The countdown has begun. There are now just 26 shopping days to Christmas, with industry observers predicting that UK shoppers will splash out a whopping £44.7bn on presents, food, drink and decorations over the next three weeks.
Richard Lim, British Retail Consortium economist, said the sales figures of many shops were already well up on last year, when people were dealing with the credit crunch and feeling extremely nervous about spending.
"Consumer confidence is rising and there's some spending out there to be fought over," he says. But where can you find the best bargains, and what tricks do you need to master in order to make the most of your shopping expeditions? Your Money has consulted the experts to compile a Christmas shopping guide.
Plan your attack
The most successful shoppers will plan their attack with military precision – and the earlier you start, the better. Few things at this time of year are more frustrating than trying to think what to buy for people, so try to keep a running list of ideas.
Put together a list of their interests and scour websites devoted to these subjects. You can even join the online forums of these sites and see if fellow enthusiasts can come up with any suggestions. They can also be a source of consumer advice, too.
Do your research
It's worth finding out about the experiences of fellow shoppers, so visit websites such as www.productwiki.com for unbiased product reviews, and www.grumbletext.co.uk for accounts of problems with companies.
Once you have a list of items, you need to decide where to buy. Visit the online homes of retailers that sell such items, as well as the specialist price-comparison sites.
You might find the ideal gift for a fraction of the price on online auction sites such as www.ebay.co.uk.
You can pick up plenty of bargains online – particularly when sellers have made spelling mistakes in the keywords of the item title or placed it in the wrong category, says Dan Wilson, author of Make Serious Money on eBay UK. "There is no fast track for finding bargains – you've just got to hunt them out and second-guess the other bargain hunters out there," he adds.
You might even get the item for free. Put a request on Freecycle ( www.freecycle.org.uk), where people in your local area can post up things they are prepared to give away.
Be clever with your plastic
You also need to decide how to pay for your presents – and credit cards can
provide plenty of benefits to the shopper, as some not only enable them to delay paying the money back for a few months, but also give decent rewards.
However, time is running out, warns Kevin Mountford, head of banking and credit cards at moneysupermarket.com. "The time needed from applying to getting the plastic in your hands may mean you won't have much chance to take advantage of it before Christmas, although some providers will instantly decide."
If you want a card for new purchases, only then can you get those offering 0 per cent for 10 months. However, if you also want to transfer an existing balance on to your new card, make sure you will be paying the same rate for both debts. "There are certain cards, such as the Halifax All-in-One card, that is offering 0 per cent on both new purchases and balance transfers," says Mountford.
"Amex is offering 5 per cent for the first three months, which can be quite useful in terms of Christmas spend," he says. "Equally you have got reward cards that can help boost your air miles or provide you with vouchers to spend in certain shops."
Pick the right times to shop
Saturday 19 December is the day to avoid heading into town, as this is predicted to be the busiest sales day on the high street, according to Kelkoo. Go during the week – and as early as possible to avoid the lunchtime and post-work rushes.
It's a similar story online. Consumers are expected to flood the internet on 7 December. This is the day when online sales are anticipated to hit a whopping £417m, and help online retailers record annual sales of £8.9bn – a 24 per cent increase on last year.
Bruce Fair, managing director of Kelkoo UK, expects online spending will fare well, despite the ongoing recession. "The peak weeks of Christmas trading are vitally important, accounting for up to 60 per cent of annual profits," he said. "The internet can offer substantial average savings of 15 per cent over the high street."
Learn how to haggle
There are plenty of haggling techniques you need to master, according to Sarah Flower, author of Live More, Spend Less. These include identifying the right person with whom to negotiate, being able to read them, and having the gift of the gab.
"Some retailers may not be able to offer reductions but may be happy to throw in 'extras'," she adds.
You need to pick your moment carefully, suggests James Daley, money editor at Which? "Go in at a quiet time," he says. "Be confident and prepared to walk away if you do not think the deal is good enough."
Almost 27 million people will be doing their Christmas shopping online this year – but some may be sacrificing their security as well, warns Garreth Griffith, head of risk and security at PayPal.
Griffith's tips include making sure you understand the refund policies for the online retailer with whom you're planning to deal; and ensuring the site is legitimate – such as looking for the padlock symbol in the browser and for the address to start with "https".
It is also worth credit card holders registering with the MasterCard SecureCode and Verified by Visa payment systems that make shopping on the internet even more secure, according to the UK Cards Association.
Finally, make sure you scrutinise your monthly bank and credit card statements for unusual activity. After all, Christmas is an expensive enough time as it is without fraudsters adding to your personal debt mountain.
... and something for the kids
The Peppa Pig Tumble and Spin Memo electronic memory game, which won the Children's Game of the Year at Toy Fair this year, is sure to be popular with children this Christmas.
Other sure-fire hits include the Creative Building 5585 Pink Brick Box from Lego, the Star Wars Science Jedi Telescope, the Ben 10 Alien Force Quickshot Game and the Bakugan Battle pack.