Black Friday — that annual frenzy of shopping madness on the day after Thanksgiving — might strike you as a bit, shall we say, out of place this year, given the state of the economy. That said, if you've got to do your holiday shopping some time, you could find some genuine, true-blue bargains on Friday. Consider the following tips so you can decide how to proceed.
1. If you hate crowds, rely on the Internet. You don't necessarily have to head out there at 4 a.m. and brave long and annoying lines. Many online retailers offer special discounts on the Friday after Thanksgiving — and sometimes those sales kick in at midnight on the night before Black Friday. Check the Web sites of your favorite stores to find out what might be available this year.
2. Study the ads in your Thanksgiving Day newspaper. You might be surprised to notice how many sales are time-sensitive — meaning deeper discounts will apply if you shop before a certain time. Remember that Friday's ads also are likely to contain details about new and different sales.
3. Educate yourself before you buy. Do some homework in advance about products that interest you this year, especially if they're big-ticket items. Visit sites such as ConsumerReports.org to read product reviews, and check out customers' reviews at sites such as Amazon.com.
4. Recognize a real deal. To ensure you'll be getting an actual bargain, visit Web sites that feature shopping ''robots'' as you do your research to get a sense of how much items should cost. Good sites to visit include BizRate.com, Shopping.com, PriceGrabber.com and Consumer World (www.consumer world.org; use that site's "Price Checker").
5. Dress for success. If you simply must go stand in line in the dark before your favorite store opens at 5 a.m., remember to dress comfortably — warmly enough for the time you'll spend outside, but with layers so you won't collapse from heat stroke inside crowded stores. Also remember comfortable shoes and portable snacks and drinks.
6. Make friends with other people standing in line. The spirit of camaraderie will be fun, plus it could save you real frustration if you must give up your place in line to run to the bathroom.
7. Arm yourself with a list. You'll feel more in control and focused if you head out with a list of the people you're shopping for, the gift ideas you have in mind for them and the target price range for each item.
8. Don't forget the ads you found. If you saw an advertised special that really impressed you, bring the ad along to avoid any disputes over how much an item is supposed to cost on Friday. Having the ad also could come in handy at stores promising "lowest-price" guarantees if you find lower prices elsewhere.
9. Clarify the return policy. Some policies are downright draconian. In certain cases, you'll have to pay hefty restocking fees; in others, you'll only have a short window of time to return something. Make sure you won't be giving your gift recipient a giant return-related headache if something about your gift isn't quite right.
10. Ask for a gift receipt. Speaking of gift recipients, one of the best gifts you can give them will be a gift receipt. These receipts have items' prices embedded in their bar codes, and they usually make it easy to return something without too much hassle.
Laura T. Coffey can be reached at laura@ tentips.org.
Sources: Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org; Associated Content (www.associatedcontent.com); and retail expert Donna Montaldo on About.com (http://couponing.about.com)