Money Minute: Stores Open Early for Black Friday, Online Shopping Increases

Walmart (WMT), Best Buy (BBY), Macy's (M), J.C. Penney (JCP) and other big chains kicked off their Black Friday sales earlier than ever. And while shoppers lined up last night and early this morning, there are signs that more and more people are doing their gift buying from the comfort of home. A report from an IBM tracking service says online sales as of Thanksgiving evening rose 10 percent from last year.

Analysts say cold weather in many areas is giving a boost to sales of sweaters, coats and boots.

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Whether you're shopping in stores or online, here's an important tip that could save you big bucks. Register for the price-protection plans offered by MasterCard (MA), Citibank (C), Discover (DFS) and other credit card companies. They will refund the difference, up to a certain limit, if you find a cheaper price for the same item. You'll have to prove your case, and there are plenty of items that are excluded, but these plans could save you hundreds of dollars.

Here's another tip: if you're thinking of buying gift cards for friends and family, remember that more than $1 billion dollars of those cards are never redeemed each year. Shoppers are expected to spend about $118 billion on gift cards this year.

Here on Wall Street, today will be one of the lightest trading days of the year. Trading ends at 1 p.m. EST, three hours earlier than usual. On Wednesday, the Dow Industrials rose 24 points and the S&P 500 added 4 -- both reaching new record highs. The Nasdaq rallied 27 points.

A bid for Time Warner Cable (C) is a step closer to actually happening. After several months of news reports about growing interest in the company, Charter Communications (CHTR) is said to be arranging $25 billion in financing. That could allow it to offer a substantial amount of cash to Time Warner shareholders -- maybe as much as $90 a share. Comcast (CMCSA) and Cox Communications are also said to be mulling bids for rival Time Warner. Shares of Time Warner Cable have jumped by about 40 percent since mid-June, when reports first surfaced about Charter's interest.

Finally, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) is reportedly replacing Verizon (VZ) as the host for the problem-plagued federal health-insurance program website.