Your eyes do not deceive you: The holiday season really did come earlier this year than any other, with retailers rolling out the red and green carpets, faux snow, tinsel, and seasonal tunes before the Halloween pumpkins had a chance to start rotting.

They got a head start on a lot more than just the decor: Black Friday-level door-buster deals have been showing up online and in stores since Halloween. (See our full "Retail Holiday Hell" report for a rundown of what the markdowns mean for investors.)

"It is a very different holiday season compared to previous years," says professional sales watcher Dan de Grandpre, CEO of Dealnews.com. "Black Friday has been extended from one day to all season -- retailers have had to continuously slash prices just to get the same amount of foot traffic as previous years."

How low can retailers go?
Not only did the promotions start early, but they keep getting more aggressive with each passing dismal sales week, according to Grandpre. His staff of 30 coupon-cutters has seen back-to-back sales -- repeating the same "limited-time-only" promotions -- everywhere from Sears Holdings' Sears stores to Saks. Retailers are also using their email databases more aggressively than in years past, he says.

Some of the standouts so far have been prices on name-brand TVs -- Panasonic, Samsung and Sony -- with offers for 50-inch plasma TVs for less than $1,000 and free Blu-ray players with purchase.

Among the other surprises:

  • Tiffany, which rarely if ever resorts to promotions, has been offering free shipping -- sometimes with no minimum purchase -- for online orders.
  • In years past, the only day you could buy a newer-model Apple iPod on sale was Black Friday. Dealnews has found some retailers offering 10% discounts on iPods and 5% on computers.
  • Not a day goes by without some retailer offering Ralph Lauren on sale. But these days, even Ralph Lauren Black Label can be had at a significant savings.

Well, what's bad for businesses is good for consumers -- and even better for your bottom line if you're willing to wait it out. So how does the savvy consumer play this unprecedented markdown madness?

Timing is everything
'Tis the season for procrastinators, as the growing number of markdowns illustrates. The closer you get to the actual day of gift-giving, the better the deal you're likely to score.

However, as in years past, winning the staring contest with retailers puts you at risk for not getting the actual items you crave. And if you're shopping exclusively online -- and more consumers say they are this year than in the past -- expedited shipping can wipe out whatever you've managed to save.

So the best way to get what you want -- on time and at the best price -- is to do your reconnaissance shopping starting now and keep tabs on the top items on your list. Here are some tips on how to come out on top this holiday season.

Pre-shop and save
1. Get a sneak peek at sales: No need to wait for the sales circulars to see what your favorite retailer has in store for the post-Thanksgiving sales splash. Rabid bargain fans have already started posting top holiday deals on sites such as blackfridayads.com, bfads.net and blackfriday.gottadeal.com, as well as on other year-round shopping websites.

2. Check out comparison-shopping tools: Let search engines compare prices for you at sites such as pricegrabber.com, bizrate.com, or shopzilla.com, or by typing "price comparison" and the name of the product you're looking for.

3. Re-sort and revisit: Some comparison websites deliver results skewed by ad dollars -- with the stores paying for placement getting top billing or activated links to their storefronts. Try loading results based on price, location, rating, or other criteria to get a true view of the shopping landscape.

4. Fill in the blanks: To capture results from retailers that may not be included in comparison sites, and to check on the latest promotions, type in the URL of stores directly to see whether their latest promotions are worthwhile.

5. Erase your electronic footprints: Delete all cookies from your browser and search again another day. You want to make sure you're getting as good a price on an item as a first-time visitor to the website is. Some e-tailers serve up your old, cached search results (and old prices) if you've browsed there before.

6. Compare clicks and mortar: Does your favorite store have an online shop? Sign up for its newsletter and get advance notice of sales and subscriber-only coupons. And also compare online and offline prices -- they aren't always identical.

7. Crack the coupon code: If you shop online, don't lose out by leaving the "enter promotional code here" box blank. Get the scoop on possible savings at sites such as RetailMeNot.com, Currentcodes.com and CouponCabin.com. Also try typing in the retailer's name and "coupon code" in your search engine.

Dayana Yochim tries to leave a very small electronic footprint wherever she goes. She doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Sears Holdings is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.