Holiday shopping wisdom says you should wait until after Christmas to buy Christmas lights, which is 100 percent true if your sole focus is on price. However, as my wife and I discover every year, that’s a great way to limit your selection to nearly nothing.
Christmas lights are about the only reason I’ll venture out to stores on Black Friday or Thanksgiving weekend. My wife and I are staunch defenders of our large outdoor C9 lights and our one indoor tree’s C7s. The majority of our Christmas tree lights are smaller, much more efficient lights, and my father in law has attempted to sway us toward LED lights for the rest. Yet as much as I love the idea of reducing the seasonal electric bill and not searing my hand while replacing a flickering C9, LED technology still hasn’t quite produced a faithful replica of our current bulbs.
Yes, we know they use more energy. But we’re the ones paying that cost, replacing the bulbs and getting up on ladders to hang them, and it’s a modest burden to bear given how efficiently the rest of the house runs this time of year.
As it turns out, there are a lot of other people similarly attached to that big-bulb aesthetic, and they tend to shop at the same places we do. We’ve gone to our local Fred Meyer, a Kroger-owned Pacific Northwest superstore chain, on the day after Christmas and found replacement bulbs picked down to reds and greens. That’s fine when you only have to replace those colors, but really annoying when you start out with a multicolor strand that slowly turns into a red and green one with only sporadic traces of orange, pink, blue, and violet.
We also happen to live in a state that produced 5.2 million Christmas trees in 2016, the most of any state in the nation and nearly 2 million more than second-place North Carolina (3.5 million). More than 42,000 acres of Christmas trees are grown around us and, while 92 percent are exported to other states (California gets nearly half), the 8 percent that stay here bring visitors from all over the region to saw down trees, lash them to their cars, and pick up lights on the way home. By Christmas Eve, our stores are fairly picked over for Christmas lights even without a discount.
As with everything from holiday travel to holiday accommodations, buying Christmas lights during the holiday season isn’t about saving money: It’s about getting the best variety while it’s available, and finding the best bad deal on the table. While Fred Meyer likely isn’t in your backyard, I’ve picked three chains – Sam’s Club, Target, and Home Depot – that have a bit of a broader reach and went shopping for Christmas lights. Here’s what I came back with.
300-Light White LED Icicle Lights
- Sam’s Club: Member’s Mark, $19.96
- Home Depot: Home Accents Holiday, $39.98
- Target: Wondershop, $7.99 for 70 ($39.95 for 350)
This is one of the more frustrating aspects of shopping for Christmas lights: Proprietary packaging and inconsistent comparisons. At each spot, you can get 300 LED icicle lights, but Target metes them out in smaller strands, while Sam’s Club strings them together more tightly than competitors. The Sam’s Club strand is 18 feet long, with Home Depot’s stretching 26.5 feet and each of Target’s going 10 feet, for 54 feet in total. Sam’s Club easily has the best value per bulb (7 cents per bulb), but if you’re looking for coverage, Target’s 74 cents per foot is hard to beat.
200-Light LED Mini Lights
- Sam’s Club: Member’s Mark, $17.86
- Home Depot: Home Accents Holiday, $17.48
- Target: Wondershop, $21.99
Home Depot clearly wins on per-light cost, but coverage depends on what you’re looking for. Home Depot’s strands stretch nearly 70 feet, which puts some space between those lights. Sam’s Club comes a bit closer at 52 feet. Meanwhile, Target covers just 47 feet at its premium price.
LED C9 Lights
- Sam’s Club: Member’s Mark, 50 for $14.86
- Home Depot: Home Accents Holiday, 35 for $14.98
- Target: Wondershop, 50 for $13.98
While Sam’s Club packs 50 lights into 21 feet, Home Depot puts just 35 into 35 feet – making this yet another aesthetic choice. Target not only comes in cheaper, but splits the difference by stringing 50 lights over 34 feet.
LED Projection Lights
- Sam’s Club: Ion Holiday Party Plus, $29.91 on sale, reg. $49.98
- Home Depot: LightShow Projection Star Spinner, $39.98
- Target: Philips Christmas, $24.50 on sale, reg. $35.00
Occasionally, you’ll catch a deal. Both the Target and Sam’s Club models benefit from in-season sales. Otherwise, these projectors — which basically shower dots of light onto the side of your house to emulate Christmas lights — would be a lot closer to the same price.
LED Tree-Topper Star
Sam’s Club and Home Depot are selling the same 12-inch take on the multipointed Star of Bethlehem, so at least they’re consistent. Target’s most modestly-priced LED star is in the same price range, but is an 11-inch, five-pointed gold star with built-in LED lighting. At the very least, it’s distinguished itself from the others.
Remote-Controlled LED Candles, Set of Three
All have flickering LED bulbs, all have remote controls that control all three candles, and all will prevent you from keeping yourself awake at night wondering if that candle in the living room is still burning. However, in one of the few direct comparisons on the list, the order of value is clear.
Light-Up Lawn Reindeer
- Sam’s Club: National Tree Co. (60″ tall, 210 LEDs), $151.77
- Home Depot: Home Accents Holiday (63″ tall, 160 LEDs), $89.98
- Target: Philips (44″ tall, 120 LED), $68.00 on sale, reg. $85.00
When it comes to more elaborate decorations, Home Depot begins to pull away from the competition with a larger (and generally cheaper) selection of large outdoor holiday decor, with everything from inflatable Santas to light-up reindeer like this one if you’re compelled to go all out.
While that doesn’t cover every type of Christmas light you can buy, the comparisons listed above give you an idea of just how tight pricing can be at this time of year. If you’re looking to create a holiday theme park in your front yard, Home Depot might be your best bet, with a wider selection of large, outdoor Christmas decorations. Otherwise, look for weekly deals as the holiday season progresses — but don’t wait too long if there’s something out there you actually love.