It's the holiday shopping season and chances are you'll be logging some quality time at a mall near you. But there's no need to spend blurry-eyed hours fighting crowds for picked-over bargains.
With advance planning and a little know-how you can minimize your mall time _ and save money.
_ MAKE LIKE A BOY SCOUT: Be prepared. Check your mall's website for its hours, a map and the stores it contains. If it doesn't have all the stores you're interested in, remember that another nearby mall might.
Checking your shopping list against the map, you can find your quickest route through the mall and minimize impulse purchases. And, while malls often operate extended hours in December, they can be inconsistent. So make sure the mall will be open _ and stay open _ when you want to be there.
_ PARK SMART: Don't underestimate how much time you can save by parking in the right place at the right time. General Growth Properties _ which owns and operates malls in 42 states including Bridgewater Commons in New Jersey and Tysons Galleria in Virginia _ even offers an app called The Club with maps for each mall.
Study up and park near where you want to shop. The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., posts updates on Twitter about local traffic and which of its lots are full, says Julie Hansen, national media strategist. See if you qualify for free valet service (through your credit card, for instance); it's a common promotion at the holidays and can make parking much easier.
_ APPLY YOURSELF: Apps abound to help improve your mall experience. ShopKick will send you discounts and deals depending on which store you're in at the time. Barcode-scanning apps like RedLaser can help you save money by showing whether the item you're considering is cheaper elsewhere or online. And Coupon Sherpa can help you find coupons on what you're buying. Also, most stores are dying to connect directly with you and will send you special offers if you follow them on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter.
_ START AT THE TOP: Schedule your arrival when stores open, go straight to the top floor (because it will be least crowded) and work your way down, Hansen suggests. If at all possible, shop mid-week. If you must come during peak hours, find a mall with lockers where you can stash your stuff so you're more nimble as you thread your way through the crowds between stores. And if you're just buying a gift card, go online. Or if you're at a General Growth Properties mall, go to one of their gift card kiosks, suggests Susan Houck, senior vice president of marketing.
_ FIND MALL-SPECIFIC OFFERS: If your mall has holiday promotions like shopping spree contests, you can find them on its website. Taubman Centers Inc. malls _ there are 25 in 13 states nationwide, according to its website _ offer a coupon book for anyone who drives 50 miles or more to get there. And at Mall of America, spending $250 gets you four passes to Nickelodeon Universe, the center's indoor amusement park.