Consumers fed up with rising prices on fuel, food and other purchases will be happy to find that some things may actually be cheaper in the New Year.
The same economic uncertainty that's driving many prices up has also created a handful of silver linings for consumers -- particularly those planning a big-ticket purchase or trip in the short term, says Jack Plunkett, chief executive of market research firm Plunkett Research. Growing competition between web and bricks-and-mortar retailers has also generated more deals beyond the usual roster of furniture and household linens sales that pop up every January. "What we're going to find, long-term, is that you get your best deals on the Internet," says independent retail analyst Jeff Green. But for now retailers are "trying to keep people in stores for as long as they can." That means more sales.
Shoppers will still need to exercise caution, experts say. One category's price break is often counterbalanced by rising fees in a different area. One example: Rising charges for cellphone data use often eclipse price cuts on text-message plans. "Little savings here and there may not help much," Plunkett says. But here are some deals that could help consumers keep their budget in check in 2012.
Prices typically drop in January and February as manufacturers introduce the latest in computers, televisions and other devices. That's likely to accelerate this year as stores look to better compete with web sites, Green says. TV prices in particular continue to drop. During the last few months of 2011 the average price of a 42" LCD screen fell below $500 for the first time, reports market research firm NPD Group. In 2010, the average price was closer to $600.
Shoppers may find that the deals don't extend to all orders or categories, says Lindsay Sakraida, features director of deal-tracking site DealNews.com. Shortages have increased prices on components such as hard drives. Other items are cheap because they aren't worth it: a standalone GPS, for example, is now largely redundant for smartphone users, she says.
With the introduction of Apple's iMessage and other apps that let consumers message each other for free, experts say there's little reason to shell out $10 to $50 per month for a text-message bundle. At the least that could put an extra $120 back in the budget for 2012.
Just don't expect it to stay there. The average smartphone user consumed 435 MB of data per month during the first quarter of 2011, according to Nielsen. That's up 89% compared with the previous year and well above the 200MB threshold for AT&T's and Verizon's cheapest data plans. Verizon also nixed its unlimited data plan this year, while AT&T introduced a plan to throttle the speed of its heaviest users.
Travel to Europe
The European debt crisis may be a boon for travelers: one U.S. dollar currently buys 0.76 euro, up from 0.69 euro on Sept. 1. That's enough to give travelers an edge on hotels and daily expenses, says Melissa Klurman, a contributing editor for Travelocity.
The problem: rising fuel prices and airline capacity cuts have kept international fares moving higher. The crisis and in turn, the euro's value -- could also stabilize next year, diminishing savings for travelers who book well in advance, Plunkett says. The Continent may also be less hospitable than in years past. "European workers are disgruntled, so you might also run into a strike or two," he says.
Bargain bottles are becoming more prevalent as boutique wineries spring back and consumers curtail consumption, Sakraida says. "People are now less likely to spend over $30 a bottle, so wineries are focusing on lower price points," she says. A number of new flash-sale sites also offer high-end wines at discounts of as much as 50%.
Experts say some sales and low-priced bottles may mask so-so vintages, so it's still important to read reviews before shelling out for a case.
Consumers planning to buy a house or a car can expect rates to stay low and maybe even go a little lower through mid-2012, Plunkett says. "This low interest-rate environment we're in is going to be encouraged by the Federal Reserve," he says.
Those savings, however, might be the only break purchasers get. Automakers have projected an increase in sales next year, which could lead to sparser incentives, he says. And that same low-rate environment has also pushed down yields on checking and savings accounts, according to rate-tracking sites DepositAccounts.com and Bankrate.com. "You might as well put your money in your pillow," Plunkett says.