Needless to say, the cash will be flowing over the next five weeks as holiday shoppers shift into high gear seeking deals for themselves and gifts for others.
The National Retail Federation has said it expects U.S. consumers to spend nearly $656 billion in November and December, excluding gas, autos and restaurant sales. That would be a 3.6 percent increase over last year.
The shopping spree will begin in the coming week under the usual labels — Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. It will continue another month as it moves through “midnight madness” and seemingly perpetual “doorbusters,” then winds down into a pattern of “last-minute” and “procrastinating” spenders desperate to wrap up those gifts for special loved ones or friends before the clock runs out.
The whirl of holiday activity means it is best to have a decent strategy going into it. The following are basic tips and advice from various sources on how to get that shopping done safely, completely and without pulling one’s hair out.
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Federal Trade Commission: Be careful out there
▪ Shop around: A “sale” price isn’t always the “best” price. Some merchants may offer a sale price on an item for a limited time. Others may discount the price on the same item everyday. Having an item’s manufacturer, model number, and other identifying information can help you get the best price for the item you want.
▪ Read sale ads carefully: Some may say “quantities limited,” “no rain checks,” or “not available at all stores.” Before you step out the door, call ahead to make sure the merchant has the item in stock. If you’re shopping for a popular or hard-to-find item, ask the merchant if he’d be willing to hold the item until you can get to the store.
▪ Take time and travel costs into consideration: If an item is on sale, but it’s way across town, how much are you really saving once you factor in your time, your transportation, and parking?
▪ Look for price-matching policies: Some merchants will match, or even beat, a competitor’s prices — at least for a limited time. Read the merchant's pricing policy. It may not apply to all items.
▪ Go online: Check out websites that compare prices for items offered online. Some sites also may compare prices offered at stores in your area. If you decide to buy online, keep shipping costs and delivery time in mind.
▪ Calculate bargain offers that are based on purchases of additional merchandise: For example, “buy one, get one free,” “free gift with purchase,” or “free shipping with minimum purchase” may sound enticing. If you don’t really want or need the item, it’s not a deal.
▪ Ask about sale adjustments: If you buy an item at regular price and it goes on sale the next week, can you get a credit or refund for the discounted amount? What documentation will you need?
▪ Ask about refund and return policies for sale items: Merchants often have different refund and return policies for sale items, especially clearance merchandise.
FTC’s online shopping advice
▪ Plan ahead by setting a budget. Ask yourself, “How much do I want to spend?” Be sure to include delivery costs in your budget.
▪ Determine what’s most important to you. What are the “must-have” product features on the item you want? Are there features that would be nice to have, but you can live without? This will help you choose the product that meets your needs.
▪ Compare products. Type the name into a search engine along with words like “review,” “complaint” or “scam.”
▪ Read online reviews. You want to know what other people think of the item you’re considering purchasing. Look for feedback about how well the product works and its overall quality. If you’ve never heard of the company selling the product, look for reviews about their reputation and customer service.
▪ Know the total cost of the product. Check shopping comparison sites to compare the price of the product at different websites. Remember, shipping costs and other “add ons” may not be included in these prices. Look for online coupon codes. Search the store’s name with terms like “coupons,” “discounts,” or “free shipping.”
▪ Check out the terms of the deal before you buy. When will you get your order? The law requires sellers to ship items within 30 days of the sale. If you have to return the item, can you get a refund? Who pays for return shipping? Is there a restocking fee?
▪ Decide how to pay. Paying by credit card gives you some protections that other methods of payment may not. If there’s a problem, the law gives you the right to dispute charges and temporarily withhold payment while your dispute is investigated. If someone uses your credit card without your permission, some companies will cap your liability at $50. Others will waive the charges entirely.
▪ Make sure the website is legit. Before you enter your credit card or other financial information online, check if the website address starts with “https”. The “s” stands for “secure” and means that your information is encrypted before it’s transmitted.
▪ Any problems afterward? If you have an issue with an online purchase or charge, try to work it out with the seller first. If you can’t resolve the problem, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s consumer protection agency, at ftc.gov/complaint.
Black Friday tips from ConsumerWorld.org
▪ Read the ads. Preview the Black Friday sale circulars now at BFAds.net and get a list of sale items at all stores by category, such as all HDTVs or digital cameras, at blackfriday.gottadeal.com. Check local newspapers on Thanksgiving Day. They will be chock-full of circulars and last minute deals. Friday's papers will include additional sales.
▪ Evaluate the deals. Not all Black Friday advertised items are the best deals. Some great sales have already occurred. Others will become available the weekend before Thanksgiving, on Cyber Monday, or in December. To separate the ho-hum deals from the good ones, use several pricing tools, such as the Price Checker at ConsumerWorld.org (to compare prices at many online stores instantly), and camelcamelcamel.com (to compare today's price for an item to what was charged over the past year at Amazon and other sellers). If shopping online, find out the total price including shipping and tax (if any), and what the reputation of the seller is using BizRate.com/ratings_guide or ResellerRatings.com.
▪ Research the product. A low price on a lousy product is no bargain. Check websites where professionals evaluate products, such as Consumer Reports, LCDTVBuyingGuide.com (for televisions), PCMag.com (computers), best/worst toy lists, etc. Check the user reviews posted after most product descriptions at Amazon.com, BestBuy.com, Walmart.com, and other retailers.
▪ Be an early bird. Go when the store first opens because quantities are limited and no rain checks will be given generally.
▪ Beat the early birds. Watch for pre-Black Friday sales before Thanksgiving. Some Black Friday prices are available now or early next week. Avoid the crowds by ordering online since some Black Friday deals may be available on Wednesday (e.g. Target, Macy's, J.C. Penney) or late that day or right after midnight (e.g. Walmart).
▪ Check the return policy. Before buying, find out the store's return policy and if return shipping is free for online orders. While many stores have extended their return deadlines into January, others online may impose restocking fees on certain items. Some retailers use a returns tracking system to deny refunds to returns abusers.
▪ Get a gift receipt. Make returns easier for gift recipients by asking the store for a gift receipt and include it in the gift box. Without a receipt, a refund may be denied outright or may be limited to only an equal exchange or to a merchandise credit for the lowest price the item has sold for in the recent past.
▪ Save with price matching. Keep checking the prices of the items you buy. Since many stores offer a price protection guarantee, you may be entitled to get back some money if the seller or a competitor offers a lower price before Christmas.
Better Business Bureau says watch those apps
▪ Watch for scam smartphone and tablet apps. So-called "retail apps" are cool again, but think before you click! Apple's App Store is getting crowded with fake impostor apps and Google Play is having the same problem. The counterfeiters have masqueraded as retail chains like Dollar Tree and Foot Locker, big department stores like Dillard's and Nordstrom, online product bazaars like Zappos.com and Polyvore, and luxury-goods makers like Jimmy Choo, Christian Dior and Salvatore Ferragamo. They appear to be legitimate retail store apps. In some cases, they fill a void left by retailers that don't have apps. But when users install them, the criminals can steal victims' personal information, or install Trojans that snatch confidential information from smartphones and tablets.
Here are 5 things to keep in mind about the app scam:
▪ Be very judicious in deciding what app to download. Better safe than sorry.
▪ If you do decide to download an app, first thing to check is the reviews. Apps with few reviews or bad reviews are a big Red Flag.
▪ Never click on a link in any email to download a new app. Only go to the website of the retailer to get a link to the legit app on the AppStore or Google Play.
▪ Give as little information as possible if you decide to use an app.
▪ Be very, very reluctant to link your credit card to any app!