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Black Friday Bargains Beckon

Retailers are pulling out all the stops to lure reluctant shoppers.

It's almost as traditional as turkey and pumpkin pie. On the day after Thanksgiving, shoppers flock to the mall (some before dawn) to start their holiday shopping in a spree that would make Dionysus proud. The day is known as Black Friday because it usually turns retailers' ledgers from red to black. That may be a struggle this year. Despite some encouraging signs for the economy, consumers have been reluctant to part with their cash. The good news for bargain hunters is that retailers aren't giving up without a fight.

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Forecasters are looking for sales to be flat compared with last year's levels, so retailers are expected to go all out to lure people in. And they'll appeal to our more frugal and conservative mind-set. "It's certainly not going to be a bang-up holiday season," says Craig Johnson, president of retail-consulting firm Customer Growth Partners, in New Canaan, Conn. Expect promotions to start earlier than Black Friday (which falls on November 27), says Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation.

Shoppers, still squeezed by the credit crunch, will use plastic sparingly. So retailers are touting new layaway options and the revival of Christmas clubs. Back in August, Sears and Kmart started promoting Christmas-club cards, which members fund with money they've set aside. Cardholders who sign up by October 31 get a bonus equal to 3% of what they save by November 14.

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Black Friday deals on electronics have always been crowd pleasers. That'll be the case this year, too, with a couple of new twists. "In the past it's been TVs. But not this year," says Shawn DuBravac, director of research for the Consumer Electronics Association. He expects Blu-ray discs and players to be great deals this holiday season, with players running about $99 (compared with $199 last year). Computers will get a lot of attention as Microsoft's new Windows 7 operating system hits store shelves starting October 22, offering a much-anticipated alternative to the Vista operating system (see 'Should You Upgrade to Windows 7?'). This will also be the first holiday season for netbooks. "A year ago, we were still calling them 'mini laptops,' but they've really come on strong," says DuBravac. In addition to compelling prices, look for retailers to bundle their promos, throwing accessories and software into the deal.

As for clothing, expect deeper discounts on store-brand items than on designer fare. Production costs have fallen, and retailers can pass on those savings through their own labels. Fashionistas may find less variety than usual as many retailers focus on the trendiest designs. You're in luck if you gravitate toward boyfriend jeans and leather jackets, less so if your tastes are more traditional.

Don't wait too long for a bargain. Cautious retailers have kept inventories low across the board, so you won't have a lot to choose from—especially at rock-bottom prices—after the holiday rush.

Several Web sites can help you map out your post-turkey strategy. A comprehensive list of Black Friday ads is typically published in mid November at www.blackfriday.gottadeal.com. Retailers seem more anxious than ever to get the word out.

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