7 Strategies for Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Tips to help you come out ahead on this busy shopping weekend.

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On Black Friday, stores will be ready for shoppers almost before the Thanksgiving plates are cleared. That's because some of the biggest retailers, including Toys 'R Us, Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy, will open their doors at midnight or earlier on Thursday. That means shoppers intent on snagging the best deals will need to get in line on Thanksgiving evening instead of waking up early Friday morning.

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"You have to place one big bet, and hope that the store you go to has enough inventory of the doorbusters. You won't be able to hop around like last year, when one store opened at 3 a.m. and another at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m.," says Brad Wilson, publisher of the coupon site Brad's Deals. Then, on Cyber Monday, shoppers can expect more deals popping up on retailers' websites, including free shipping.

The rules of the game might be changing, but shoppers can still come out ahead. Here are seven winning strategies for Black Friday and Cyber Monday:

1. Excuse yourself after dinner.

The good news is that there's no need to set your alarm clock for 3:30 a.m. this year so you can wait outside in the cold and dark until doors open at 5 a.m. (According to the National Retail Federation, 1 in 4 shoppers last year got started before 4 a.m.) That's because many big-box stores will be open all night. While the very best Black Friday deals won't start until midnight at most stores, you will be able to get into many retailers on Thanksgiving evening itself.

Employees might not like it, and a vocal few have petitioned against those new, earlier hours, but stores from Target to Best Buy appear to be moving ahead with their Thanksgiving Day plans. For shoppers, that means the best time to hit the stores is shortly after finishing dinner.

2. Don't blow your budget on Friday.

While certain items, especially televisions and laptops, will be offered at incredibly low prices on Friday, deals and discounts will be plentiful all season. "Unless there's a very specific brand or piece of clothing being discounted, you'll see similar deals throughout the coming weeks," says Christine Frietchen, editor-in-chief of ConsumerSearch.com.

Since many retailers offer free shipping on Cyber Monday, you can do some of your shopping from home (or the office). In fact, some stores are offering their doorbuster deals online as well, so getting out of the house for the best deals is no longer necessary, says Regina Novickis, consumer savings expert for the website PromotionalCodes.com.

3. Use your phone while shopping.

Not to talk, but to compare prices. It's easier than ever to scan a barcode using a smartphone and to check what stores might offer better deals. Pricegrabber's free app comes with a barcode scanner to do just that. Graham Jones, general manager of Pricegrabber, recently used the app to scan the barcode on a pair of jeans at Nordstrom while he was shopping. He quickly discovered he could buy the exact pair for less elsewhere. Says Jones: "More and more folks are using smartphones to check prices in stores," a strategy that's especially useful when comparing non-doorbuster items that might not be fully discounted.

In fact, many stores, including Target, Wal-Mart, and Amazon, offer their own mobile apps that make it easy to get the latest updates on sales and what's in stock, adds Novickis.

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4. Connect through social media.

Many retailers post their best deals for their Twitter followers and Facebook friends. The downside, says Frietchen, is that anyone who signs up will be bombarded with information. That's why she suggests "unfriending" or "unfollowing" retailers after the shopping season passes, or even setting up separate accounts to monitor social media feeds.

5. Buy what's hot (or what's not).

Gift certificates and vouchers are among the trendiest items this year, says Jones, because they leverage dollars: You spend $25 and get a $50 gift certificate, for example. Retailers like the Gap as well as service providers such as Gymboree offer them. (Pricegrabber aggregates those deals at deals.pricegrabber.com.)