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Holiday shopping mistakes (and stores) to avoid

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Worried about how the sorry state of retailing will affect you? It's no surprise. Circuit City is in bankruptcy. Linens 'n Things is almost completely shut down. KB Toys is gearing up its going-out-of-business sales. And you know more stores are coming. Spend your money wisely this Christmas by shopping smart and avoiding stores on the brink of financial collapse.

Retail gift cards
They might save you from buying the wrong gift, but without the proper research, gift cards could wind up being costlier than you think. Look for expiration dates and purchasing restrictions that might depreciate the value of your gift card. In addition, we recommend taking a look at the merchant's financial standing before buying a gift card from them. One trick: search Google Finance for a store name. If it's publicly traded, and the stock price is $1 or less, you should probably stay away.

Although various consumer groups are petitioning the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to require that merchants escrow gift card money (and protect the consumer's investment), vendors aren't obligated to honor your gift card if they file for bankruptcy. As a result, a gift card from Walmart or the Apple Store, two stores in good financial shape, is a better choice than one from a store in bad shape. Be wary of Sears/Kmart and Office Depot, which have both recently closed stores. Avoid RadioShack, Pier 1, Design Within Reach, and Rite Aid.

There's one alternative to gift cards that doesn't expire, and it's not likely to go bankrupt. Cash. If it seems crude to give cash, it's cruder to give a gift card from a bankrupt store.

Mail-in rebates
Like gift cards, mail-in rebates could prove problematic if not properly researched. Last month Continental Promotion Group, Inc., one of the country's largest rebate-processing companies, filed for bankruptcy, affecting the payments of thousands of rebates. While rebates make it easier to afford certain items, consumers should investigate who processes their rebate check. Is it coming directly from the manufacturer or is there a fulfillment company, like CPG, involved?

If you're still having trouble obtaining your mail-in rebate, the Consumer Affairs website has a sample "demand letter" you can send to the processing company, the FTC, and Consumer Affairs in an attempt to get your money.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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