arlene_dswshopping_web.jpgU/Miami News Service

Arlene Belizaire has a new holiday habit – coupon clipping.

“I’ve been buying the Sunday paper for coupons; it’s a hassle but it’s hard times,” said  Belizaire, 26, of Miramar. “I’m on the club list for most stores so I get coupons emailed to me as well.”

Like many holiday shoppers who fear that putting gifts under the tree will be harder than ever this year because of the fragile state of the economy, Belizaire is looking for ways to keep the merry in Christmas without going into major debt.

“Making a budget is more important than ever now,” said Belizaire, an electronic accounts payable specialist at a law firm. “This shopping season is by far the worst because people don’t have the funds to shop. The only good part is that stores are having more deals than ever to get people in.”

Several weeks before Christmas, retail sale signs went up like ornaments, offering substantial discounts, including an additional 40 to 50 percent off items already on sale.

“Many stores know this shopping season will make them or break them, so they’re offering real incentives to consumers,” said Mark Neckes, associate professor of marketing at the School of Business at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami.

Sales associated with Black Friday, known to many as the start of the holiday shopping season, will continue throughout the month of December, Neckes said.

Black Friday is so named because it is the time of year when retailers hope to rack up enough sales to make the entire year profitable, or in the black.

“Stores have planned these aggressive markdowns that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks. As we get closer to Christmas, if they’re not making their numbers, and I suspect that they won’t, we’re going to be seeing more of this,” said Neckes, also a consumer behavior expert.

That information has spurred Belizaire to do her Christmas shopping earlier.

“I'm doing some shopping early for half of my list and shopping closer to Christmas for the other half since I know deals will be just as good as Black Friday, considering the economic state,’’ she said, adding that she’s making yet another change. “I'm also cutting down my Christmas list to kids only; the adults understand. It’s about trying to reduce bills, eliminate credit cards and trying to save more than spend.” 

Michael Connolly, an economics professor at the University of Miami’s School of Business, reflected the saving sentiment.

“For too long, we've been spending more than we earn,” Connolly said. “Consumers need to devise ways of saving; we don't need all this junk."

Despite the challenges, however, Neckes said a smart consumer can come out in the black this holiday season. 

“Economically, I think things are going to get worse before they get better, but people can’t be afraid to spend their money,” Neckes said. “They have to for the economy to get better.
They just need to do it logistically.”

There are opportunities for consumers to save this season, with the Internet playing a key role, he said. Websites such as allow shoppers to enter their ZIP Code and within moments are greeted by coupons for everything from dog food to razor blades. A self-proclaimed aggressive discount shopper, Neckes also recommends searching store websites before heading to the mall.

“Consumers need to do their homework,” he added. “Comparison shopping allows you to locate the best prices on what you’re looking for. You figure out what you need and see which stores offer it at the best price.”

As another incentive, stores are bringing their layaway programs out of retirement.

“In 1989, usage of layaway got low, so we discontinued it, except for the jewelry,” said Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears Holdings Corp. “This season, though, we’re listening to consumers. We are seeing a trend of consumers concerned with personal finance management and wanting to be frugal. We feel that we can offer them a good holiday without the shadow of credit card debt waiting for them in January.”

Neckes said, “If you use your credit card, be able to pay it off at the end of the month, otherwise you’ll be paying 21- 29 percent interest on that.’’

But layaway plans can catch consumers who have to follow the stipulations of their lay away contracts.

At Kmart, for example, holiday layaways had to be completed prior to Dec. 12. Customers are charged a $5 service fee and must pay a 10-percent down payment.  A bi-weekly payment schedule is then created for all new layaway contracts. Each payment equals 25 percent of the total cost of the item.

If a payment is missed, the merchandise will be returned to stock after a week. If the merchandise is returned to stock, customers will be eligible for a refund minus the service fee and a $10 cancellation fee for a one-year period.

Despite the incentives, Connolly urges consumers to save rather than spend.

“Quite frankly, the issue is to save,” he said. “It's going to be a dismal season no matter what.”

Photo by Therese Belizaire. Arlene Belizaire, left, shops at DSW Shoe Warehouse.