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Top 10 Black Friday shopping tips for 2018

Consumer Reports advice on how to score the best deals

Some of us wait all year for the Black Friday shopping season, our heads filled with the promise of scoring the best price of the year on a new TV, tablet, printer, or high-tech gadget. But don't let all the Black Friday hype fool you. You might end up overpaying if you get taken in by so-so prices masquerading as fantastic bargains, and you can miss out on great deals if you don't do your research.

No worries -- Consumer Reports has been tracking Black Friday deals for years and they know all the tricks. Our top 10 Black Friday shopping tips will help you get the best deal on the items you want and keep frustration -- and overspending -- to a minimum.

The final three tips apply specifically to TVs, which offer some of the best deals at this time of year.

As usual, CR will be tracking the best Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals we find on multiple product categories, including televisions, laptops, smartphones, large and small appliances, and mattresses, so check back for all our holiday deals coverage.

Get the Most TV for Your Money

1. Start early. Gone are the days when Black Friday simply meant checking the Sunday circulars to see which local retailers had the best deals. Black Friday has morphed into a whole month of deals and savings, and online retailers also regularly update prices throughout the event.

To judge how good the actual sales really are once it's crunch time, you'll need to track the deals leading up to Black Friday. The same goes for Cyber Monday, which now stretches into a week of online specials.

2. Do your homework. Only rookies head out on Black Friday unprepared. Getting ready means studying the ads—in print and online—the weekend before Thanksgiving. And we'll be helping you sift through the best (and worst) Black Friday deals at retailers such as Best Buy, Costco, Dell, BJ's, Target, and Walmart.

There are now dozens of Black Friday websites where you'll find tons of leaked Black Friday ads. We regularly check bfads.net, bestblackfriday.com, dealnews.com, theblackfriday.com, and blackfriday.gottadeal.com. Sign up and these sites will send you deal alerts, which you can typically filter by product category.

3. Use price and coupon tools. You don’t have to go retailer-by-retailer to compare prices. Try Google Shopping, plus services such as NexTag, PriceGrabber, Pricewatch, and Shopzilla. In the store, apps such as BuyVia, Flipp, ShopKick, ShopSavvy, and Shopular loaded on your phone let you scan bar codes or QR codes to compare prices, get discounts, and score coupons.

Many Black Friday sites, such as the ones listed above, have their own shopping apps. And so do major retailers such as Amazon, Best Buy, Target, and Walmart. Amazon's Mobile app, for example, lets you use a smartphone camera to scan products and price-shop online.

But direct comparison shopping can be really tough in the run-up to Black Friday and the holidays. One reason is that some large retailers have their best deals on models you didn't see earlier in the year, or that aren't available at other stores. That can make comparison shopping hard, if not impossible.

This is particularly true of TVs. It's a hugely popular category this time of year—and one that generates lots of great deals, along with plenty of confusion. See "Consider a 'Derivative' Model," below, for details.  

4. Use loyalty programs. Stores often have loyalty programs that offer sales and promotions to their members first, then let them earn rewards on what they buy. Signing up for Black Friday shopping alerts will get you the early word on promotions, coupons, and discounts. In some cases, you can even find out whether the products you want are in stock or eligible for a buy online/pick up at the store option that saves you on shipping.

5. Get social. The Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of your favorite retailers are a great way to find out about deals and promotions. Retailers will often reward customers who like or follow them with special alerts to Black Friday discounts and incentives. And of course texts, tweets, and social media posts are an easy way to share Black Friday shopping intel with your friends.

6. Create a budget—and stick to it. Yes, this sounds simple. But Black Friday sales, especially the doorbuster specials available in limited quantities, are designed to get you into a store so that the retailer can sell you something else. And once there, it's easy to get caught up in the buying excitement.

Decide ahead of time how much you want to spend on your Black Friday shopping spree, and do your best to resist impulse buying, especially if you're not sure how good a specific deal is. If you find that you're too free with your charge cards, try buying with cash this year and see whether you have better self-control. But if you are sufficiently disciplined, buy with a credit card that doubles the manufacturer's warranty and then pay it off before any interest accrues.

7. Check all store policies in advance. It's always good to know a store's price-match and return policies. We expect more retailers to price-match specific online and in-store deals this year. Almost all of the major retailers have some form of price-match policy, and they've been expanding them almost every year. But some stores might suspend their price-match guarantees during the Black Friday weekend on certain items, so read the fine print. Check the return and exchange policies for Black Friday sales to make sure that the store won't charge a restocking fee for any item you bring back.

Tips For TV Shopping

Televisions deserve some special attention because so many people shop for them at this time of year. The TV aisle may have some of the best deals in the entire store—along with a few of the most confusing ones.

That's why these last three tips are just for TV shoppers.

8. Consider a "derivative" TV model. Starting in October, you may see low-priced TVs made specifically for Black Friday, and some are available only through a single retailer. These sets are called “derivatives” in the TV industry because they’re similar to the regular production models we see all year but with different model numbers and often fewer features. (For example, they may have fewer HDMI inputs or come with a simpler remote control.)

Some of these TVs can be a good deal. For example, last year a 55-inch Samsung derivative we tested was about $170 cheaper than the TV it was based on, and it performed equally well in CR’s tests.

Other TVs may not be true derivatives, but also get introduced at this time of year.

It's hard to judge the quality of derivatives and new-for-the-holidays sets, and it's difficult to compare prices, too. After all, if a set is being sold at only one retailer, you can’t shop around or ask a store to honor a price-match guarantee.

Consumer Reports will report on heavily promoted sets as they come on the market, and help you pick out the better deals.

9. Avoid pricey accessories. You've just scored an awesome giant-screen 4K TV at an all-time low price, so don't blow your savings by splurging on pricey accessories or extended warranties. (This is where retailers make a lot of their money, hence the hard sell.)

If you know you'll need an HDMI cable, buy it in advance from an online retailer such as monoprice.com or bluejeanscable.com. That way you won't be pressed into overpaying at the store, where you might pay $35 for a 6-foot HDMI cable that performs similarly to a cable you can buy for less than $5 online.

10. Beware the cheapest set. Super low-price doorbuster specials draw people in with visions of savings, but these sets might not be worth the price. You'll probably be watching your new TV for a number of years. If you're not happy with its features or picture quality, you could regret not spending an extra 50 bucks to get something better.

Also, those loss-leader TVs are usually at their rock-bottom price. A retailer may have more wiggle room on a step-up model or flagship model, and you shouldn't hesitate to ask for a better price during your Black Friday shopping—or throughout the year.