Five retail traps to avoid this season

You know to protect your identity, respect your money, and pay with cash (to avoid falling deep in debt) this holiday season. But do you know how to spot or sidestep those holiday traps merchants rely on to make an extra buck or two?

Here's what you need to know before hitting the mall or shopping online to fulfill your holiday gift list.

Wave off warranties
Lisa Baskfield, a CPA and member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' (AICPA) National CPA Financial Literacy Commission, says buyers need to stay on their toes when the electronics department salesperson is waving an extended warranty in front of you. "Read the manufacturer's warranty before saying yes," Baskfield says. "I purchased a camera from Best Buy with their warranty which I was told would replace the camera if anything happened within the first two years. After a month, it died. I had to go through the manufacturer first to see if they could fix it before being able to use BestBuy's warranty." Baskfield's camera was out of commission for three months. "The warranty from BestBuy was very misleading and certainly not worth the cost," she says.

Product price vs. unit price
Jenny Realo, executive vice president of CareOne Services, one of the nation's largest debt relief services provider, says shoppers sometimes assume buying in bulk always saves them a buck. "But that's not always true" Realo asserts. She says to determine your true savings, divide the price of the food by its net weight or volume to determine the actual cost per unit to see if you're really saving money by buying certain items in bulk.

Products that are grouped together
"Retailers tend to place relevant products together to drive impulse buys," says Realo. For example, special cake pans might be sold next to cake mix to encourage a one-stop-shopping experience. "Consumers should be aware of this, and look for other areas in the store where you can find those items you need at a less expensive price," Realo says.

Lifestyle and frugality guru Carrie Rocha echos Realo's sentiments, urging shoppers to look beyond the main aisles. "Full-priced items are placed on the end caps in big box retailers like Target and Walmart so you think they're on sale and pick one up, even though you don't need it."

Return policies
Got a gift you're not crazy about? If you're even eyeing the notion of returning something, make sure you leave it in its factory-sealed box. If you crack it open just to preview it, it could cost you a restocking fee. Even if the company's policy allows for returns, they could charge a restocking fee for anything they can no longer sell as new because the factory seal's been broken.

Even worse, a store might not accept the return -- unless the item is defective -- if the factory seal is broken (which most often happens with many electronics and video games).

Buy one, get two
Susan E. Howe, a CPA and member of the AICPA's National CPA Financial Literacy Commission, like Lisa Baskfield, advises consumers not to fall for a "buy one/get one free" promotion unless you really have a need for two of the items. "These can be great promotions for consumers," Howe says, "but in other cases, they just entice people into spending money for something they can't use or don't really need." And remember, two might not really be a deal since merchants often jack up the price of the first item in order to afford really "giving away" the second.

In case you do fall prey to a holiday trap or two, don't despair. Help is available to dig you out of debt and help you break your overspending habits.

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer specializing in health, celebrity and consumer issues.
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