's Champagne for the New Year's gatherings or just day-to-day freezer staples -- and your Thanksgiving bird may well be gratis.
Smart phones are likely to go on sale a few days before Thanksgiving, according to DealNews. But if you want the best possible offer, you may need to buy on Thanksgiving Day. Last year, 42 percent of the best smart phone offers were launched right as the bird was getting popped in the oven.
Thanksgiving Day is also likely to be the best time to buy an HDTV. While Black Friday deals for television sets are also great, the deals are incrementally better the day before, according to Deal News.
And, as long as you're annoying your relatives by shopping your way through Thursday, pick up any gaming items you want too, the site says. There were 70 percent more gaming deals on the past two Thanksgiving Days than there were on Black Friday.
Wait until Black Friday, however, if you're in the market for a laptop computer, flash drives and memory cards.
Cameras are also likely to be offered at the best prices of the year on Black Friday.
Previous generation Apple products are also dropping in price this month, thanks to refresh cycles on both the iPhone and iPads. Retailers are providing discounts on the iPad 4 -- just one year old. Deal News expects them to go for $399 on Black Friday.
Cyber Monday is when you'll want to pick up clothing and shoes. There are traditionally 42 percent more discounts on clothing and shoes on Cyber Monday than Black Friday, according to Deal News. However, if you're in the market for sweaters and coats, prices will drop even further in January and February, when retailers start putting seasonal apparel on clearance sales to make room for spring merchandise.
Cyber Monday is also when you should start shopping for toys, according to Credit Donkey. However, don't be in a big rush. The toy deals keep getting better until about two weeks before Christmas.
Gift baskets and wine subscriptions are generally sold at their best prices in early December, too.
Prices for international travel also tend to come down in December, when few people are thinking about heading out to Europe. If you can travel off season in the winter months, you're likely to find everything from airfares to hotels discounted by as much as 50 percent.
January and February
However, if you can wait until after the holidays, post-season sales are where you're going to get the best bargains on (now much needed) exercise equipment, jewelry and watches, bedding and blankets.