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7 Black Friday "gotchas" to avoid

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Reports of Black Friday's demise have been greatly exaggerated, and if you doubt that, show up at a big box retailer at 3 a.m. this Friday. But it's undeniable that the shine around shopping's biggest day has dulled a little, and that shows up in the data. Last year, 134 million people shopped during Thanksgiving weekend, down from 141 million the year before, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

This drop could be good news for consumers (lower odds of getting injured by a massive crowd?) or it could be bad news (struggling retailers more likely to pounce on consumers' wallets with tricks?). So here's a list of Black Friday "gotchas" to watch for as you get into the gift-giving mood. (We'll leave the self defense to you.

1. Waiting until Black Friday

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Why is Black Friday shrinking? Online shopping is growing, but so is the entire shopping season, which is creeping closer to Halloween. In fact, the NRF says 57 percent of holiday shoppers have already purchased a gift by now.

"Black Friday is starting earlier and earlier," said Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org. And that leads to "Gotcha" No. 1

It's inevitable. Retailers who want to "win" Black Friday change the rules, and try to get an early start. Some are making Black Friday last all November long. Walmart will make most items available online at 3 a.m. on Thursday, Dworsky says. So don't wait if you are dead set on getting a great deal this Friday. The gift you seek might already be on sale.

2. Limited supply

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That leads to "gotcha" No. 2. We all know the loss-leader game, but so many of us fall for it anyway. A store offers a product below cost, generating great excitement, but only has a handful of the item available. The rest of the shoppers who stand in line are left waiting at the retail counter. What does limited supply mean to you? Unless you are really in this for the love of the hunt, you may want to skip the mad dash to the stores. Why play a game designed so most consumers lose? Taking that gamble also often leads to the next "gotcha" ...

3. Buying things you don't want

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Seems obvious. Trust me, it's not. Plenty of folks buy things they don't need or want, thinking they're getting a good deal. But, if you don't need an item, and never use it, it's a bad deal. That impetuosity calculus is hard enough at normal times, but during gift-giving season, it's much worse. (Overspending is rampant this time of year, and many people can get themselves into debt. You can see how your credit card spending is impacting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

People throw good-deal items in their carts, thinking they will decide later who might want it as a gift. Sure, that works sometimes. But admit it: Many of you have a pile of useless items bought that have been never used or gifted. And that's a terrible deal. But it's often a product of ...

4. Panic buying

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We've all been there. You get up early, spend precious weekend time walking around the store, and you've come up empty. Nothing. You see smiling "winners" carrying their cheap TVs and oversized teddy bears out of the store and you just want something to take home. So in a panic you grab ... something, anything. The Fear of Missing Out has taken hold. The urge is even stronger if you hear that the store is running out of the set of four after-shaves in a ship-in-a-bottle display. No, dad won't like it -- it's OK to leave the dance alone sometimes.

5. Cheaper last week or next week?

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There's also a pretty good chance that you'll meet that perfect gift at next weekend's dance ... and it might even be cheaper. All sales are not created equal and some won't necessarily help you save. And a "sale" tag doesn't always mean the item sold for a higher price last week. It's supposed to, but it doesn't. JC Penney just agreed to pay $50 million to settle a lawsuit alleging "fake markdowns." (The company admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement). So make sure the great prices are really great. How? Never buy anything in a store without taking 30 seconds to do an online price reality check.

6. The rebate game

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It's also important to make sure the price is really the price, and not the price you pay after you play origami with box tops, fill out forms in triplicate, mail the paperwork off to the North Pole and wait 10 weeks for a rebate check that never comes. Rebates have become more humane in recent years, so they are not the automatic disqualifiying factor they once were. However, again, you may want to check online for complaints about a particular policy or deal before committing to a long-term investment in time. Many good deals become bad deals when rebates go missing.

7. Happy returns?

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Finally, watch for surprise terms and conditions on Black Friday. Is the return period shortened, or are you dealing with final sales in order to get that great deal? It's a good idea to read up before you plunk down your credit card. Final sales can be OK -- as long as you know the risk. And don't forget the gift receipts, in case your dad really doesn't like the after shave.

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