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Holiday retail sales this season are likely to top $728 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. However, “Black Friday” remains one of the busiest shopping days of the year, and with Black Friday ads already circulating, plenty of sales are sure to be offered this year Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving.

Consumers should arm themselves with information, a budget and the ability to resist pressure to buy items they don’t want or need. One-day deals and specials have become the norm rather than the exception, whether shopping online or in a store. If you’ve researched an item ahead of time, you’ll be better able to evaluate deals.

When buying gifts, it’s important to obtain and keep receipts for all purchases in case the recipient needs to return an item. Many stores will provide gift receipts upon request, which allow returns but don’t show the recipient how much you paid for an item.

Be sure to check return and refund policies before you buy. Some stores may require that returns be made within a few days of purchase. Some only allow returns if a product is defective while others may give store credit instead of cash refunds.

In some cases, you may save time and money by buying from a store’s website. However, while online shopping can be a way to avoid crowded stores, shoppers need to be careful of the sites they patronize. Better Business Bureau has received more than 32,000 complaints about online retailers so far in 2019, and online purchase scams ranked as the second riskiest scam of 2018 in the St. Louis region.

A Florissant, Missouri, woman told BBB in August 2019 that she placed an order with an online retailer in June 2019 but it never shipped, despite the website’s claim that shipping would take 12-20 days. She said the company told her, at various times, that the item she purchased had been shipped, it had sold out and the company had changed suppliers for the item. The company did not respond to the woman’s request for a refund.

When shopping online, be sure to:

1. Protect your personal information. Check to see how your information may be used online. When shopping at stores, keep your card out of sight and make sure you get it back safely in your wallet before you leave the store.

2. Check the site’s security settings and privacy policy. If the site is secure, its address should start with https://.

3. Know the company’s refund and return policies. Are there restocking fees? Do you have to pay shipping costs on returns?

4. Do not rely on pictures of a product. Read the description and check model numbers, if applicable.

5. Be cautious of free or very-low-price offers. Often, free offers are followed by an open-ended enrollment in a program that automatically bills your credit card account. Before ordering anything online, make sure you click on and read all terms and conditions.

6. Pay with a credit card. If you suspect fraud or don’t receive your order, you can challenge the charge. It’s also possible to dispute charges to your card.

7. Obtain a tracking number for shipments. If you need the product before the holidays, find out when the seller intends to ship it and if possible, how it will be shipped.

8. Print out the order or save it on your computer. Make sure you have the documentation page for online orders, and save it until the order arrives.

9. Be aware of phishing. Don’t respond to emails that ask for your credit card, bank account number or other personal information. Legitimate businesses do not send emails claiming there is a problem with an order or account to lure you into revealing financial information. Call the company or find the customer service form on the company website to confirm any problem.

Toy safety is a concern for many parents. Make sure any toys you buy are appropriate for the age of the child. If possible, inspect toys carefully to look for sharp edges that may cut, moving parts that can pinch or small, removable pieces that can be a choking hazard. Toy chests should have air holes, and fabric products should be flame-resistant. Check for a UL (Underwriters Laboratories) seal on electric toys.

Before patronizing a store or website, check a company’s BBB Business Profile online at bbb.org or call 573-886-8965.

Michelle Gleba is the Mid-Missouri regional director for Better Business Bureau.

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