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A Canadian's Guide to Black Friday Shopping

11/27/2013 12:24 EST | Updated 01/27/2014 05:59 EST

So, it's Black Friday week.

It used to be a day -- Black Friday, so-named because American shoppers spent so much money Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving that companies literally went from being in the red to being in the black in a single day. But now it's an entire week. In fact, some stores got the jump on things last Friday, offering deals a week ahead of the big day since Thanksgiving is late this year. So I guess that makes it Black Friday Fortnight.

This year will be my seventh Black Friday shopping adventure. And on Thursday, my shopping buddy, another friend and I will hit the 1-79 for Erie, Pennsylvania.

Yes, that's right. We go to the States. For us, it's as much a girls' mini-vacation as anything else. Sure, it's like vacationing in the middle of the Running of the Bulls, but some people train for the Olympics, we train for this. We hit the big-box stores there, and do our little niche retailers here at home.

But back to Black Friday. It's becoming a bigger phenomenon here in Canada, as stores are countering the massive pre-Christmas cross-border assault with great sales of their own. And that's exactly the right thing to do. Boxing Day sales are all well and good when your kids are old enough to not mind getting gift cards to use after the big day, but when you need to have actual presents under the tree Christmas morning, Boxing Day sales are of precious little use to you. Santa doesn't leave an IOU.

So whether you're a Canadian hitting the new Black Friday sales here, or you're venturing Stateside for a touch of that madness, here's some advice from someone who has been there many times before.

Plan ahead. I cannot emphasize this enough. Before the big day comes, have your shopping list ready. Download flyers and study them them the way winning hockey teams study plays. Most stores have timed sales, and many offer middle of the night discounts to shoppers on top of other really great deals. My first year, I bought three sweaters, two ski vests and one winter coat in Izod, cashing out at about four in the morning. The cost? A whopping $62 after all the discounts.

Have a budget and stick to it. Yes, you will see many wonderful things you think your people will love -- and so cheap! But they're impulse purchases. Resist the urge. You'll thank me later, trust me.

If you see it, buy it, especially if there's only one. We have a strategy. We see, we buy, and then we go back to our hotel to sift through what we've got, decide what we like and then do what we call The Round of Returns.

Only buy in stores you can get back to easily for returns. That fabulous deal on the perfect outfit at a store three hours from you is money wasted if it's the wrong size, colour or style and you either have to drive three hours to return it in January, or the person has to give it away. Keep this in mind when following the point above.

Be nice. Really. The first year my friend and I did Black Friday, we drove down late at night on Thanksgiving. The next year we decided to drive in daylight, so took Thursday off, left around noon and settled in at the hotel. That's where we learned that K-Mart was open, so we figured we'd knock it off the list early. That was the year we had hot dogs, fries and Diet Pepsi for dinner at the K-Mart Grill, surely a low point in my existence.

Since then, more and more stores and restaurants are open on Thanksgiving. Keep in mind that for Americans, Thanksgiving Day is bigger than Christmas. So working on Thanksgiving for them is like working on Christmas for you. Many do it because they need the money. Many do it because they are scheduled without any thought to their personal situation because the company's bottom line is more important than its employees' family lives. I have seen people treated horribly in stores during our excursions. One girl nearly wept when we asked her how she was doing. Kindness costs nothing and I know that fits your budget.

Divide and conquer. Sure, it's more fun to shop together, but if you have a must-have item on your list, and another person in your group has a must-have item on theirs, check to make sure the sales don't collide. Otherwise, you will have to divide and conquer.

Wear comfy shoes. You will be on your feet for hours at a time, often standing still in line. So wear shoes that will not kill you.

Pack your patience. You will stand in line behind ropes for items at these timed sales. Then you will stand in line -- often for up to an hour- - to cash out. So I'll say it again: be patient.

Dress for the weather. It sounds kind of obvious, but you'd be surprised at how poorly prepared people are.

Stay off the sauce. Alcohol numbs the senses and you need to be alert, not just for deals, but for purse snatchers (it happens), carelessness with currency and other potential troublesome scenarios you'll want to avoid.

Check your expectations at the door. You will see all manner of things when Black Friday shopping. Team shirts. Shoppers in PJs. People out with their preschoolers at 3 o'clock in the morning (don't get me started) and people who generally forget we live in a civil society. Don't be one of those people.

Declare everything. Arrive at the border prepared, with your receipts in hand and a total ready for the Customs Officer and declare everything. You think the lineup at the border was bad? Think of how long you'll be stuck there if your car gets impounded because you tried to smuggle back an extra $1,000 in stuff because you blew past your exemption. It's not worth the hassle -- or the cost -- to lie to the border guards. Need to know what you can bring back? Check here.

Keep it all in perspective. After all, it's just stuff. And you don't need half of it, anyway.

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