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Planning ahead isn’t always easy, particularly when it comes to holiday shopping. But this year, almost 40 percent of U.S. consumers started holiday shopping well before Nov. 1, according to a survey from Ipsos Public Affairs and RetailMeNot.

Fee-free layaway programs that let consumers shop with cash instead of credit and reservation programs that allow shoppers to reserve hot items have already led to shortages in toys, small appliances and apparel, said Brian Hoyt, a writer for RetailMeNot.com, the consumer coupon and deal code website.

“If you see the blender or microwave that you really like or the toy your kid wants, I would go and buy that now because it might not be there later,” Hoyt said.

What else can you do to make the most of early holiday shopping? Follow this advice from the pros.

• Make buying decisions in advance. Josh Elledge, founder of SavingsAngel.com, a consumer couponing site, says don’t change your game plan when you walk in the store.

“Everything is designed in a retail environment to drive up sales,” he said. “If we make decisions ahead of time, we can make rational decisions.”

That includes making a list and setting a budget for the items you need to buy as well as researching the retailers that carry those items.

• Always comparison shop. Starting early doesn’t mean losing out on major deals.

“Consumers should really check out comparison shopping sites such as PriceGrabber.com,” Hoyt said.

But don’t stop there. Next, visit a site like RetailMeNot.com to find a coupon or code that will bring the total cost lower. You don’t want the lowest price; you want the lowest total cost.

• Take advantage of year-round freebies. Stephanie Nelson, aka Coupon Mom, suggests stocking up on free deals and bargains throughout the year to use as practical, inexpensive holiday gifts.

Battery-powered toothbrushes and toothpaste, razors and aftershave, and cosmetics make great stocking stuffers for kids, men and women, respectively, Elledge said. These items can be purchased anytime at little or no cost with coupons.

• Use layaway and other store programs. Experts agree, taking advantage of fee-free layaway makes sense because it allows you to spread the cost of items you want over time. Some stores will match price drops for items in layaway.

Kmart, for example, will match internal price reductions for seven days and will ship items to your home when layaway is paid. Be sure you understand each store’s policies and don’t buy more than you planned simply because you have more time to pay.