Super-couponing: Shop smart on the biggest day of the year

Black Friday is nearly here. Considered the first day of the holiday selling season, it usually ranks as the year's biggest shopping day.

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 shopping, we meet at a local restaurant for a celebratory breakfast.

Planning is essential for a successful Black Friday shopping trip.

This year, retailers are stepping up Black Friday offerings, teasing early opening promotions at "Black Midnight." No longer will you have to line up before sunrise for the deals. Enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, take a rest and then hit the stores at midnight.

Before you lose your bearings, dazed by $200 notebook computers, bargain digital cameras 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.

Before you jump at a low price, do your homework. Remember, it's not a deal if you settle for a product without the features you want.

One year, I considered buying a ridiculously cheap GPS unit for myself. After some research, however, I realized the model didn't include map or software updates or many of the other features offered on the slightly more expensive model from the same manufacturer.

If you do see an item you're set on buying, check the regular selling price on your store's website and at other online retailers. Incredibly, I have seen items priced higher by a few dollars for Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals.

Don't forget to use price matching. If a store will match another store's advertised price, it may be easier to find the product in stock at the store that doesn't have the product listed as a doorbuster.

Some of my favorite Black Friday bargains are small items. Office supply stores usually offer great deals on recordable computer media and peripherals. Major drugstore chains are known for bargain-priced DVD movies and stocking stuffers.

Some of the best Black Friday deals I've gotten haven't been gifts for other people. Last year, one pharmacy offered pet beds for $9.99, a bargain that our big family dog, who outweighs me, definitely appreciated.

Another year, eight months pregnant, I waited in line at 4 a.m. for a doorbuster on infant car seats. I remember waddling back to the car, triumphant, with a giant box in my arms balanced atop my large baby belly.

Cyber Monday is a big draw, too, especially since so many shoppers now have Internet at home. The allure of shopping in one's pajamas and taking advantage of many of the same deals without fighting crowds is fabulous.

Plus, long after the store in your town may have sold out of a popular item, you may still be able to order it online. Many retailers will offer free shipping and ship-to-store options. A couple of my favorite sites to look for coupon codes for online retailers are DropDownDeals.com and RetailMeNot.com.

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

Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her website, http://www.jillcataldo.com. Email your own couponing victories and questions to jill@ctwfeatures.com.

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