NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Waking up early, pounding a cup of coffee and sprinting to the nearest mall has become a post-Thanksgiving tradition for many Americans bargain hunters. Not only does so-called Black Friday usher in the holiday shopping season, it also brings with it some of the best sales of the year.
But to get the most for your money, you would do well to heed the advice of The Motley Fool's "Pro-shopper" Dayana Yochim before hitting the stores:
Shop the night before.
If you're looking for the cheapest prices on the "hottest" items, you may want to start your shopping online the night before. Why? A number of retail outlets post their Black Friday sales prices online on Thursday night, Yochim says. Snagging "must-have" items online in advance of the sales rush means you'll get the best price without having to worry about the store running out of the product you're after.
Search for coupon codes.
If you're shopping online, be sure to take advantage of coupon codes. "If you're not, you're leaving money on the table," says Yochim. New to the world of coupon codes? Don't worry, it's easy. Just plug the name of the product you're looking for into your search engine along with the words "coupon code." If there is a coupon available, a link should appear, providing you with a discount code to plug in when you order online. You can also find deals on Web sites, such as Currentcodes.com, Couponcabin.com and Dealcoupon.com.
Research store return policies.
A number of retailers are changing their return policies just for the holiday season, says Yochim, which means if you're not careful you could get stuck with some hefty fees for returns and exchanges. Stores' return policies are generally posted on their Web sites. You can also ask a clerk to help decode the fine print on the back of your receipt. But beware: many holiday employees are temporary and may not be clear on store policy.
Order must-have items early.
If snagging the best deal is less important than making sure that you get your hands on this season's hottest toys, it's important to get a head-start on your shopping. Last year, retailers vastly overestimated the demand for a number of products and were forced to sell merchandise at bargain basement prices. To ensure this doesn't happen again, many stores are only stocking the bare minimum this holiday season, so supplies could run low, Yochim warns.
Beware of "sales."
Just because something is on "sale," doesn't mean it's a good deal. So before you buy, do some retail recon. Go online and compare prices. "The more Web sites you visit to get an apples-to-apples comparison, the easier it will be to recognize a real deal," Yochim says. When you're ready to buy make sure you know exactly what's included in the purchase price or you may find yourself shelling out more for expensive "add-ons." Hint: If you're shopping in stores, bring hard-to-beat online offers to your local retailer and see if it will match the price.
Watch out for "warranties."
Many salespeople make commissions off warranties, so if you're in the market for consumer electronics or appliances be prepared to get the hard sell. Yochim advises steering clear of warranties unless you're buying a product that hasn't been on the market long enough to have established reliability ratings. If you do opt for a warranty, you shouldn't be paying more than 20% of the product's purchase price, according to Consumer Reports.
Sweat the big stuff.
If you don't have time to methodically search out the best deals for everything on your list, Yochim recommends concentrating your energy on big-ticket items, such as televisions and computers, where you can net the most significant savings.
By Marshall Loeb