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Our Essential Black Friday Survival Guide

It's that time of year — more polarizing than election season — Black Friday. You either love it or hate it. There are very few people who are noncommittal about the most insane shopping day of the year (except for Fashion's Night Out if you live in Manhattan). It's either your version of hell, or makes you feel like a kid in a candy store, saying I want that, and that, and that!

The past few years, as retailers have become more and more desperate by the fourth quarter, sales have gotten more and more insane. When consumer confidence reached its lowest during the recession, retailers began making drastic moves like discounting merchandise up to 60% in December. Traditionally 40% had been standard for December, with 60% discounts coming in January. Things have balanced out since then but a new "standard" is hard to pinpoint. With retail sales expected to increase only 4% over last year, stores will probably be getting desperate again this season. But, the trend seems to be toward extra sales and earlier sales instead of deeper discounts.

Stores which are opening their doors and kicking off their big sales on Thanksgiving include big box stores like Wal-Mart, KMart and Sears, as well as Gap Inc. holdings like Gap, Banana Republic, and Old Navy. Higher end retailers are less likely to bow to pressure to open earlier. Nordstrom has famously taken a stand against opening on Thanksgiving, circulating a statement that says, "We won't be decking our halls until Friday, November 27. Why? Well, we just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time. From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving." High end shoppers are also less likely to take time away from holiday celebrations to get a better deal, so luxury department stores would reap fewer rewards than mass chains.

So how can you reap the rewards of the seasonal flurry to draw shoppers? If you're serious about saving, don't go in without a plan.

Do your research

The best deals are gotten by people who are shopping for something specific. Know which stores will have the best discounts, they are all advertised by this point and most have even started. If you know you've been looking at some sweaters at Banana Republic and at J.Crew, but know that Banana Republic is offering a better discount (hint: they are — 40% to J.Crew's 25%) your time will be better spent at Banana Republic. To truly take this to the next level, consider the exact items you want to buy. If you want a clearance item, which will be an extra 25% off at J.Crew on top of the previous discount, that may actually work out better for your wallet in the end.

Sign up for sale alerts

This is some advanced reconnaissance that takes a couple seconds when you first spot an item and saves you time in the end. A few sites offer this option on their own site, you can click a box to be notified when an item goes on sale. But most sites don't. That's where Shopstyle.com comes in handy. Look up an item you're pining after on their site and you can create a sale alert no matter where the item is from, as long as it's a retailer that has e-commerce. With this method, the sales kind of come to you which is pretty nice.

Shop online

If there is one thing that will make Black Friday less anxiety inducing, it is shopping online instead of braving the stores. Even though there may be moments of frustration, you can encounter them with a drink in your hand instead of a gazillion bags. Shopping online also levels the playing field, everyone is first in line at midnight. But don't just trust that sales begin at 12 a.m. Black Friday. Many stores are beginning to discount merchandise on Thanksgiving itself or earlier. If there's a big toy or electronic item you would be upset to miss, however, try online but be prepared to get to a brick and mortar store early if it sells out.

Download a price comparison app

If you don't already have something like ShopSavvy or RedLaser on your phone, download it now. This is an invaluable tool to help keep you from overspending in the store. Simply scan the barcode on an item with your phone and it will tell you where the best deal is online and on the street. This is good for measuring up the deals on impulse purchases and preventing you from thinking something's a deal just because it's on sale.

Avoid traps

There is lots of fine print and tricks employed by retailers this time of year. Don't get wrapped up in doorbusters — they're often in limited supply and aren't worth chasing if you're not going to be amongst the first in the door. Online, pay attention to shipping costs. This week there's really no excuse for not offering free shipping. If a site is charging more than $5 for shipping, move on unless it's a must-have. Most importantly, check return policies. It's easy to get trigger happy and throw everything your cart and check out before you lose the items. That's a good strategy if you know you can easily return any unwanted items, preferably with free returns, but if not, you could get stuck with duds.
 

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