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Confessions of a Black Friday Shopper

Odds are, you're about to call me insane.

While the majority of Americans who have the day after Thanksgiving off will sleep in, flushing the last of the tryptophan out of their system, I'll be waking up at the ungodly hour of 3 am — to go shopping. While my wife can testify that I typically avoid the mall whenever possible, I'm a whole different animal when it comes to Black Friday. And I'm not alone.

We Black Friday early birds happily admit we're a weird group. People (including my wife) mock us as they sip their coffee at home, watching morning news programs. They scoff, thinking we'll only save a couple of extra dollars. And they wonder why anyone would jump so eagerly into the retail madness of the holiday season.

Here's the thing, though, the joke's on them. I've been venturing out early on Black Friday for eight years now, and every year, I've saved at least $200 — usually much more. And, every year, the people I interact with in those pre-dawn hours are the nicest I meet throughout the season.

We chat with each other as we wait for stores to open or for a register to become available. We compare notes on where we're headed and what we're trying to get for people on our list. We hold each other's place in line as we dash back for a forgotten item. We share coupons. We even give each other tips on where to find a better deal on items.

The store clerks? They're not yet bitter about the constant onslaught of customer demands.

Try finding any of that when you're at the mall later that afternoon — much less, later in the season.

Yeah, I know the day isn’t what it used to be. The deals aren’t as good and it’s evolving into more of a marketing event than a day that bargain hunters can save hundreds or thousands of dollars, but that won’t stop me from venturing out.

People stand in front of a Walmart store before the doors open at 5am on 'Black Friday' in Miami, Florida.
Getty Images
People stand in front of a Walmart store before the doors open at 5am on 'Black Friday' in Miami, Florida.

Despite the frenzy you might see on TV, there are some rules — and some rhyme and reason — to this pre-dawn shopping. If you're thinking about giving it a whirl this year, here are a few things you'll want to keep in mind:

1) Plan early: Black Friday shopping actually begins before the big day. Buy your local newspaper the day before and pore though the ads. Not only will you be able to find valuable coupons, but you'll be able to put together your list.

A list is essential to early holiday shopping. You need to know exactly what you're looking for — and where to find the best deal — before you hit the streets. Black Friday is not a day to browse leisurely for gifts. Get in. Get what you want. Get out. And get on to the next store.

2) Avoid the obvious: While there's bound to be a fierce fight for your dollar this year, given the state of the economy, there are some stores you'll want to think twice about before committing to going there.

Walmart's at the top of this list. They have great deals, but the crowds in the store are ferocious — and the rush to grab a low-priced item can quickly turn into a free-for-all. The camaraderie I mentioned above? You won't find it there.

To its credit, Wal-Mart Stores is instituting new crowd-control measures this year, keeping all stores open 24 hours and letting people queue up in different areas for the deals, which will begin at 5 am. A nice effort, but I’m still staying clear this year. The electronics section is likely going to be a madhouse.

Fellow big box retailer Best Buy is a bit more orderly, but the crowds are pretty scary there, too.

Big department stores like Macy’s or Kohl’s are typically pretty safe, though. And several even thank their early shoppers by offering coffee or muffins to those who line up before the doors open.

3) Don't ignore online: Avoiding places with insanely long lines doesn't mean you have to ignore the deals. Many, including Wal-Mart, offer the same deals online, if you’re up early enough. If you’ve got an iPhone, you can even grab those deals as you wait for the doors to open somewhere else.

Lots of retailers only offer their big loss leaders at physical locations, but it never hurts to do a quick scan online before you go out or as you wait for doors to open. Sure, there are plenty of deals on Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgivng, as well — but the competition for them is fiercer. Online early birds can occasionally get a juicy worm on Black Friday.

4) Go home early: A lot of people think the crowds they see at 8 am on their television stations are filled with early-birds. There might be some there, but they're not the smart ones. Efficient Black Friday bargain hunters are calling it a day by then.

Once the crowds start to become crushing and you find yourself having to really hunt for a parking space, it's time to start thinking about heading home. Your list should have been prioritized, so if you started early — waiting on the first store to open — you're probably pretty close to working your way through it by now.

Grab a jumbo coffee and a doughnut and head home, secure in the knowledge that you've not only gotten some great gifts for friends and family, you've saved a bundle in the process.