Getting the better of 'Black Friday'

The day after Thanksgiving marks much-hyped "Black Friday," which fires the starting gun on the frantic holiday gift-buying season. But beware if you decide to jump in. Consider some alternatives, perhaps celebrating "Buy Nothing Day," as opposed to piling up plunder.

Gifts can be a gracious thing, an expression of sincere love and appreciation. And undoubtedly the Friday after Thanksgiving, a holiday for most Americans, makes for a rare and precious free day to get started on holiday shopping.

Black Friday sounds ominous, but it actually has earned that title because it's considered the day that retailers begin to make a profit for the year, or "go into the black". Such a designated shopping day can offer real advantages for both buyers and sellers: Customers are treated to discounts and bulging stores. Merchants pile up sales and begin to judge just how big a holiday buying season may lie ahead.

Shopping ought to be more than drudgery. Perhaps Friday can be a day for people to think about what is the perfect gift for each person on their lists. The frenzy to find the designated hot gifts of the season – whether it's the hard-to-find TMX Elmo animated toy or a PlayStation 3 video console – can be replaced with the calmer attitude that there'll be the right something for everyone.

The Internet is changing the way we shop at the holidays. This year websites have sprung up to tip off buyers about what will be in the after-Thanksgiving sales flyers, helping them know where to look for that under-$1,000 flat-panel TV or $400 laptop computer.

In a positive sense, Black Friday celebrates the abundance and choice of goods that marks America's free and competitive marketplace.

But shoppers should also be mindful of how they are being manipulated. Plenty of bargains – and probably some even bigger discounts – will pop up throughout the holiday season, experts say. So don't feel pressured to join Friday's Christmas crush.

Black Friday's upstart young cousin, "Cyber Monday," reminds buyers that they have alternatives. Online retailers hype shopping the Monday after Thanksgiving on the Internet, with the idea that it can be done from work.

But this ploy is already outdated: Many consumers have Internet connections at home; they don't need to sneak shopping into the workday. Any free time becomes shopping time. Online shopping doesn't actually peak until much later, in mid-December – leaving just enough time for packages to arrive before the big day.

Shopping season is also a time to avoid piling up debt. Running up a credit-card debt of only $1,000 this holiday season, one expert calculates, and paying only the minimum due at 18 percent interest, means it would take more than 19 years (and $2,900) to pay it off – no bargain.

Some urge that the day be renamed Buy Nothing Day. People needn't be mindless lemmings dutifully following the crowd to the mall, they say. Here's one possible agenda: a walk in the woods, followed by a visit to someone confined to home or in nursing care, topped off with quiet time spent with family or just counting one's blessings.

Could buying a big-screen TV ever mean so much?

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