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Lights, action, Christmas!

Mr. and Mrs. Claus pulled the switch at last year's lighting ceremony in the fort. (Echo Press file photo)

The Christmas season officially kicks off in Alexandria this Friday with the "Christmas in the Fort" event.

That's when Santa and Mrs. Claus will visit the Runestone Museum and flip the switch to turn on the Christmas lights on Broadway.

The gates for the free event will open at 3 p.m. Several activities are planned:

•Santa and Mrs. Claus will be available for picture taking with children.

•Zion Lutheran School Children's Choir will perform at 4 p.m.

•The Jefferson High School carolers will perform at 4:15 p.m.

•Carriage rides will be available to the public for free from 4 to 6 p.m.

The lighting ceremony is expected to start shortly after 5 p.m. with Santa turning on the lights at 5:15 p.m.

Another part of the holiday season - gift buying - is expected to kick into high gear with several Black Friday deals offered at locations throughout Alexandria.

Some stores in Alexandria are starting the shopping season extra early this year: Kmart's sales start at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day and continue until 3 a.m. Friday with another sales period starting at 5 a.m.; Walmart's sales start at 8 p.m. Thursday with another shopping period beginning at 5 a.m. Friday; Target will open at 9 p.m. Thanksgiving night; Menard's will open at 5 a.m. Friday; and Fleet Farm, Office Max and JC Penney's will open at 6 a.m. Friday.

The Viking Plaza mall will be open at midnight on Thanksgiving night for select stores, such as Herberger's, and is opening at 6 a.m. Friday.

Stores in historic downtown Alexandria are also planning special sales on Black Friday, according to the Downtown Merchants Association. Hours vary by store.

The day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday because that's the day that many retail stores turn a profit or are in the black.

"Black Friday only seems to get bigger - and start earlier - each year," said Dana Badgerow, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Minnesota and North Dakota. "We try to remind people to plan ahead, be mindful of their budgets and always be clear on store return policies. On big ticket items especially, there may be restocking fees if a consumer wishes to make a return."

The BBB offers these tips to Black Friday shoppers:

•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? It always pays to comparison shop. If a company is advertising a "Going out of Business" sale, don't automatically assume they are offering the best prices in town. Take the time to check prices on the same items at other stores.

•Search for Black Friday ads ahead of time. 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.

•Return policies, restocking fees and refunds. Ask for the store's return policy before you make your purchase. Companies are not required to give you your money back, but they need to post their return policy prominently near the cashier. Also, always ask about restocking fees, and save your receipts in one place so you don't lose them. Many companies will require you to produce a receipt for a return. Ask for a gift receipt.

•Gift cards. Gift cards regularly top consumers' wish lists. Federal rules govern gift card sales, and those rules state: An inactivity fee can't be charged until the card has not been used for 12 months, and gift cards can't expire for at least five years.

Other gift card rules: No more than one fee (of any kind) can be charged to the cardholder in a single month. Information printed on the card must disclose fees and the expiration date and provide a toll-free phone number or website where you can get more information.

A one-time fee can be charged when you buy the card, though this generally only applies to gift cards purchased through your credit card company, not those purchased directly from stores and restaurants.

Note: These rules do not cover reloadable cards such as prepaid phone cards or debit cards from the big credit card companies. Rebate and loyalty reward programs are also exempt. If you receive a gift card, you should redeem it promptly if possible.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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