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Ditch the crowds; shop the Web
But dont get grinched when shopping online
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While millions of shoppers across the country will flood retail stores as early as midnight looking for "Black Friday" deals, others will be booting up the computer this afternoon to take advantage of Thanksgiving Day specials.

According to a poll from Zogby Interactive, just 14 percent of Americans have plans to go shopping Friday, while 26 percent say they will shop online.

Some retailers are offering shoppers the chance to get a head start on Black Friday deals, offering online specials today. Others are waiting until Monday, sometimes called "Cyber Monday" because Internet retailers in recent years have reported increased traffic on the day.

If you’re tempted to sit around in your fuzzy slippers and surf the Internet for your holiday shopping, make sure to do so securely and smartly.

The Federal Trade Commission has several tips to keep savvy online shoppers from getting grinched:

Know who you’re dealing with. Confirm the online seller’s physical address and phone number in case you have questions or problems.

Know exactly what you’re buying. Read the seller’s description of the product closely, especially the fine print.

Know what it will cost. Factor shipping and handling — along with your needs and budget — into the total cost of the order.

Pay by credit or charge card, for maximum consumer protections.

Check out the terms of the deal, like refund policies and delivery dates.

Print and save records of your online transactions.

Shopping online can be just as safe as trudging around the mall for hours, and a whole lot easier, but don’t let the ease of point-and-click spending crunch your budget. Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta, which provides free budget counseling, encourages people to avoid impulse buying during the holidays. CCCS is a national nonprofit, United Way agency.

"It is especially critical during these challenging economic times that consumers make wise and well thought-out purchasing decisions this holiday season," said Mechel Glass, director of education for CCCS of Greater Atlanta. "Don’t let the thought of getting a ‘deal’ cloud your judgment. Impulse purchases can create holiday debt that you will pay for well into the New Year and beyond."

And CCCS counselors say leave your credit cards at home — studies have shown that shoppers spend 30 percent more when using credit cards instead of cash.

Finally, Susan Williams at Peach State Bank & Trust in Gainesville offers these tips to keep Christmas shopping from breaking the bank (and they make sense whether you’re shopping online or at the mall):

Make a budget of the maximum you will spend for each person on your list.

Remember the real meaning of Christmas and the most important gift is time spent with loved ones, which costs nothing.

Shop the sales papers before leaving home and make a list of each store you will be visiting to avoid having to backtrack.

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