November and December are beginning to look more like a cat-and-mouse sales game than the traditional holiday retail season that marks the biggest shopping period of the year.
"Consumers are savvier than ever, and they have memorized the holiday retail narrative," said Pam Codispoti, executive vice president of consumer card services for American Express.
Keep some basic holiday-shopping tips in mind:
"We're continuing to see consumers employ a range of tactics to stay within budget and, at the same time, maximize their gift-giving potential," she added.
The National Retail Federation slapped a bland "average" on holiday sales expectations of $465.6 billion, a 2.8 percent increase over last year's robust results that were 5.2 percent above 2009 results.
On a per-person basis, the NRF surveys found that consumers say they will spend about $516 on gifts, down 4.6 percent from last year.
As has been the pattern in recent months, consumers are leaving no stones unturned in that search for the best deal.
As usual, holiday deals will be found through price-slashing promotions, especially surrounding Black Friday, Cyber Monday and every weekend ahead of Christmas, as well as coupon clipping.
But this year will also see shoppers looking to factory and off-the-rack outlets for discounts as well as using reward points and cash-back deals to purchase gifts, according to a recent American Express online spending and saving tracker survey.
Consumers also can turn to social-media sites such as Facebook and Groupon to leverage online offers as well as private-sales sites like RueLaLa and Gilt.
Don't be surprised if shelves look a tad bare for such an important season. Retailers, who were burned badly at the onset of the recession and left with piles of unsold holiday apparel, toys and even electronics, are in tight inventory-control mode.
The global port tracker, a monthly report about import-cargo volume at the nation's major retail container ports, is forecast to fall 1.9 percent in November, an unexpected decline even after last year's higher-than-normal imports.
"Retailers are being very strategic with their supply chains," said Jonathan Gold, NRF's vice president for supply chain and customs policy. "Although sales are expected to be in line with the 10-year average, retailers are keeping inventory levels extremely lean and filling their stores wall-to-wall with discounts and promotions.
"Unlike in 2008, when the financial crisis caught everyone off-guard, retailers have a strong understanding of the consumer mindset this Christmas," he added.
And that mindset is defined by frugality. Though consumer sentiment as measured by the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's preliminary reading on the overall index edged up in October, the ratings are about even to where they were in 2008, the worst holiday-shopping season in 35 years.
Consumers are still shell-shocked and have turned the "new normal" of tightfistedness into a lifestyle, shunning brand names in favor of value plays.
"As discounting has become price-of-entry, shoppers are looking for deals before they are looking at brands," said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a retail marketing company. His annual holiday spending survey of 16,000 consumers found that 65 percent of shoppers already are looking for sales while 60 percent said they will use online shopping and price-comparison applications before making any purchases.
Plan on plenty of deals on Black Friday and even on Thanksgiving Day. Macy's, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us have said they will open their doors at midnight and Kmart and Gap will be open on Thanksgiving.
There will be door-buster and limited-time-only promotions aimed at drumming up traffic into stores. Once inside, however, don't let the euphoria of the bargain minute cloud your penny-wise thinking because there will be plenty of full-priced or even "discount" items that aren't really discounts on shelves.
"Retailers will put things in flyers that are not discounted but because it's in a flyer people think it's a good price," said Jane Bailey, vice president at TPN, a retailer marketing company.
Retailers used to offer what the industry calls "loss leaders," super prices on merchandise that they would actually lose money on. The lure, however, was to get you into the store with hopes that you would pick up other items not on sale — and with better profit margins for them.
However, consumers got smart about that and became what the industry now refers to as "mission shoppers," or those who have a plan and stick to it without browsing through the store.
Today, they have other creative offers that look like better values than they could be. Best Buy, for example, will give you a $75 Best Buy gift card when you purchase an Xbox 360 Kinect Holiday bundle for just under $400. The company expects that the gift card will be spent on accessories for that Xbox.
"That promotion allows you to extend the gift into something that's bigger," Bailey said. "But when you start figuring out how much money they really give away on the gift cards, they're not giving that great of a discount." What's more, retailers have long banked on customers with gift cards spending far more than the just the value of the card.
For brand-conscious consumers, consider other options outside of brand names or even brand-spanking-new brand names. Sears Outlets, for example, sells leading brand-name appliances and merchandise that are one-of-a-kind, discontinued, reconditioned, scratched and dented or slightly used at deep discounts.
And don't be afraid to ask for discounts, even after you've bought the item. "A lot of merchants will honor other retailers's coupons and sales with a price-matching policy," said Regina Novickis, consumer-savings expert for PromotionalCodes.com.
Through Nov. 30, Sears Outlets will be honoring all its competitor's Black Friday ads — yes, even before Black Friday. It's also giving its rewards members a free piece of apparel on Tuesdays through Dec. 31 by just walking in, no purchase necessary.
Jennifer Waters is a MarketWatch reporter, based in Chicago.