Buy Early and Often: As Holiday Spending Drops, Holiday Sales Begin Earlier Than Ever

It's the very beginning of November, I've only had two pumpkin spice lattes all season, and my Halloween costume is now crumpled on the floor. But there's no time to gaze at the changing leaves or handwrite leisurely lists of November goals: It's time to start my Christmas shopping.

Actually, it was time to start my Christmas shopping a good week before Halloween, when, according to WWD, holiday catalogs from the likes of Pendleton and Ross Simons began appearing in the mailboxes of unsuspecting American consumers. Never mind that a week before Halloween, I was scrambling to find the perfect flannel shirt for my John Bender costume. I should have been out there in the wild heart of the mall, frantically poring over my yearly "naughty and nice" list.

Holiday sales are starting earlier than ever this year, as merchants fret over a forecasted holiday shopping season that may have the slowest sales growth since 2009. Another stressor for sellers comes in the form of a late Thanksgiving: With the holiday falling on November 28, merchants lose six of those precious post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas shopping days. As consumers reel from the government shutdown and payroll tax increases, stores are desperate to snag their limited holiday budgets.

And the way to catch the eye of a consumer on a budget is, of course, through sales. Big sales. Early sales. Nonstop sales. Walmart, for example, is rolling out sales typically reserved for Black Friday on November 1; that's a whopping 28 days before Black Friday itself. Gilt began its holiday program today, QVC's "official kickoff" happened on October 19 and 20.

Great news for girls who like to shop, right? Not so fast. Whether or not you'll benefit from a November full of Black Friday-style sales all depends on what type of consumer you are. Let's divide up America's shopping populace into roughly two camps, with the implicit understanding that we're leaving a lot of people out — like the 1 percent. Sorry, 1 percent!

If you're the type of shopper who waits patiently for a sale, who sets — and keeps track of — price alerts, and who never met a coupon she didn't like, early holiday sales can save you a lot of money. You can do your Black Friday shopping today, and by the time Christmas gets here, you'll have that potpourri sachet for Great Aunt Gladiola tucked beneath the Christmas tree, and she'll never know that you scored it for 50 percent off. For a shopper like you, there's no such thing as sales starting too early, because you know your budget, you spend within its parameters, you keep tight lists of holiday gifts, and you're in control. Go you.

What if you're not so restrained? Take me, for example. I don't spend recklessly, but I find it difficult to control where and when I spend when it comes to Christmas shopping. I love buying gifts, I have a fairly large family, and two of them have December birthdays, so despite that I don't make a ton of money, I end up spending hundreds of dollars every holiday season. Additionally, the frantic pace of holiday shopping always overwhelms me. At any given time, I'll have 10 browser tabs open, I'll be "liking" brands on Facebook in a desperate attempt to be notified when their products go on sale, and I'll eventually abandon the stressful, blinking world of online shopping for an even more stressful, even more sparkly day at the mall, which will inevitably result in a stressed-out lunch of Auntie Annie's pretzels and a slew of purchases that I return later.

If you're anything like me — and I think a lot of people are, because being a consumer is pretty overwhelming these days — chances are that earlier holiday sales aren't going to help you out a lot. Instead, you'll end up spending even more on holiday gifts. After all, one of the die-hard principles of product marketing is that if they see it, they will come. You didn't know you needed that glow-in-the-dark Christmas tree that can sing the entire *NSYNC Christmas album, but once you spot it on sale for 25 percent off, you have to have it. We've all been there; sales are designed to trick us into thinking we're saving money, when really — unless we were planning to buy the sale item anyway — we're simply spending additional money.

So be careful this holiday season, especially if you're on a budget. Big business aren't actually trying to help you with their holiday sales; they're trying to help themselves. With a shorter and potentially low-volume holiday shopping season ahead of them, businesses want you more than ever this year, and they're already jostling each other for your holiday budget. So make your (shopping) list and check it twice before you hit the sales. Oh, and have another pumpkin spice latte before they roll out the peppermint lattes. We're the consumers, and we should be able to experience the seasons at our own pace.