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Editorial - Black Friday advice: Shop smart, local

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Today is "Black Friday" - traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year.

It's a day when shoppers can scoop up all kinds of bargains but they can also get burned.

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Before we get into some shopping tips provided by the Better Business Bureau, here's our best advice for the day: Shop local.

Chances are, you can find perfect gifts right here at home at one of our local businesses for the same or lower prices. You can avoid a long drive through heavy traffic, the extra time and gas money and support your local community, all at the same time.

Remember, the money you spend here not only stays here but turns over multiple times, supporting local jobs, local families and local causes. Don't just assume that a bigger city like St. Cloud or the Twin Cities will have cheaper prices. Local stores will often match or beat out-of-town competitors' prices. They'll also stand behind their merchandise and are right there to "make it right" if something happens to go wrong.

The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota (BBB) reminds shoppers that although there are certainly bargains to be had today, it's important for shoppers to be practical and to remember to investigate before they invest.

The BBB offers these tips for the holiday shopping season:

•Budget. Sit down and plan your holiday expenditures. Along with your list of gifts, include holiday cards, stamps, entertaining, and clothing. As you make purchases, keep a running total to make sure you do not spend more than you planned.

•Comparison shopping. Don't rely on ads that claim to offer the lowest prices. The BBB has conducted many secret shoppings on companies that make this claim and has determined they do not always have the lowest prices. It is almost impossible for a company to have the lowest price on every item, every day. That is why comparison shopping is an important key to finding the best value.

•Restocking fees. Many consumers are looking for big ticket items for holiday gifts. After doing some serious comparison pricing, ask the store if they charge a restocking fee if the product is returned. Many stores find it necessary to charge these fees to cover the loss of revenue if they can no longer sell the item as new.

•Return policies and refunds. Ask for the store's return policy before you buy. Companies are not required to give you your money back, but they need to post their return policy prominently near the cashier. Save your receipts in one place so you don't lose them. Many companies are tightening their return policies and will most likely require you to produce a receipt for a return. Ask for a gift receipt and tape it on the inside of the gift box to make returns easier for family and friends.

•Gift cards. The BBB reminds consumers that if you purchase a gift card directly from stores or restaurants this holiday season, it should not have an expiration date and there should be no dormancy fees. However, if you purchase gift cards through your credit card company, those gift cards may be subject to dormancy fees. If you receive a gift card, you should redeem it promptly if possible.

•Getting the real deal. Do you know if a sale is really a sale? Many times companies boast "70 percent off," but 70 percent off what? If a company is advertising a "Going Out of Business" sale, don't assume they are offering the best price in town. Check the price on the same items at other stores.

•Black Friday ads. Newspapers often have coupons that give discounts for Black Friday. Black Friday ads are also posted on the Internet. Some sites post ads for Black Friday before they are published. This might help you plan where you will shop and for what items.

•Check out the company. If you are shopping at a company for the first time, take a minute to contact the BBB at 1-800-646-6222 or visit www.thefirstbbb.org to obtain a report.

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