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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/24/2010 7:52:23 AM ET 2010-11-24T12:52:23

Retailers are hoping for big crowds this weekend. If the National Retail Federation is right, merchants should be happy. According to the Federation’s annual Black Friday survey, about 3 percent more people plan to shop this Black Friday weekend than last year.

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That’s not how Consumer Reports sees it. Based on the magazine’s Holiday Shopping Poll, the editors expect significantly fewer people to participate in the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy.

“Black Friday is no longer the be-all and end-all for holiday bargains,” says Tod Marks, Consumer Reports senior editor and resident shopping expert. “We’ve noticed over the past five years that there’s been a slight but steady downward trend in the percentage of Americans who are out shopping on Black Friday and the following Saturday and Sunday.”

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If Consumer Reports is right, why is Black Friday losing its luster?  Marks isn’t sure, but he has a theory. He believes blockbuster sales are so common, especially this year, that they’ve become almost ho-hum.

“I’ve seen Black Friday ads or pre-Black Friday ads since the beginning of October,” Marks says. “So I think people have become anesthetized to the whole notion that if you don’t get it on Black Friday you’re going to miss out.”

Traditionally, some of the best markdowns (especially on expensive TVs, toys and clothing) take place the closer it gets to Christmas. Smart shoppers have also figured out that many door-buster specials are extremely limited.

“If you’re not there really early, you’re going to miss out on some of the better deals,” says Edgar Dworsky, founder of the website ConsumerWorld.org.

For example, Sears has a Black Friday special on a Kenmore frontloading washer and dryer. The pair is just $599. That’s half price. But there are only four per store.

“You need to look at the ads carefully to see if it says limited quantities or so many per store,” Dworsky advises. “If it does, you’ve got to be at the head of the line in order to get it.”

Avoid the crowds and shop at home?
With some stores, you can skip the lines and hop online. Kohl’s will post most of its Black Friday specials on Thanksgiving Day. ToysRUs will do it at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving night. Other retailers will post their Black Friday door-buster deals early Friday morning. Amazon.com started its Black Friday Week sales on Monday.

The Consumer Reports’ Holiday Poll reflects this shift to online shopping. Last year, 45 percent of those surveyed said they planned to shop at a brick-and-mortar store Thanksgiving weekend. This year, the figure dropped to 37 percent. More than half the respondents said the deals they find online are as good as they ones at the store.

ConsumerWorld’s Edgar Dworsky, who is known for being a frugal shopper, says he made the switch last year. Rather than wait in the cold outside the Staples store (which is literally across the street from his house), he went to the store’s website at 6 a.m.

“I was able to get my door-busters online in my pajamas,” Dworsky says triumphantly. “The problem is retailers are terrible about telling you which doorbusters will be available online and which will not. It’s kind of a gamble.”

Too many deals can break your budget
Black Friday weekend is a game. You try to get the best deals; retailers try to get you to spend more money than you planned. Doorbusters are designed to get you into the store. The hope is once you’re there, you’ll get caught up in the shopping frenzy and buy other things that are either not on sale or not so drastically reduced.

Paul Golden, spokesperson for the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), says unplanned purchases and impulse buys during the holidays aren’t always bad, “so long as you keep your budget in check and try to save extras for last.”

But a majority of Americans don’t set a budget. And that’s where you can get in trouble. A recent Harris Poll conducted for NEFE found that one in five adults who plan to shop on Black Friday does not know what they will buy. Without a list and a budget it’s real easy to spend more than you can afford.

The National Endowment for Financial Education has these smart holiday shopping tips:

1. Stick to a budget. Make a list not only of gifts but all expected holiday expenses, including decorations, entertaining, new clothes for parties and travel expenses. Do not exceed your preset limits.

2. Make concessions.To maintain your budget, you may have to cut down your gift list. Ask yourself if you really need to buy for everyone, or if a card or some other gesture would suffice. How about sending e-cards?

3. Be selective. Once you have purchased a gift for someone, cross them off your list. Avoid adding last-minute impulse items just to make your gift seem more meaningful.

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