IT'S NEVER too early to go holiday shopping, and there is an especially good reason not to wait this year. Many department stores around the country have already posted Christmas sale prices on all kinds of merchandise, including clothing, housewares, and home furnishings.
And for people who hope to find lower prices after Christmas on things that they need for themselves, rather than for gifts, the experts say the bargains may not be any better then.
Lingering consumer concern about the economy has led to extensive price promotions, especially in the Northeast and Southern California.
"Retailers are stimulating sales by putting things out at attractive prices," said James Posner, a New York retail consultant.
To be sure, shoppers are still buying products at regular prices, particularly new merchandise in desirable styles or colors. But a combination of early sales, clearances, and special purchases from manufacturers has created a discount atmosphere in many department and specialty stores where Christmas bargains are rarely found before Dec. 26.
"There's no reason to wait until after Christmas to buy the kind of things you want to buy," said Philip Johnson, the president of Leo J. Shapiro & Associates, a consumer research concern in Chicago. "Things are worse this year than last year in terms of willingness to spend."
"You'll see more promotional activity this year than last," said Lee Abraham, the chairman of the Associated Merchandising Corp., the largest independent retail cooperative organization. "The consumer wants to be able to buy at the lowest possible price, and I don't think anything is sacred these days, with the exception of cosmetics and very few of the branded lines."
For several years, some retailers, particularly big department stores, have begun seasonal markdowns far ahead of the actual holiday. This year, there is more of the same.
"Department store numbers have been pretty dismal," said Rosalind Wells, an economist for the NPD Group, a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y. She was referring to sales figures for September and early October. "In general, discount stores are doing better than department stores."
And in the last week of October, the Conference Board, a business research group, reported that consumer confidence had dropped sharply in October a negative sign for Christmas spending. And because the selling season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is six days shorter in 1991 than it was last year, merchants are under pressure to attract more customers before Thanksgiving.
"Ten years ago, the philosophy used to be to run a sale during a slow period to get more business," said John J. Schultz, the executive director of the National Retail Federation, a trade association. "Now retailers have to do it during a peak period."
That means that some of the best Christmas values will be available this month. Since as much as 50 percent of the year's profits come in November and December, many stores are pricing as competitively as possible to insure that their sales will exceed those of the same period in 1990.
Apparently, shoppers already know about this. In a study last month by Bruskin/Goldring Research, of Edison, N.J., 38 percent of about 1,000 Americans surveyed said they would do most of their Christmas shopping in November, when the broadest assortment of goods will be available. What's more, adults plan to spend an average of $755 for Christmas gifts in 1991, down 12 percent from last year.
"Retailers are in for a pretty bleak Christmas unless they do something unusual," said Jeffrey N. Harris, vice president of marketing for Bruskin/Goldring. "Whatever they did last year is not going to help this year."
What it all boils down to, is that shoppers looking for price-cutting in the weeks ahead are almost certain to find it in many general merchandise categories. As Posner, the New York retail consultant, said: "There have been sales continuously: summer sales, back-to-school sales, Columbus Day sales, Election Day sales, and now Christmas sales. It's just a renaming of sales."