Get ready for mad scramble

Stage is set for frantic post-Thanksgiving Day ritual of holiday shopping

Retailers across the country started sneaking holiday sales into their stores and catalogs months before Thanksgiving, but the holiday shopping season doesn't really begin until tomorrow.

With a reputation for raising blood pressures and causing chaos, Black Friday is the busiest shopping day of the year, marking the beginning of make-or-break time for most retailers as they scramble to get "in the black."

Nearly half of Americans say they expect to shop the day after Thanksgiving, compared to about one-third last year, according to a study by Charleston-based America's Research Group.

More than 52 percent of consumers expect deals to be better this year than last, making for "incredible crowds Friday morning," said Britt Beemer, founder and chairman of ARG.

With more aggressive discounts promising to draw bigger crowds, participating in the Black Friday bustle without a plan of action would be like playing football without a helmet: It certainly would be doable but not recommended.

That's why The Post and Courier compiled a Black Friday Survival Guide.

Armed with surefire shopping tips, a map of where to be and when to be there, and a guide to the season's best and worst gifts, you're sure to reign victorious over the mother of all shopping days.

Survival Strategies

--Start clipping: Today's newspaper is chock-full of holiday fliers boasting the best bargains of the year. Some are product-specific, some store-specific. Set aside all that interest you and sort them accordingly. If the number one gift on your list is a Nintendo Wii for Tommy, hit an electronics store sooner rather than later. Take this time to compare prices so you know which stores have the best sales on the gifts you want.

--Research reviews: Since you'll be way too stuffed to do anything else after Thanksgiving dinner, sit at the computer and check out customer reviews of the high-ticket items on your list. You may find that even though the digital camera you want to buy your wife is marked at half price on Black Friday, it has the lowest rating among consumers who have already tried the product.

--Spot secret deals: While you're at the computer, check the Web sites of each store you plan to visit tomorrow. Almost every major retailer is publicizing special Black Friday sales exclusively online. Those deals won't be displayed in their circulars; and if you don't check out the Web site, you'll miss some serious savings. Bonus: Some stores are offering their Black Friday sales online today, so you can snag that HDTV without setting foot on the front lines.

--Make a list: If you do one thing to prepare for Black Friday, make sure this is it. The list is your lifeline. Hint: It should include two things: 1. The stores you want to go to, and 2. The gifts you want to purchase from each store.

--Map it out: Once you've got your list, create a plan of action. Try to find the shortest route from one store to the next, keeping in mind that some parking lots and roads are nightmares to navigate, i.e. Northwoods Market Place on Rivers Avenue in North Charleston. On the flip side, with a Best Buy, Rooms To Go, Guitar Center, Gamestop and Shoe Source, it might just be your one-stop shopping center.

--Set the alarm: You've heard it before: The early bird gets the worm. If ever there's a day to heed this advice, Black Friday is it. Many stores award gift cards and discounts to the first 1,000 or so shoppers. Others offer time-sensitive specials or carry a very limited supply of high-demand products, so arriving early offers a higher possibility of snagging those deals. Believe it or not, some stores, such as JC Penney, actually will give you a wake-up call if you sign up to receive text messages with information on specials sales and discounts.

--Pull an all-nighter: Sometimes there's a bargain you just can't pass up, like a 50-inch flat-screen LCD HDTV for $179.99 (yeah, right). If that's the case, then camping outside of the store sometimes is the best option. It may sound insane, but it's almost a guarantee you'll get your hands on that coveted television. Just remember to wear extra socks and pack some snacks.

--Fill 'er up: Hit the gas station today. You don't want to waste valuable shopping time filling up your tank tomorrow.

--Divide and conquer: There may be more than one hot item that you're pining for this season, and chances are that if you can't live without it, neither can hundreds of other people. More than one store probably will be carrying that must-have gift, so to increase your odds, send your family members out to different stores. Just make sure you keep in touch so you don't end up with a Sony Playstation 3 for every room in your house.

--Be picky: Don't just grab the first box you see. It might have been dropped, kicked and drop-kicked. Consumers tend to throw all shopping etiquette out the window on Black Friday, so the items up front may have been opened and tampered with. Reach for the box in the back, and your chances of choosing damaged goods will greatly decrease.

--Charge it: Keep in mind that many retailers offer 10 percent off your first purchase if you apply for their store credit card. This is a great idea if you're buying an expensive gift, but be sure to pay it off right away to avoid any interest charges.

--Lock your trunk: Consider this your warning. Black Friday is a thief's playground. Lock everything you buy in the trunk, out of sight of those sneaky little sticky fingers.

--Save your receipts: Enough said.

--Shop online: The Internet is a beautiful thing, especially on Black Friday. What most consumers don't realize is that many retailers' Web sites not only drop shipping charges the day after Thanksgiving, but the same deals you have to wait until 5 a.m. to get in the stores start at midnight online. If you can suppress that need for immediate gratification, you might be able to avoid getting sucked into the abyss of Black Friday altogether.

--Count to 10: Black Friday will be chaotic. Salespeople will be just as stressed and annoyed as you are. Your toes will get run over by shopping carts on more than one occasion. Just remember to stay calm, be patient and if you need to, take a deep breath and count to 10.

Top 10 tech gifts

1. Voyager by LG: Verizon's answer to the iPhone.

2. apple IPhone

3. Nintendo Wii

4. apple ipod touch

5. large-screen digital tv

6. playstation 3

7. notebook pc

8. GPS navigation system

9. xbox 360

10. digital camera

Top 10 toys

1. American idol talent challenge

2. guitar hero III

3. Barbie Girls

4. Eye-Clops

5. hannah montana singing dolls and pop star stage

6. nerf n-strike disk shot

7. smart cycle

8. swypeout online battle racing

9. rubik's revolution

10. spotz

10 Worst Toys of 2007

1. go diego go animal rescue boat: Potential for lead ingestion injuries.

2. Sticky Stones: Potential for choking and internal injuries.

3. Jack sparrow's spinning dagger: Choking hazard, potential for eye and other impact injuries.

4. dora the explorer lamp: Potential for electric shock and burn injuries.

5. lil "Giddy up" horse — Sassy pet saks: Potential for ingestion or aspiration injuries.

6. spider-man 3 new goblin sword: Potential for impact injuries.

7. hip hoppa: Potential for head or other impact injuries.

8. B'Loonies Party Pack: Potential for chemical ingestion and burn injuries.

9. my little baby born: Potential for choking injuries.

10. rubber band shooter: Potential for eye injuries.

Cost controls

Some strategies to avoid overspending:

--Set a budget for the holiday season, including gifts, meals and travel. Include some flexibility for unexpected expenses.

--Make a list of whom you want to give gifts to and set a budget for each person.

--Shop early. Avoid the pressure of having to pay more for an item because you got a late start.

--Look for sales. If a gift you've purchased goes on sale, check the refund policy. Some stores will credit the difference.

--Know about signing up for a retailer's credit cards. While they usually offer immediate discounts, each additional credit card can hurt your credit rating.

--Resist buying on emotion.