Be a smart shopper on retail's big days

Jill Cataldo

Black Friday, considered the first day of the holiday selling season, usually ranks as one of the year's biggest shopping days. Black Friday earned its name from retailers who greeted it with relief as the annual surge in revenue pushed them into the black, the point at which they first began to turn a profit for the year. The more recently minted Cyber Monday follows, named in the not-so-distant day when shoppers with no Internet service at home headed back to wired workplaces to search (discreetly) for online bargains.

Which shopping day is best for you and your holiday wish list? Is it worth fighting crowds this weekend, or would you rather shop sales just a mouse-click away?

I'm a Black Friday enthusiast. Each year, my husband and I gleefully surf the Internet, perusing upcoming Black Friday deals at our local stores. We take a divide-and-conquer approach to our must-buy list. When we're done, we meet for a celebratory breakfast.

Planning is essential for a successful Black Friday trip.

This year, some retailers are stepping up Black Friday offerings, teasing early opening promotions at "Black Midnight." You can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, rest, then hit the stores at 12 a.m.

Before you lose your bearings, dazed by $200 notebook computers and rock-bottom-priced LCD TVs, here's a reality check. Many of the electronic items offered at bargain-basement prices aren't regularly stocked at any other time of the year. These cheaper electronics may also have a stripped-down list of features. Often they're brought in strictly for promotions, so that the store can advertise a super-low price.

Remember, it's not a deal if you settle for a product without the features you want. One year, I considered buying a cheap GPS unit. After some research, I realized the model didn't include map updates or features offered on the slightly more expensive model.

Check the regular selling price on your store's website and at other online retailers. I have seen items priced higher by a few dollars for Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals.

Cyber Monday is a big draw, too. The allure of shopping in one's pajamas without fighting crowds is fabulous. Plus, long after your store may have sold out of an item, you may be able to order it online. Many retailers will offer free shipping and ship-to-store.

No matter where or how you're shopping this weekend, shop smarter … and have fun!

Jill Cataldo is a coupon workshop instructor. Visit www.jillcataldo.com.