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What you should know for holiday shopping

| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

It's here again, bigger, earlier and as frantic as ever: Black Friday, which now starts on Thanksgiving, unofficially kicks off the holiday shopping season with a smorgasbord of shopping.

This holiday season will be crucial for many retailers. Predictions for how much consumers will spend remain weak or modest, and some analysts are saying this could be the worst holiday shopping season since the recession.

“The U.S. consumer is approaching the important holiday shopping season with few reasons to celebrate,” wrote Wells Fargo analysts in their holiday forecast. The National Retail Federation's survey showed shoppers are planning to spend an average of about $738 on gifts — down 2 percent from what they spent last year.

That's pushed retailers to open their stores earlier on Thanksgiving and warn investors that they might have to discount more aggressively. But just because retailers are glum doesn't mean shoppers should be: The weak shopping season means deals could be more plentiful this year.

And the best part? You might not have to camp out in line for a week before the stores open to get a bargain.

Here are five things you need to know before Black Friday:

1. Get ready to shop earlier than ever: This year, people will be in line before the turkey's even out of the oven in some homes, as more and more stores are open earlier than ever.

Wal-Mart is starting its deals at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, when Best Buy is opening, too.

Macy's, Target, J.C. Penney and Kohl's are opening at 8 p.m. Toys R Us is beating them all with a 5 p.m. opening time. And Old Navy is opening at 9 a.m. Thanksgiving, then closing at 4 p.m. and reopening for the next 29 hours straight at 7 p.m.

With slow consumer spending and a shorter holiday shopping season because of Thanksgiving's later date this year, stores are scrambling to lock in holiday shoppers' money early.

And it looks like many consumers are planning to take advantage of the early hours: The National Retail Federation predicts that about 33 million people will shop on Thanksgiving this year.

2. There are better times to buy some products: Although some of the rock-bottom special prices advertised on Black Friday seem like the best you'll ever see, there are actually better times to shop for many items, experts say.

DealNews.com, which tracks shopping prices and sales, has a surprising list of things that are best bought days other than Black Friday.

Winter apparel is often marked down more in January, after the peak shopping season. Cameras will often be aggressively marked down after new 2014 models come out at the Consumer Electronics show in February. The best time to buy top-brand high-definition televisions? Late December, while retailers are making way for newer models. Toys? About two weeks before Christmas.

And many stores have already started Black Friday-esque sales early. Wal-Mart, for example, is matching the published Black Friday sale prices of many items at Target, Toys R Us and Best Buy for a week before the sales actually start. Target is running a different “Pre-Black Friday” sale daily Sunday through Wednesday.

3. Shop with a credit card, check return policies, know in-stock policies: If you can keep from going overboard, experts advise using a credit card instead of a debit card or cash. You can dispute a charge if an item never ships to you or doesn't work, and you have a better chance of getting your money back.

Another thing to read carefully are stores' return policies. They may be tightened up or otherwise different during the holidays, and vary from retailer to retailer.

On Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, retailers also have different policies about availability of deeply discounted items. Best Buy and Target note that available quantities for its Black Friday sale items — such as a $499, 55-inch LG television at Best Buy and a $79 Nook tablet at Target — are limited to what's in-store when the doors open.

Wal-Mart is offering to ship customers 21 of its specially discounted items, such as a 60-inch Vizio television for $688, if they run out during the Thanksgiving Day sale. Customers have to be in line at 6 p.m. to receive the guarantee.

4. Don't give thieves a holiday treat: Black Friday presents thieves with plenty of opportunities: Homes full of expensive new electronics, and goods and personal items left in cars in crowded mall parking lots. Signal 88 Security is advising shoppers to always keep their purchases locked and out of sight in parking lots.

5. You might score deals if you hold out: Some retailers are warning their investors that they might have to cut prices to move merchandise this holiday season. Best Buy's stock took a beating earlier this month when the company warned it might have to discount more steeply to match its competitors.

If retailers end up with a lot of unsold merchandise as the end of the holiday season rolls around, they could be forced to start steeply discounting their goods. Think 70-percent-off sales.

While there's no guarantee that retailers' will be forced to slash prices, if something is absolutely out of your price range, check back in a few weeks. If it's still sitting on a shelf, you're likely to get an even bigger discount.

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