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Consumer Reports

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    Why tick bites can be so dangerous

    If you’ve been spending a lot of time working outdoors, take note: it’s still tick season, and those tiny beasts can cause big health problems. I know this first-hand because one of the blood-suckers made my husband so sick recently that he was nearly hospitalized.

    The problem is that right now, in some areas of the country, up to half of ticks can be infected with diseases such as Lyme, compared with just 25 percent of ticks in the summer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the reason for the increase is that the spiderlike creatures have had more opportunity to pick up disease-causing bacteria.

    And they’re not picky eaters. Ticks feed on rodents, pets, and deer, though they acquire illnesses like Lyme from mice and chipmunks. Their tick bites then spread disease to people who spend a lot of time outside, like my husband.

    Find what really works against bug bites and how to get rid of ticks in your yard.

    Tick reality check

    “Mosquitoes kill more people than ticks do, but ticks can infect people with more than one disease at a time,” says Marc C. Dolan, M.Sc., a senior research biologist for the CDC in Fort Collins, Colo.

    That’s why it’s important to keep up your guard when you’re outside. “I spend one week a month working in tick habitats,” Dolan says, “I’ve never gotten sick, but I’m diligent about wearing insect repellent, tucking my pants into my socks, and wearing long pants and boots.”

    Because ticks grow larger at each life stage, they’re easier to spot in the fall if one hitches a ride on you. Still, a tick bite may go unnoticed because its saliva contains a numbing agent. So daily tick checks are important, too.

    Dolan says if you see a tick you need to remove it quickly, within 24 to 36 hours, to prevent it from transmitting Lyme disease. But other diseases may be transmitted in minutes, not hours.

    Remove the tick with fine-tipped tweezers or, as a last resort, your fingernail. Special tick-removers you see advertised don’t actually work any better, he says. Make sure to use direct, even pressure to pull the tick straight out—don’t twist it. Then, flush it down the toilet or wrap it in tape or a sealed plastic bag. Never crush the tick with your fingers because infected material can come out of the damaged tick.

    Should you panic?

    Once you remove a tick you might be worried about getting sick. You should discuss your concerns with your doctor, says Ben Beard, Ph.D., chief of the CDC’s bacterial diseases branch in the Division of Vector-borne Diseases. Sometimes an antibiotic may be warranted if all of these conditions are met:

    • Lyme disease is common in the area where you live or have recently traveled.
    • The tick bite is from a blacklegged (deer) tick.
    • The tick was attached for more than 36 hours (based on how engorged it is with blood or when you were likely exposed to it).
    • You’re able to take the antibiotic within 72 hours (3 days) of removing the tick.
    • You’re not allergic to the antibiotic.
    • You're 8 years old or older.
    • You’re not pregnant.

    "Antibiotics are powerful drugs and should only be taken in situations where they are likely to be effective,” Beard says.  

    What to do if you get sick

    Despite all this, what if you come down with flulike symptoms—fever, chills, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches? You might be confused because you didn’t develop the usual bull’s-eye rash (my husband didn’t) that an estimated 70 to 80 percent of people do get. Or maybe you don’t recall having gotten a tick bite at all.

    Still, if you live or recently traveled in certain parts of the country, Consumer Reports’ medical advisers say you should suspect a tickborne illness and call your doctor so that treatment can start quickly and you can get some relief from your misery.

    Tickborne diseases can be severe and even deadly if not treated early. “The sooner you get treatment the better, especially for the elderly or those with weak immune systems,” says Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports’ medical director.

    My husband fell ill swiftly, starting with night sweats, chills, and a splitting headache. He woke up with a high fever and, on the advice of his doctor, we went to the emergency department on a Sunday afternoon.

    The doctor on duty at the hospital recognized an illness he had seen so often in New York and prescribed an antibiotic called doxycycline right away, though blood tests were still pending. My husband's symptoms didn’t really start to subside until about 48 hours later. The diagnosis of Lyme wasn’t confirmed until weeks later in follow-up blood tests because it usually takes that much time for the antibodies against the disease to develop.

    My husband is back to cutting the grass and raking the leaves, but now he reaches for the insect repellent first.

    —Sue Byrne (@SueCRHealth)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Best Buy Lures Black Friday Shoppers With Low Prices on TVs

    If you're shopping for a new TV during the Black Friday rush, it's always smart to wait for Best Buy's Black Friday ad. And, thanks to some overnight tips from FatWallet.com and BestBlackFriday.com—do those guys ever sleep?—we've now seen the retailer's offers.

    Among the doorbuster specials: a 49-inch Toshiba 1080 TV for just $150 and a 60-inch Samsung 4K UHD smart TV for $800.

    If you're thinking of heading out, Best Buy throws its doors open at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day and doesn't close them until 1 a.m. on Black Friday. They open at 8 a.m., but it pays to be early because the retailer distributes tickets for sale items outside the door an hour before it opens. If you'd prefer not to leave your couch, you can shop online all day Thursday, with free shipping. Just beware that some deals are only available in-store.

    Here's a breakdown of some Best Buy Black Friday deals:

    Top TV Deals

    That 49-inch Toshiba 49L310U 1080p set in the $150 in-store-only doorbuster special usually sells for more than $400. That makes it a good deal. Keep in mind, though, that early this year, Toshiba decided to exit the TV business, and it now licenses its brand to Compal, a Taiwanese company.

    We think the $800 60-inch UHD smart TV—the Samsung UN60JU6390FXZA—is a derivative model created specifically for Best Buy's Black Friday promotion, so there's no way to do a price comparison, but $800 seems like a very good price for a set that size from a major brand, and Samsung TVs have typically done very well in our TV Ratings (available to subscribers).

    The 48-inch Samsung UN48J5201AFXZA 1080p smart TV on sale for $380 usually sells for about $600.

    And the 24-inch LG 24LF452B 720p TV on sale in-store for $80 typically sells for about $150.

    Best Buy also has eight Black Friday deals you can get right now, including a 55-inch Toshiba 55L310U 1080p TV, a basic model, for $350, and a 40-inch Insignia TV, model NS-40D420NA16, for $160. This set from Best Buy's house brand is in our TV Ratings.  

    If you're a gamer looking for a new TV and a new video game console, Best Buy has an interesting deal: a 40-inch Samsung UN40H5003AFXZA 1080p TV with an XBox One The Lego Movie videogame package for $500. The TV itself usually sells for about $380. This deal is an in-store-only Black Friday doorbuster that starts at 8 a.m.  

    Ultra Specials

    Best Buy will have a number of UHD TVs for sale during the event, though right now the specific model numbers aren't available, so we can't tell how great each deals is. We'll try to track down some models numbers when we post our Best Black Friday TV Deals in a week or so. Here are the offers:  

    • A 55-inch Samsung SUHD smart TV for $1,000
    • A 60-inch Samsung SUHD smart TV for $1,300
    • A 55-inch Samsung SUHD smart TV with 3D for $1,500
    • A 65-inch Samsung SUHD smart TV with 3D for $2,000.

    Several LG sets will also be on sale:

    • A 43-inch LG UHD smart TV for $400
    • A 49-inch LG UHD smart TV for $500
    • A 50-inch Vizio UHD smart TV for $600.
    • A 65-inch Vizio UHD smart TV for $1,000.

    HD TV Deals

    For those looking for a regular 1080p TV, here's the list of sets (once again Best Buy hasn't listed specific model numbers):

    • A 24-inch Samsung 720p set for $148
    • A 40-inch Insignia 1080p TV for $160
    • A 32-inch 1080p Samsung set for $228
    • A 50-inch Sharp 1080p TV (available only at Best Buy) for $300
    • A 40-inch Samsung 1080p smart TV for $318
    • A 55-inch Toshiba 1080p set for $350
    • And a 60-inch Samsung 1080p TV for $698

    Other Electronics Deals

    Other get-them-now deals include $100 to $125 off an Apple iPad Air 2—an increasingly popular Black Friday item this year—an Insignia NS-SB515 2.1-channel sound bar speaker for $100, and a 27-inch iMac with an Intel i5 processor, 8GB of memory, a 1TB hard drive, and a Retina 5K display for $1,650.

    And here are a few other specials to watch for:

    • Panasonic DMP-BD903 Blu-ray player with streaming for $40; it's $100 at a few places right now.
    • Sony BDPS3500 Blu-ray player with streaming for $50, down from $80 at a few places right now.
    • Samsung BD-H6500/ZA 3D Blu-ray player with 4K upscaling and streaming for $88. This model is in our Blu-ray player Ratings, available to subscribers, and normally sells for about $130.
    • PS4 and Xbox One bundles starting at $299, a now-common Black Friday price.
    • An Amazon Fire 7-inch tablet for $35 instead of $50.
    • Chromecast 2 and Chromecast Audio together for $50. They're usually $35 each.
    • Microsoft Surface 3, with 64GB, for $399, about $100 off its current price.
    • Beats Dr. Dre Powerbeats 2 earbuds for $99. These headphones, in our Ratings, normally sell for about $150.
    • Bose SoundTrue On-Ear Headphones for $60, down from $90 to $100.

    If you're looking to beef up your TV's sound, there's a Samsung 400-series 2.1-channel sound bar system with a wireless sub for $148 and a basic Insignia sound bar with Bluetooth for $50. The Samsung generally sells for about $230.

    Now that Best Buy's Black Friday ad is out, we expect to soon see Walmart's. For our take on that, and other Black Friday TV deals, keep checking back for updates. Also, check out our 10 top Black Friday shopping tips and our Countdown to Black Friday calendar.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to Remove White Haze From Your Good Dishes

    Soon it’ll be time to get out the good dishes and glassware for holiday entertaining. If you have hard water in your home, chances are your dishware is hazy or covered with a whitish film. If so, don’t despair, there are some dishwasher detergent additives on the market that can get rid of that haze and make your glasses and dishes sparkle again. And switching to a top-performing dishwasher detergent will keep them that way.

    Consumers started seeing residue and haze on their dishes and inside the dishwasher after polluting phosphates were banned from dishwasher detergents a few years ago. Manufacturers responded by reformulating their dishwasher detergents to prevent such hard-water buildup and also developed additives to get rid of it. Consumer Reports tested three additives and, after some trial and error, all removed the haze from dishes and glassware and cleaned the dishwasher too.

    We tested Finish Power Up Booster Agent, Glisten Dishwasher Cleaner & Hard Water Spot Remover, and Lemi Shine Original. When we used the same amount of each product—about 50 grams—all three worked splendidly. But when we followed Finish’s directions for machines with a prewash-detergent dispenser, the product didn’t work nearly as well. It did get the job done when we placed two tablespoons directly into the bottom of the dishwasher (following instructions for machines without a prewash dispenser). Glisten and Lemi Shine did their job as directed, though you might need a second wash cycle to completely eliminate buildup.

    The Best Dishwasher Detergents

    Choosing the right dishwasher detergent can also help. In our dishwasher detergent tests, we found that Cascade Complete ActionPacs was excellent at resisting mineral buildup while getting dishes and pots clean. And a rinse agent can help eliminate water spots, a less severe condition than white haze. We also recommend two detergents from Finish, including Finish Powerball Tabs and Finish Gelpacs. And we named Member's Mark Ultimate Clean Dishwasher Pacs from Sam's Club a CR Best Buy.

    Keep in mind that not every glass or dish on your holiday table can be put in the dishwasher, including the following.

    • Gold-plated dishes or dishes or flatware with gold trim can become discolored or the trim may even wash away.
    • Fine crystal is sensitive to heat and may crack. The detergent may also etch the glasses, causing them to lose their brilliance.
    • Expensive china, especially pieces with a pattern, may become worn with repeated washings.
    • Keep anything made of pewter, brass, or bronze out of the dishwasher as it will tarnish.

    For more information on how to treat your best dishes with a little TLC read, "Don't Put Granny's Glassware in the Dishwasher."

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    When Shopping for Booster Seats, Fit in Your Car Is Key

    In its latest report on child booster seats, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that all 23 new booster seat models evaluated provide good belt fit, or properly positioned shoulder belt mid-shoulder and lap belt flat across the upper thighs. This is a significant improvement from the common fails in 2008, when IIHS started this program.

    Belt fit is the key to a booster providing the best protection for your child in a crash, but whether that fit can be maintained and how a seat does in a crash are important considerations as well.  

    What Parents Need to Know

    The best booster seat not only fits the child well, but also stays put when kids move around. It works with a variety of vehicle interiors, too.  

    Consumer Reports provides booster seat ratings for belt fitment, but we go a step further to assess vehicle fit using a 6-year-old, child-sized dummy in a variety of vehicles. Booster-targeted kids, typically ages 4 to 8, have the freedom to move around in a vehicle belt and many do. Therefore, we simulate that activity by moving the belted dummy forward and side-to-side, and then evaluate how well the vehicle belt stays in place on the dummy. In many cases, the belt moves.

    Additionally, vehicles have varying rear-seat geometries that influence how well the booster seat fits on the vehicle seat and how easy it is for a child to buckle the vehicle belt on his or her own. Our ratings account for these variances by testing booster seats in a range of vehicles.

    While Consumer Reports and IIHS ratings provide a good initial guideline for shoppers, parents should try out any booster seat in their own car before buying to make sure the belts can be properly positioned. If not possible, check a store’s return policy in case you need to exchange the seat for another better-fitting model.

    There are many boosters that show up twice on the IIHS list because they are dual-use seats that can be used in highback or backless configurations. Our tests indicate that highback models tend to offer the best potential for providing a proper belt fit. They often provide the added convenience and protection of side “wings” for a child to rest their head against and provide some additional protection in side-impact crashes. 

    Proper Booster Belt Fit

    A well-fitting booster should put the lap portion of the seat belt flat across a child's upper thigh and the shoulder belt at mid-shoulder. This is a check that you should make with the child in your car when you are selecting a booster seat. (See our Booster Seat Fit Checklist.)

    Most states now have laws requiring booster use, although variations in the ages and confusion abound regarding booster seat use. Check your state's laws for guidance.

    Simply put, regardless of age, weight, or your state law, Consumer Reports recommends booster seats be used until the child can comfortably and safely fit the vehicle belts alone. If you're unsure if your child fits the vehicle belts without a booster, ask the same questions as our Booster Seat Fit Checklist but without the use of the booster.

    Child passenger safety experts, including Consumer Reports, advise to transition to only a vehicle seat belt when a child is 8 to 12 years old and 4 feet 9 inches tall. Also, all children under age 13 should ride in the rear seat.

    Children are precious cargo. It is worth the extra effort to ensure they properly secured and kept safe.

    See the full list of booster seats evaluated by IIHS.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The Spare Tire Is Going the Way of the Dodo Bird

    Thirty-six percent of 2015 model-year vehicles were sold without a spare tire, according to a new report from AAA.

    Why? Automakers want to boost their fleet fuel economy averages, and removing the spare tire can lower vehicle weight by 30 pounds. (When it comes to mpg, every pound counts.)

    In place place of the spare tire are run-flat tires or an emergency flat-tire inflation kit (with an aerosol sealant and a compact air compressor).

    Run-flat tires do provide extended mobility to get off of the road to a safe zone or allow one to limp home or drive to a local service provider for replacement. But replacements are sometimes hard to find and can be expensive.

    Emergency flat-tire inflation kits are just a temporary fix and can tackle only small tread punctures. Never use one attempt to seal a sidewall puncture or cuts. Instead, call for roadside assistance. (Learn more about roadside assistance options.)

    What's more, AAA says, using an inflator kit could damage to the tire pressure monitoring sensor. 

    If You're Buying a Car

    When you're buying a new car, find out whether it comes with a spare tire or an inflation kit. In many cases, even though a spare tire might not come with a car, it could be readily available through the dealership.

    When weighing the decision of what you would prefer, remember there is the inconvenience and expense of having to buy sealant refill kits from the dealership after using the tire sealant system that came with the car to make a tire repair.

    There are numerous choices in aftermarket sealant systems. Look for products that claim to be safe for the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) and/or are water soluble, as they will be easier for the repair shop to clean up, potentially reducing the cost for the inevitable professional repair. Also, check the directions for storage, as some cannot withstand the high temperatures inside a car in summer. (Read “Convenient Tire Sealants to Fix a Flat Tire.”)

    Car Owner To-Do List

    All tires lose pressure over time, which is why we recommend including your spare as part of a monthly tire pressure check. If it's been awhile since you checked the spare tire, chances are it is low or even flat. (See our tire pressure gauge buying guide and Ratings.)

    • If you drive an SUV, minivan, or pickup with the spare stored under the vehicle, check to make sure any nuts, bolts, brackets, or chains holding it can be loosened, and that you can get the spare out. Penetrating oil can help with stubborn fasteners. Even if the spare is in the trunk, the related hardware used to secure it can be subject to corrosion. Check all fasteners, and pull the tire out to clean any debris or dampness underneath it.
    • Don't forget to check your jack to make sure it is functioning properly, and make sure you have all the pieces and parts you need to use it, along with a lug wrench.
    • If you've never changed a tire on your present vehicle, consider a dry run in your driveway or other safe place to ensure you're comfortable doing it and have all the necessary components. Consult your vehicle owner's manual for tire care and instructions for safely changing a tire.
    • If you have an older vehicle, you should replace tires—even an unused spare tire—after 10 years or sooner, depending on what the vehicle owner’s manual recommends. To check how old a tire is, look for the tire identification code one or both sidewalls of the tire. It will start with DOT and end with four numbers; the first two are the week and the last two are the year of manufactures. So a 2314 code for example, would mean the 23rd week of 2014.
    • If you have a tire inflator kit, check its expiration date. Kits typically need replacement every four to eight years.

    Download the AAA's list of vehicles without a spare tire (PDF).

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    A Wake-Up Call About the Calories in Coffee

    Chances are, you'll indulge in some special—and high-calorie—foods this holiday season. But you probably don’t think of the coffee you sip at the end of your meal as one of those fattening treats. But maybe you should. While coffee has some nutritional benefits, there can be quite a few calories in coffee. Two cups each with two ounces of cream and two teaspoons of sugar contain about 300 calories and 24 grams of fat—about the same amount of calories and twice the fat as a slice of pumpkin pie.

    Let's say you drink two cups of coffee a day. Simply adding cream to two cups a day adds up to 87,600 calories and 8,760 grams of fat in a year. Add sugar, and you tack on another 23,360 calories. While whole milk is a little less caloric than cream it's still no weight-loss bargain; pour it in two cups of coffee a day and you’ll add 27,740 calories and 1,460 grams of fat to your diet over the course of a year. And that can lead to weight gain: The usual rule of thumb is that 3,500 calories equals about a pound of body fat.

    Does all this mean you have to drink your coffee black? Not at all. But a few simple adjustments, such as switching to 2 percent or nonfat milk or weaning yourself off sugar, can make a big difference to the number of calories in coffee. (Learn how almond, coconut, hemp, rice, and soy milks compare with dairy.)

    To figure out how many calories and grams of fat you’re adding to your coffee, keep these numbers in mind:

    • 2 ounces of nonfat milk adds 22 calories and 0.1 grams of fat.
    • 2 oz of 2% milk adds 30 calories and 1.2 g of fat.
    • 2 oz of whole milk adds 38 calories and 2 g of fat.
    • 2 oz of cream adds 120 calories and 12 g of fat.
    • 1 teaspoon of sugar adds 16 calories and no fat.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Why You Need an Emergency Fund

    How healthy is your emergency fund? How long could it protect you if you were sidelined by a health crisis?

    Many American households are surprisingly vulnerable. A single financial shock, such as an illness or injury requiring a trip to the hospital, can cause financial hardship lasting months, according to a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Even families with higher incomes can be disrupted by just one financial setback, the report found.

    Why an Emergency Fund Is Crucial

    Most people budget for recurring expenses, like housing, food, and transportation. But a sudden health crisis can throw families for a financial loop.

    • More than half of the 7,800 households surveyed struggled to make ends meet after their most expensive financial shocks; six months later, nearly 50 percent still had not recovered.
    • After suffering the shock, households had lower savings and higher credit card debt than those that weren’t affected.
    • Even among those with incomes of $85,000 or more, 42 percent said they had not recovered financially in the 12-month period covered by the survey.

    “Unexpected expenses and income losses cause immediate strain and can also make it difficult to build or rebuild a cushion,” the report notes. The reality, it continues is that “for many households, financial hardship is only one unexpected expense away.”

    That’s why building and maintaining an emergency fund is not just important but crucial if you want to protect your family’s finances from a health crisis.

    How Much to Save

    Conventional wisdom is pretty vague on how much to stash in your emergency fund. Recommendations range from three months to almost a year of take-home pay. “It would be great to have six months’ worth of expenses sitting in a savings account along with a month’s expenses in your checking account, so you can pay the bills and not stress about where the next check is coming from,” says Craig Adamson, president of Adamson Financial Planning in Marion, Iowa.

    In calculating how big to build your financial umbrella, Adamson points out that a health crisis affecting one member of the family affects the earning power of everyone in the household. “You’re going to be taking time off from work. How many people have more than two or three weeks of personal leave, so they can be at the hospital and do all the things that need taking care of while getting a paycheck before burning through their savings?”

    HelloWallet, an online financial wellness service, offers another approach to figuring out the strength of your safety net. Its free website calculator provides personalized guidance about the savings households need to handle three different types of financial emergencies, from minor set-backs to major smack-downs to an extended job loss. In addition to obvious factors, such as your annual gross income and take-home pay, the tool also takes into account the number of cars you own (cars are a frequent trigger for financial crises), your housing situation (homeowners are on the hook for more emergency bills than renters), and your maximum out-of-pocket health insurance coverage.

    “Family financial security requires more than just having enough money to pay regular bills and build savings; it also entails being prepared for the unexpected,” the Pew report notes. It’s advice worth taking. 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Opposition Grows to a Fiduciary Rule That Protects Consumers

    Lawmakers in the House of Representatives expect to introduce legislation in the coming weeks that they say will protect the retirement savings of Americans. But the legislation appears to take direct aim at a rule proposed by the Department of Labor that would require that financial advisers look out for the best interests of their clients.

    Advocates for small investors, including Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, have hailed the proposed Labor Department rule, nicknamed the fiduciary rule because of its guaranteed protections.

    Simply put, it will save consumers money. For example, if an adviser has a selection of mutual funds that meet your investment goals and time horizon equally well, the fiduciary rule says she is required to recommend those with the lowest fees because they're truly in your best interest.

    Currently, financial advisers who are brokers are allowed to offer their clients investment options that are considered “suitable.” So brokers can recommend a mutual fund that meets your goals but comes with high fees instead of another fund that meets your goals but has lower fees. 

    A recent report by the president’s Council of Economic Advisers noted that people who work with advisers earning money from commissions and fees could run out of retirement savings five years sooner, under some circumstances, than if they had worked with an adviser who took no such fees. 

    Brokers Concerned About Their Fees

    The move to provide an alternative to the fiduciary rule got under way last week when bipartisan members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee released a list of “legislative principles.” These were characterized as helping to “strengthen the retirement security of working families and ensure retirement advisors protect their clients’ best interests.”  

    But to many consumer advocates, the new effort seems like an attempt to delay or prevent the fiduciary rule from ever being put in place.

    Pamela Banks, senior attorney with Consumer Union, points to one of the more worrisome principles: Investor choice and consumer access to all investment services—such as proprietary products, commission-based sales, and guaranteed lifetime income—should be preserved in a way that does not pick winners and losers. 

    “What that means," says Banks, "is that brokers would still be able to give precedence to investments that charge high-fees. Brokers are really just trying to protect their piggy bank.”

    Professionals who gain from investment fees and commissions are the core opposition to the fiduciary rule.

    Juli McNeely, president of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, a trade group, says that the fiduciary rule would force more advisers to move from charging commissions to charging flat fees or percentage fees. That, she says, would lead to higher costs for consumers over time.

    McNeely also says that investors with small accounts could lose access to financial advice. Many of these consumers currently get advice from commission-based brokers because their holdings aren’t big enough to attract the interest of advisers charging fees instead of commissions.

    Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America, says those small consumers weren’t really getting advice to begin with.

    “If it isn't in the best interests of the customer, it isn't advice. It is a sales pitch dressed up as advice," Roper says.

    This isn’t the first time lawmakers have tried to slow or stop the fiduciary rule. Last week, 47 members of Congress delivered a letter to the Labor Department, which has regulatory authority over retirement accounts, asking for 15 to 30 more days for people to comment on the rule, even though the department had already held two public comment periods. The rulemaking process usually includes just one comment period.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    These Wall Ovens Are No Wallflowers

    There was a time when choosing a wall oven over a range meant you had to compromise on performance, or settle for a small oven without a self-cleaning feature. No longer. The best wall ovens in Consumer Reports' tests deliver impressive baking, broiling, and self-cleaning. Here’s what to consider before you shop.

    Price Range
    $600 to $8,000
    At the low end are 24-inch wide wall ovens, which Consumer Reports does not test. Pro-style double wall ovens are the more expensive options.

    Size
    Available widths are 24, 27, 30, and 36 inches. Wall ovens 30 inches wide are the most common and what Consumer Reports tests. If you’re replacing a wall oven it’s crucial that you measure the wall oven and the cabinet cutout. GE’s website offers step-by-step instructions, which includes removing the screws that secure the oven and pulling it forward an inch or two. Sounds like a lot of effort, but it will save you headaches later.

    Electric or Gas
    Overwhelmingly most wall ovens sold are electric. By overwhelmingly we mean that you’ll have 233 electric and 16 gas wall ovens to choose from on Home Depot’s website. At Lowes.com you’ll see 224 electric wall ovens and four gas, and at Sears.com there are 324 electric and five gas wall ovens to consider. That’s why Consumer Reports buys and tests electric single wall ovens. Double wall ovens appear in our Ratings and performance is based on the tested single wall oven models.

    Features
    Most have just a touchpad for setting the oven temperature. A few add knobs for setting various oven modes. A control lockout prevents the oven from being turned on, and is recommended for households with children. Most wall ovens in our tests have a convection option. It uses one or more fans to circulate hot air and some have an additional heating element. Convection can trim cooking time, especially for large roasts. In double-oven models convection is typically in the top oven.

    A covered element, also known as a hidden baking element, means the heat element is out of sight and hidden inside the oven floor, making it easier for you to wipe the oven clean. All wall ovens in our tests have a self-clean feature.

    Design
    The look ranges from box-in-the-wall to sleek and stylish. Available finishes include white, black, stainless, black stainless, and slate. The $4,100 Viking VESO5302SS has a small window, but many have a large window, offering you a better view without having to open the door. The GE CT9070SHSS has two side-by-side doors, known as French doors. They open to the side, rather than down, and pulling one handle opens both doors at the same time. You can control this $3,900 wall oven from a smartphone.

    Capacity
    Manufacturers are finding ways to increase capacity in wall ovens. Of the single wall ovens tested, capacity scores range from fair to excellent. The $2,100 Fagor 5HA-780X had the smallest oven—2.86 cubic feet is what Fagor claims. Among the largest ovens are the $1,500 Whirlpool WOS92EC0AH, a CR Best Buy, and the $1,800 GE JT5000SFSS. Both are claimed to be five cubic feet.

    The capacity scores in the Ratings are based on our measurements of usable space, and the same scales and scoring is used for wall ovens and ranges, allowing you to compare. There are eight double wall ovens in our Ratings, and capacity is based on our measurements of the single oven model (the upper oven in a double-oven model).

    Pros, Cons, and Brand Reliability

    Advantages
    The cooktop-and-wall-oven combo is stylish and eats up less space than a range. The oven is built into the wall and the cooktop can be installed over a cabinet that stores cookware. For convenience, place the wall oven at a height that makes it easier for you to use. Choose between single and double ovens, and if you prefer a gas cooktop and an electric oven, that’s possible too.

    Drawbacks
    This combo is usually more expensive than a range. Keeping in mind that the wall oven is built into the wall, there are complaints online, including some of our user reviews, about the cooling fan making a loud noise in some wall ovens. The manufacturers’ websites explain what is normal and what’s not. “Cooling fans may whistle or whoosh when the cooling fan is on high,” says Wolf. A rubbing/metal on metal noise when operating is not normal, says Whirlpool, adding, “It is normal for all wall ovens to have an automatic cooling fan that runs when the oven is in use and/or after a cycle completes. It is normal to hear the automatic cooling fan move air when the oven is in use and/or cycle completes.” Check before you buy.

    Brand Reliability
    Every year we ask thousands of subscribers about their experiences with electric wall ovens and repairs. Based on our latest survey of 4,703 people about seven brands, we estimate that by the time the wall ovens are three years old, 11 percent will need repair or have serious problems. The differences among brands were not big enough to call out most and least reliable. However, Kenmore and GE and GE Monogram appear at the top of our reliability chart and are better than KitchenAid, which appears at the bottom.

    Shopping for a Wall Oven?
    Then see our wall oven Ratings first. We’ve tested wall ovens from Whirlpool, GE, Frigidaire, Kenmore, Electrolux, Viking, Wolf, and more. Single-oven models range from $1,300 to $4,100. Double ovens cost $2,000 to $6,300.

    Use the filter to narrow your choices by brand and price. Check the Features & Specs tab to compare models and the Brand Reliability tab to help you decide. Look for sales and rebates online. We’re seeing some great deals. And if you have questions, send me an email at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How Good Are Walmart's Black Friday TV Deals?

    If getting a great TV deal is your remedy for a turkey-and-mashed-potatoes hangover, then you're undoubtedly a fan of Black Friday shopping. And for the last several years, Walmart's Black Friday sales have been something of a bellwether for how good the holiday deals are going to be. This year, based on the circulars we've seen, the sales look good but haven't blown us away.

    Still, there are a few deals that grabbed our attention, among them a 70-inch Vizio smart TV for less than $900. Other noteworthy deals range from a 32-inch Roku smart TV for $125, to a 55-inch Samsung 4K UHD curved-screen smart TV for under $1,000.

    But if you're one of those shoppers who prefers to let their fingers do the walking, there's some good news: Walmart execs say that about 96 percent of its Black Friday deals will be available in stores and online.

    Just like last year, Walmart's in-store sales start at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Online shoppers, though, can get a jump, as Black Fridays sales kick off at walmart.com at 12:01 a.m. PT Thanksgiving morning.

    This year, Walmart’s mobile users got a first look at the Black Friday circular, which posted via the app right after midnight. With about 75 percent of the walmart.com traffic this holiday season expected to come from mobile devices, Walmart has updated its app with ratings, reviews, buying guides, and tutorials, as well maps that show the locations of hot products in your local store. You can also view the maps, which launch Nov. 17, via the website.

    Walmart is again offering a mobile check-in service that lets you buy online and pick up your items in the store. This year tracking will alert the store when you're nearby and push out an alert asking if you're ready to pick it up so there's less waiting. You can also use the retailer's mobile app to scan items in-store and add them to a wish list or search the wish lists of family members and friends to find gift ideas. If you purchase an item, you can scan the receipt and it will be removed from the wish list.

    Top Black Friday Deals

    Walmart says it will have special deals on 10 TVs this season. In most instances, we weren't able to tell the exact model, but we'll be updating this story with model numbers and comparative prices when they become available, so keep checking back.

    Here are a few of the TV deals:

    • A 70-inch Vizio smart TV for just $898. We think it's the Vizio E70-C3, which normally sells for about $1,200. We tested this set, and it's in our TV Ratings, which are available to subscribers.
    • A 55-inch Hisense smart TV for $448. We're not sure of the model but it could be the 55H6SG.
    • A 55-inch Samsung UHD smart TV with a curved screen for $998. Samsung has a lot of derivative models for Black Friday, so how good a deal it is will depend on the exact model.
    • A 50-inch 1080p TV for $269, no brand listed.
    • A 40-inch 1080p TV for $149. Both this set and the 50-inch model aren't named, but they could be Emerson TVs, which Walmart sells. The specific brand could vary by store.
    • A 32-inch TCL Roku smart TV for $125. We think it's the TCL 32S3700, a 720p model that sells for about $180 at Amazon. This set is in our full TV Ratings.

    Online Specials

    Walmart will also offer online specials that kick off on Thanksgiving Day, so there's no reason to leave the comfort of your couch. These deals include: 

    • A 60-inch Samsung UHD TV for $900, a claimed $800 savings, but we're not yet sure of the exact model.
    • A 7-inch RCA tablet with 16GB of memory and keyboard for $50. Walmart currently sells one, in several colors, for $60.
    • A Dell Intel i3 laptop with a 15.6-inch screen for $279. This item is about $320 now at Walmart.
    • A Star Wars stereo gaming headset for $29.

    Same Guarantee, But Fewer Items

    Once again Walmart will provide a one-hour guarantee program on certain items, although this year it's only for five products, down from nine last year. So if you're in one of the designated areas of the store from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving, you're guaranteed to either get the item that night, or it'll be shipped to your local store so you can pick it up before Christmas. The five guaranteed items this year are:

    • An iPad Air 2 Gold (16GB, Wi-Fi) for $399. That's $100 less than what it's selling for in the Apple store, but the same price that Best Buy has now.
    • Beats Studio headphones for $169. If we have the model correct, this usually sells for $200 to $250.
    • A 55-inch LG UHD smart TV for $698. Best Buy will have a 49-inch set for $500, so this seems comparable in a bigger size.
    • An Xbox One 500GB Gears of War bundle, plus a $30 Walmart gift card, for $299. Target will have the same price, but you get a $60 Target gift card.
    • And a 15-inch HP touch-screen laptop for $249. This is reportedly a special deal.

    During a conference call with the press yesterday, Walmart executives said that they were once again buying additional merchandise to ensure that more customers will actually be able to purchase the advertised items. Wristbands also will again be issued for the most in-demand products so you'll know if an item has sold out. Wristbands are to be distributed while supplies last, so you can shop for other items and claim products later, as long as it's within the prescribed time limit. And the retailer will match online prices and those that qualify for its Ad Match Guarantee, so save your receipts.

    We're keeping track of many of the top Black Friday TV sales, so keep checking back for news on where to find the best bargains. In the meantime, take a look at our Top 10 Black Friday Shopping Tips.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How Good Are Walmart's Black Friday TV Deals?

    If getting a great TV deal is your remedy for a turkey-and-mashed-potatoes hangover, then you're undoubtedly a fan of Black Friday shopping. And for the last several years, Walmart's Black Friday sales have been something of a bellwether for how good the holiday deals are going to be. This year, based on the circulars we've seen, the sales look good but haven't blown us away.

    Still, there are a few deals that grabbed our attention, among them a 70-inch Vizio smart TV for less than $900. Other noteworthy deals range from a 32-inch Roku smart TV for $125, to a 55-inch Samsung 4K UHD curved-screen smart TV for under $1,000.

    But if you're one of those shoppers who prefers to let their fingers do the walking, there's some good news: Walmart execs say that about 96 percent of its Black Friday deals will be available in stores and online.

    Just like last year, Walmart's in-store sales start at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Online shoppers, though, can get a jump, as Black Fridays sales kick off at walmart.com at 12:01 a.m. Thanksgiving morning.

    This year, Walmart’s mobile users got a first look at the Black Friday circular, which posted via the app right after midnight. With about 75 percent of the walmart.com traffic this holiday season expected to come from mobile devices, Walmart has updated its app with ratings, reviews, buying guides, and tutorials, as well maps that show the locations of hot products in your local store. You can also view the maps, which launch Nov. 17, via the website.

    Walmart is again offering a mobile check-in service that lets you buy online and pick up your items in the store. This year tracking will alert the store when you're nearby and push out an alert asking if you're ready to pick it up so there's less waiting. You can also use the retailer's mobile app to scan items in-store and add them to a wish list or search the wish lists of family members and friends to find gift ideas. If you purchase an item, you can scan the receipt and it will be removed from the wish list.

    Top Black Friday Deals

    Walmart says it will have special deals on 10 TVs this season. In most instances, we weren't able to tell the exact model, but we'll be updating this story with model numbers and comparative prices when they become available, so keep checking back.

    Here are a few of the TV deals:

    • A 70-inch Vizio smart TV for just $898. We think it's the Vizio E70-C3, which normally sells for about $1,200. We tested this set, and it's in our TV Ratings, which are available to subscribers.
    • A 55-inch Hisense smart TV for $448. We're not sure of the model but it could be the 55H6SG.
    • A 55-inch Samsung UHD smart TV with a curved screen for $998. Samsung has a lot of derivative models for Black Friday, so how good a deal it is will depend on the exact model.
    • A 50-inch 1080p TV for $269, no brand listed.
    • A 40-inch 1080p TV for $149. Both this set and the 50-inch model aren't named, but they could be Emerson TVs, which Walmart sells. The specific brand could vary by store.
    • A 32-inch TCL Roku smart TV for $125. We think it's the TCL 32S3700, a 720p model that sells for about $180 at Amazon. This set is in our full TV Ratings.

    Online Specials

    Walmart will also offer online specials that kick off on Thanksgiving Day, so there's no reason to leave the comfort of your couch. These deals include: 

    • A 60-inch Samsung UHD TV for $900, a claimed $800 savings, but we're not yet sure of the exact model.
    • A 7-inch RCA tablet with 16GB of memory and keyboard for $50. Walmart currently sells one, in several colors, for $60.
    • A Dell Intel i3 laptop with a 15.6-inch screen for $279. This item is about $320 now at Walmart.
    • A Star Wars stereo gaming headset for $29.

    Same Guarantee, But Fewer Items

    Once again Walmart will provide a one-hour guarantee program on certain items, although this year it's only for five products, down from nine last year. So if you're in one of the designated areas of the store from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving, you're guaranteed to either get the item that night, or it'll be shipped to your local store so you can pick it up before Christmas. The five guaranteed items this year are:

    • An iPad Air 2 Gold (16GB, Wi-Fi) for $399. That's $100 less than what it's selling for in the Apple store, but the same price that Best Buy has now.
    • Beats Studio headphones for $169. If we have the model correct, this usually sells for $200 to $250.
    • A 55-inch LG UHD smart TV for $698. Best Buy will have a 49-inch set for $500, so this seems comparable in a bigger size.
    • An Xbox One 500GB Gears of War bundle, plus a $30 Walmart gift card, for $299. Target will have the same price, but you get a $60 Target gift card.
    • And a 15-inch HP touch-screen laptop for $249. This is reportedly a special deal.

    During a conference call with the press yesterday, Walmart executives said that they were once again buying additional merchandise to ensure that more customers will actually be able to purchase the advertised items. Wristbands also will again be issued for the most in-demand products so you'll know if an item has sold out. Wristbands are to be distributed while supplies last, so you can shop for other items and claim products later, as long as it's within the prescribed time limit. And the retailer will match online prices and those that qualify for its Ad Match Guarantee, so save your receipts.

    We're keeping track of many of the top Black Friday TV sales, so keep checking back for news on where to find the best bargains. In the meantime, take a look at our Top 10 Black Friday Shopping Tips.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Pros and Cons of Amazon Prime

    A decade ago, Amazon Prime debuted as a membership service that offered fast, free shipping. While two-day delivery remains the cornerstone of the $99-a-year service, the e-commerce juggernaut now provides buffet-style access to thousands of free TV shows, movies, music, and hundreds of thousands of e-books (for Kindle owners) as well as unlimited cloud storage for photos.

    Members also get 30-minute early access to Lightning Deals on Amazon, and can shop on MyHabit.com 30 minutes before other customers for things such as designer duds from the likes of Burberry, Fendi, and Hermès. There are periodic teasers, too, including Prime Day, a one-day, members-only global shopping event last June that touted more deals than on Black Friday.

    Then there's the latest perk, Prime Now, an app-enabled service that offers shoppers in 16 metropolitan areas ultra-quick delivery. If you want, say, paper towels or a container of milk, you can get it in an hour for $7.99 per order or in two hours for free. The service is available for tens of thousands of items, including television sets and Kindles. In some locales, you can even browse menus of participating restaurants, place orders, track the status of a delivery, and watch as the driver travels from the restaurant to the delivery address in real time.

    So what's to complain about? Actually, not much. But if you don't care about streaming services and photo storage, and enjoy paperbacks more than e-books, you're paying for benefits you'll never use. If you routinely spend at least $35 per order, Amazon offers free, albeit slower, delivery. If you don't shop online enough, a Prime membership could end up being pretty expensive—the more you shop, the more economical the membership fee becomes. Amazon Prime might also be a disappointment if you mostly do business with independent third-party vendors that operate out of the Amazon Marketplace. Many of those purchases are not fulfilled by Amazon and, thus, not eligible for free Prime shipping.

    Plenty of Benefits

    Even so, Amazon Prime offers plenty of benefits, and consumers have been quick to sign up. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, the company acknowledges that there are “tens of millions” of Prime members and Prime shoppers spend almost double the amount on Amazon than non-Prime members, according to research by RBC Capital Markets. Those results are reflected in the company's third-quarter sales. For the quarter ending in September 2015, Amazon brought in revenues of $25.4 billion, up 23 percent from the same period a year ago.  

    Amazon Prime Benefits

    For most people, the linchpin of Prime is swift package delivery, so it's easy to understand why Amazon makes other shipping options less attractive. If you're a non-Prime member and your order qualities for free freight because you've met the $35 purchase minimum, you might have to wait as long as eight days for your package to arrive. By contrast, "standard" shipping, the default delivery method for non-Prime members that carries a nominal charge, usually takes four to five business days. Those extra few days could be a deal breaker during the peak holiday season, when delays are common because of high package volume.

    Among the key benefits you can enjoy as an Amazon Prime member:

    • Free two-day shipping on eligible items to addresses in all states, except Alaska and Hawaii.

    • Free same-day delivery in eligible ZIP codes.

    • Prime Instant Video: Unlimited streaming of movies and TV episodes.

    • Prime Music: Unlimited, advertising-free access to hundreds of Prime Playlists and more than a million songs.

    • Prime Photos: Secure, unlimited photo storage in Amazon Cloud Drive.

    • Prime Pantry: You can buy low-priced grocery, household, and pet care items. Shipping costs $5.99 for each Prime Pantry box. (Prime Pantry boxes cannot be shipped to Alaska or Hawaii, P.O. boxes, or Amazon Lockers.)

    • Prime Early Access: 30-minute early access to Lightning Deals on Amazon.com and new events on MyHabit.com.

    • Kindle Owners' Lending Library: Access to more than 800,000 e-book titles.

    • Kindle First: Download access to a new book for free every month from the Kindle First picks.

    • Deals and Discounts, Compliments of Amazon Mom: These include 20 percent off diapers through Subscribe & Save and 15 percent off eligible products from your baby registry.

    • Membership Sharing: Two adults living in the same household can create an Amazon Household to share certain Amazon Prime benefits.

    If you’re unsure about how much shopping you'll be doing over the holiday season, you can sign up for a free, 30-day trial for Amazon Prime. But beware: At the end of the free trial (or annual membership period if you're already a member), your credit card will be charged the $99 annual membership fee automatically for the next period unless you cancel in advance. If you paid the fee and haven't placed an Amazon Prime-eligible order, however, you still qualify for a full refund.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    November Financial To-Do List: Get Ready for Black Friday

    Black Friday and the holidays are fast approaching, so it's a good time to think about how you'll keep your spending in control, and how you can get your finances in shape before the end of the year. To build on the progress you made in October, here's a checklist to help you stay on track and reach your financial goals.

    1. Shop Clearance Sales

    Some of the items on your holiday list might be at their deepest discounts this month. Discounted products include baby products, bikes, gas grills, toys, and TVs.

    Don't forget to check out the holiday sales at outlets. Price slashing generally takes place on holidays and during traditional retail sales periods, including Black Friday. To avoid wasting time and missing bargains, log on to your local outlet center's website and download a map and coupons before shopping. The typical outlet mall today covers more than 400,000 square feet and has 100 or more stores.

    No matter how much (or little) a price tag has been slashed, there's no reason you can't haggle for a better deal – even when you're shopping at outlets or online. Our tried and true haggling tips will help.

    2. Research Charities

    If you plan to cut your taxes by making end-of-year charity donations, now is the time to research worthy recipients. Some nonprofits with great-sounding names don’t put enough of their money toward their mission. To be sure your generosity counts, do some homework before you give. Look for reports or commentary at the three major charity watchdogs: the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and CharityWatch. Read the reviews and comments from donors and charity professionals, such as the ones you'll find at Charity Navigator and GuideStar.

    Also, check a charity’s website for information about the group’s mission and achievements, and read the donor privacy policy.

    3. Send Holiday Gifts Early

    The Postal Service expects to deliver approximately 600 million packages between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, an increase of 10.5 percent over last year's volume. FedEx predicts that package volume will be up 12.4 percent between Black Friday and Christmas Eve this year. Mail holiday gifts as soon as possible to take advantage of lower shipping rates and shorter post office lines.

    Of course, you can avoid delivery hassles by dealing with online merchants. Many offer free shipping promotions throughout December to avoid the last minute shopping rush. And more than 200 merchants will participate in "Free Shipping Day" this year, which takes place on December 18. Merchants listed on the Free Shipping Day site pledge to suspend shipping charges on all orders placed online that day, and deliver the goods by Christmas Eve.

    4. Review Your Health Care Coverage

    November is Benefits Awareness Month. Review your health coverage during your company's open enrollment period if you have a plan through work.

    The open enrollment period for 2016 plans bought through the health insurance marketplace is November 1, 2015 to January 31, 2016. (You may qualify for special enrollment periods if you have certain life events, like getting married, having a baby, or losing other coverage.)

    5. Turbocharge Your Retirement Plan

    If you're over 50 and saving for retirement in a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, or the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan, see if you can increase your contributions by as much as $6,000 before the end of the year to take advantage of catch-up contribution rules.

    If you contribute to a regular IRA, the additional catch-up contribution limit is $1,000 this year.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Haggle Your Way to Holiday Savings

    When Consumer Reports asked shoppers in a national survey about their haggling habits, only about half said they attempted to negotiate more favorable terms, whether it involved a retailer or service provider.

    Those who did try to negotiate were usually rewarded for their pluck, sometimes quite handsomely. Eighty-nine percent of those who dickered—on everything from jewelry to home electronics and vacuum cleaners—were rewarded for their tenacity at least once in the past few years.

    So what’s holding so many of us back?

    “It comes down to how comfortable people are in their own skin, and their ability to take no for an answer and not feel crushed,” says Steven P. Cohen, president of The Negotiation Skills Co., and author of the book The Practical Negotiator (2013, Career Press).

    Cohen, who received formal training in negotiation and mediation at Harvard Law School, says successful bargaining is easier to achieve face to face because you can “read” a person instantly, pick up on body language, and other cues, and use tools like a smile and humor to break the ice. Ultimately, Cohen says, respect matters more than anything else. “If you don’t treat someone with whom you’d like to make a deal with respect, you’re dooming the process.”

    The online world is increasingly open to horse-trading, too. In fact, major e-commerce titans like Amazon and eBay often encourage it.

    Amazon has a feature for some collectibles, fine art and even used or refurbished computers that allows shoppers to “make an offer” to buy an item for less than the current price from participating sellers. When you submit an offer, Amazon sends the seller an e-mail with your counter. The seller has 72 hours to respond. If the seller rejects it, he or she can counter, and negotiations can continue. Of course, during this period, another buyer can swoop in and purchase the item at the listed price.

    Ebay’s “make a best offer” works similarly. If you see the words below the “buy it now” price or familiar “place bid” option, you can negotiate the price with the seller directly, who’s free to accept, decline, or counter your offer. I’ve had repeated success employing the practice, most recently purchasing a gift pen for one-third less than the Buy It Now price.

    Haggling takes various forms and although we may not think of it as negotiating in its purest sense, consumers bargain online all the time, Cohen says. They do it by comparison shopping, sniffing out coupons, taking advantage of meet-or-beat price-matching policies, eyeballing multiple travel sites for the cheapest day of the week or time of day to fly.  

    Proven Strategies

    When we surveyed hagglers, they identified the most highly effective tactics. Among them: Let the salesperson know you're comparing prices with those of competitors; establish a personal rapport and schmooze it up with the employee; use store circulars or coupons from other retailers as bargaining leverage; check user reviews to determine a fair price and learn what others had paid for the same item.  Here are other expert tips to better the chances of a positive outcome:

    Explain why you deserve a break. Negotiation is a two-way street and the seller needs an incentive to bargain. Explain that you’re a loyal customer who likes to shop locally (a good tactic at mom-and-pop stores), or tell the car dealer you intend to bring your vehicle back for servicing so they stand to benefit in the long term.

    Avoid “yes” or “no” questions. It’s easy to dismiss a proposal outright if you ask a question that can be answered with a blunt yes or no. Say you’re drooling over a fancy mattress. Try a little diplomacy and couch your request: “I’ve been saving up for this bed for a long time, but the price is still out of range. Is there any way you can help me? Is there a sale coming up, or what’s the lowest amount the mattress has sold for when it was on sale?”

    Share your smarts. If you’re tech savvy about high-end audio or well versed in baseball memorabilia, share that wisdom and curiosity with the seller. By demonstrating product knowledge of where and how something was made, its history, or the technology behind it, you come across as a smart, savvy buyer.

    Be quiet. Silence is powerful. Because of the awkwardness it creates, a brief pause can be lead to a sweeter deal. Cohen advises shoppers to put on a poker face after the seller responds to your initial proposition. The employee might wonder if they’ve offended you and repackage the offer into a more attractive one.

    Point out flaws. A stain, loose thread, mismatched stripe on a pair of sneakers, or other imperfection can be negotiating gold. If you see a belt with a bad buckle, a sweater with a smudge, or shoe with a scuff, point out those cosmetic blemishes. Independent stores tend to be more flexible than chains, and it’s easier to negotiate a discount involving private-label products than big brands because the retailer cannot return the flawed products to the manufacturer for credit.

    Seek a discount for cash. If you’re willing to pay in cash, some merchants might be willing to cut the price because they can avoid forking over a transaction fee of as much as 4 percent to the credit card company. Some businesses now actually tack on a surcharge to consumers who pay with a charge card.

    Don’t be a blowhard. Even if the other side is willing to deal, negotiating in public is a no-no. If you speak up in front of other customers, they might demand a break, too, and you’ll kill your deal.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    When Carry-On Luggage Isn’t Carry-On Size

    For many airline travelers, carry-on luggage is a great way to save time and money—they can bypass baggage claim and avoid the hefty fees for checked baggage.

    But if you’re in the market for new carry-on luggage—for yourself or as a holiday gift—Consumer Reports has an important heads-up: Carefully measure any carry-on bag before you buy.

    The reason? You can’t always rely on the product dimensions found on the bags’ hangtags or on a seller’s website to determine whether a piece of luggage is carry-on-compliant. It has to be 22 inches high x 14 inches wide x 9 inches deep for domestic travel on three of the biggest airlines—American, Delta, and United—for instance. Other airlines have different carry-on rules.

    Carry-On Complaints

    We were tipped off about this carry-on luggage size problem by customer comments on Amazon.com and eBags.com indicating that the carry-on bags they ordered were larger than advertised. For example, one customer left this comment about a bag he ordered via Amazon:

    And this one from another frustrated traveler:

    And from an eBags.com customer:

    Consumer Reports Gets Onboard

    So we decided to see for ourselves. We bought 11 different pieces of luggage from 11 different brands that were marketed as carry-on luggage size. (Some of the bags are shown at the top of this article.) Our measurements were done using a measuring box incorporating a laser level.

    Before we started measuring, however, we had to deal with the bulges that some bags—in particular soft-sided pieces—have in certain areas. Otherwise, measurements might not reflect true dimension of the bag.

    To ensure accurate, uniform measurements, we flattened the opposing surfaces of each carry-on by placing a 21-inch-long x 10.5-inch-wide piece of plywood on the top surface, with a 10-pound weight placed on top of the wood. We measured each dimension—height, width, and depth—in the same way. (See the photo below.)

    How Do the Bags Measure Up?

    We found that nine out of the 11 models we measured were larger than claimed by the manufacturer. (See the table, below.)

    For example, the TravelPro Maxlite 3 21" Expandable Spinner ($280) is labeled as being 21 inches high x 14 inches wide x 9 inches deep. A suitcase of those dimensions would be within the size limit for domestic carry-on on American, Delta, and United— 22 inches high x 14 inches wide x 9 inches deep.

    However, when we measured the bag, the actual size was 22.5 inches x 14.75 inches x 9 inches—exceeding the limit by 1.5 inches in length and 0.75 inches in width.

    Even carry-ons from companies that topped the list for durability and ease of carrying in our survey of luggage brands showed inconsistencies between the marketed and our measured dimensions.

    Luggage Brand/Model (price*)

    Manufacturer-Designated Size
    (H x W x D, inches)

    Consumer Reports Measurement
    (H x W x D, inches)

    American Tourister
    iLite Xtreme 21" Spinner ($77.99)
    21 x 14.5 x 8 23.5 x 15.25 x 9
    Briggs & Riley Domestic Carry-on
    Expandable Upright ($499)
    22 x 14 x 9 22.5 x 14.5 x 9.25
    Eagle Creek Tarmac 22 ($290) 22 x 14 x 9 22.25 x 15 x 8.5
    Kirkland Signature Upright
    21.5" Black Carry-on ($99.99)
    21.5 x 14 x 8.75 23 x 14 x 9
    Lipault Paris Foldable
    2-Wheeled 22" Carry-On ($199)
    22 x 14 x 8 21 x 14 x 8
    Samsonite Silhouette Sphere 2
    21" Spinner ($229.99)
    21 x 15 x 8 22.5 x 16 x 10
    SwissGear 7377 20" Carry-on Spinner ($80) 20.5 x 14 x 7.5 21.75 x 14 x 8.5
    Traveler’s Choice Sienna 21-Inch
    Hybrid Rolling Carry-on Garment Bag ($229.99)
    21 x 14 x 9 22.5 x 14.5 x 8.5
    TravelPro Maxlite 3
    21" Expandable Spinner ($280)
    21 x 14 x 9 22.5 x 14.75 x 9
    Tumi Alpha 2 Frequent Traveler
    2 Wheeled Carry-on ($383)
    24 x 14.5 x 9.5 24 x 14.5 x 9.5
    Victorinox Avolve 22 ($249.99) 22 x 13.75 x 10 22.5 x 14.75 x 10.5

    *Prices reflect manufacturer or retailer price as of early November 2015.

    Why the Discrepancies in Labeled and Measured Sizes?

    It appears that many manufacturers focus on the interior dimensions of the bag to capture packable space. 

    A spokesperson for Samsonite said that the company does not measure the handles or wheels. “We measure ‘wire to wire’ and ‘edge to edge’ so that you have the packing dimensions,” the spokeswoman, Amy DiLisio, said. 

    Briggs & Riley told us that the company measures its bags from the bottom of the case to the top of the handle—but does not include the wheels. That can make the difference between your bag being allowed as a carry-on and it getting checked—and you paying baggage fees.

    Airlines care about the full footprint of your bag. The exterior dimensions include the wheels, the handle in the retracted position, and any other projections. It all takes up space in the overhead bin, so it all counts.

    All of this is important because the dimensions on the product’s hangtag or in website description drive purchasing decisions. If a manufacturer provides only the interior dimensions, it’s not helpful if you're looking for a carry-on that complies with your airline's carry-on rules.

    Bottom Line

    When you shop for luggage in retail stores, take along a measuring tape. And if you are ordering online, check user reviews on retailer and manufacturer sites to find out whether other owners have faced problems taking the "carry-on" onto the plane. Also check the retailer's return policy. Just in case.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The Best Mattresses for Guest Rooms

    Company is coming, and the mattress in the guest room is old and lumpy. You want to replace it fast without spending a lot on a bed that will be slept in only occasionally. And while you're persnickety about your own mattress, you might be less choosy when buying one for a guest room as long as it's comfortable for most sleeping styles and doesn't bounce your guest awake when her partner turns over. Here are several good choices from Consumer Reports' mattress tests. All prices are for queen-size mattresses and don’t include the box spring or foundation.

    An innerspring with consistent support

    Want your guests to take their time leaving? You'll want to take a look at the Denver Mattress Doctor's Choice, just $500. Many innersprings in our tests offer equal support for the side and back, but that support is often mediocre. This mattress is the exception. We judged its support for both side and back sleepers to be impressive, and it aced our durability test as well. The company has 90 locations in 30 states.

    An all-around memory foam winner

    Costco’s Novaform Memory Foam Collection Serafina 14" mattress is infused with gel beads and was impressive for both back and side support. And at $650, the price is right. The mattress comes folded in a box, but if you need to return it, getting it back into the box isn’t required.

    Memory foam for less

    Sam’s Club’s Night Therapy 14" Deluxe Grand Firm mattress was only so-so for support, but its $515 price is attractive. The mattress was top-notch at muting vibrations, and it showed little wear after eight years of simulated use.

    And another for much less

    Decent back support from a $360 mattress? After the price for the Spa Sensations 10" Memory Foam SPA-1000Q, that’s more good news. Side support was only so-so, but at this price you could do worse. Where this one disappoints is in how hard visitors might find it to change positions due to that sinking feeling common with some foam beds, including this one.

    Adjustable air at an underinflated price

    You don’t have to pay thousands for an adjustable-air mattress to get impressive side support and even better back support. The pricier Sleep Number i8 bed edged out the $800 Sleep Number c2 bed in overall performance, but you’ll pay $2,200 less without a noticeable difference in support. Trying the bed before buying will tell you if this mattress’s thinner top foam layer might be less comfortable for guests.

    When price trumps support

    The Ikea Sultan Holmsta innerspring mattress, $550, includes a latex pillowtop for "precision support" but as mattresses go, it's on the softer side. The mattress was top-notch at muting vibrations but was somewhat ineffective at supporting the curve of sleepers’ spines while they’re on their back, and only so-so at supporting side sleepers.

    Want more to choose from?

    See our mattress Ratings of nearly 50 models, along with our survey-based Ratings of mattress stores and brands. And check our mattress buying guide, which is full of shopping tips, including how to get the best deal.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    For more ideas and inspiration, check Consumer Reports' Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide. You'll find plenty of gift suggestions of products that did well in our tests including:

    *Blenders *Coffeemakers *Mixers
    *Toasters *Cookware
    *Knives

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to Keep Your Old Stove Going

    Cooking season is heating up, but if your old stove isn’t, try these tips from Consumer Reports' experts. They can help you keep your old—or new—range cooking and even looking good. Of course, if you need a new one before the holidays check out our range Ratings and recommendations.  

    On the cooktop

    • Gently place heavy pans on electric smoothtop ranges to prevent breaking the cooktop. Lift pots, rather than sliding them, to avoid scratches.

    • Clean up smoothtop spills promptly to prevent stains, but wait until the surface has cooled and is safe to touch.

    • Don’t cover a coil-top range’s drip pans and bowls with foil; it can short-circuit the burner.

    • If a gas burner’s flame is uneven, food could be clogging the burner ports. Consult your manual for cleaning advice.

    In the oven

    • Put away the foil. Lining the bottom of the oven to catch drips may permanently damage the interior finish and void the warranty.

    • Foiled again? Covering oven racks with foil blocks airflow, so food might not cook properly or evenly.

    • Check your manual for self-cleaning tips, but the usual advice you’ll find says that you should remove racks from the oven before pushing the self-clean button. The process can discolor racks and make them harder to glide. Too late? Apply a coating of vegetable oil to the sides of racks to improve sliding.

    • Remove loose debris coating the oven cavity before starting the self-cleaning cycle.

    Get money- and time-saving tips in our 2015 holiday guide.

    Budget-friendly ranges from our tests

    If your range has seen better days but you're on a tight budget as the holiday approaches, consider these four budget buys from our tests. They were good performers and have features that make cooking faster and cleanup easier.

    Electric smoothtops. These impressive smoothtop ranges performed similarly in our tests but the LG was much better at broiling.

    Gas ranges. These two ranges were better overall than gas ranges that cost thousands more but were also mediocre at broiling.

    For more choices, see our full range Ratings and recommendations. And check our buying guide if you're new to the market.

    —Kimberly Janeway

     

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    Smart Strategies for Disability Insurance

    Of all the kinds of insurance people think about, disability insurance is one of the most overlooked: Seven out of 10 workers don’t have any long-term disability coverageaccording to the Social Security Administration.

    Eschewing that income protection, however, can be risky: The Pew Charitable Trusts reports that nearly half of the households that experience a financial shock—perhaps one caused by an illness that requires a trip to the hospital—suffer serious financial setbacks the next year. That was true even among even those households that were considered economically sound.

    There are other sobering statistics as well. The Social Security Administration estimates that more than one quarter of today’s 20-year-olds will become disabled before reaching age 67. The National Information Institute predicts that 43 percent of all people age 40 will be sidelined for 90 days or more by age 65. For all these people, long-term disability insurance would seem to make good financial sense. But finding the coverage that’s best for you can be confusing.

    Lower Your Costs

    Before you buy disability insurance, you should know that while short-term disability protection replaces a portion of your income for anywhere from a month to a year of disability, it is generally offered only through an employer. Long-term coverage, however, pays benefits of up to 60 percent of your pre-tax salary anywhere from five years up to, ideally, when you qualify for Social Security. If you're contemplating buying disability insurance, there are ways to lower your costs:

    • Buy sooner rather than later. “Disability insurance is one of the most expensive policies, because as you age, the risk is greater that you will claim on it,” says Jennifer Fitzgerald, co-founder of Policy Genius, a digital insurance broker that offers multiple insurance products. The sooner you get it, she says, the cheaper it will be. Generally speaking, expect to pay between 1 and 3 percent of your salary.
    • Avoid exclusions. The longer you wait, the more you risk experiencing a health problem which, while it may not preclude your ability to get protection, will be excluded from your coverage. For example, if you’ve had carpal tunnel syndrome in the past and are worried that it may hamper your ability to work in the future, you could still be eligible for long-term disability benefits—but only if the cause of your disability is not carpal tunnel syndrome.  
    • Stretch the waiting period. You can choose to have coverage kick in within 30 days, 60 days, or 90 days. The longer the waiting period, the lower the cost. Apply the savings in your monthly premiums to building up your emergency fund.
    • Halt premium hikes with a non-cancelable contract. Non-cancelable means the policy cannot be canceled by the insurance company, except for non-payment of premiums. This gives you the right to renew the policy every year without an increase in the premium or a reduction in benefits.
    • Opt for increased coverage. Disability insurance covers a percentage of your income—but what if your income increases since you first signed up? No problem, says Fitzgerald. “All policies have the ability to increase the amount of coverage as your income increases,” without a new health examination. Depending on the policy, this may be called “future increase option” or “future purchase option.”
    • Find out if your employer offers long-term coverage. Unlike short-term disability, enrollment in your employer’s long-term disability plan is not automatic, so you may have skipped over this option. “Absolutely take advantage of it,” urges Fitzgerald. “It’s usually at a low rate and you don’t have to qualify medically. If you want a waterproof disability plan, supplement any coverage from work with a smaller individual policy with a future increase option,” she adds. That way, if you change jobs and your new employer's group policy isn’t convertible to individual coverage, you’ll already have protection and can increase the amount to match your new income.
    • Take the “own occupation” rider. One of the reasons Social Security Disability Insurance covers barely 31 percent of applicants is that the disability has to be total and permanent. With an “own occupation” rider on a private policy, however, you can receive full benefits if you’re unable to work in your original occupation even if you can still make money in a different occupation. 

    As you research long-term disability insurance, match the policies with your occupation, age, and profile to get the most favorable offerings. “The good thing is that there are a lot of disability insurance companies,” says Fitzgerald. “Independent brokers can navigate across these options and match them to your profile.”

     

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    Best Snow Blowers for Quick Clearing

    If you need a new snow blower or are planning to buy one for the first time, now's the time to do shop. The better-performing models in Consumer Reports' tests could be hard to find in stores as the weeks pass and snowstorms increase.

    There hasn't been any snow at our Yonkers. New York, headquarters so far this season, but that doesn't mean we can't test snow blowers. How do we do it? We use wet sawdust (actually horse bedding), which in comparative tests against real snow has tracked closely with our results for the white stuff. With wet sawdust, we can test even in the summer in order to get results to you in time for the winter.

    Here are some of the best models we’ve tested and others to pass up:

    The Most Muscle: Two-Stage Gas Models

    The spinning impeller found on two-stage snow blowers grabs what the usual auger gathers and flings it up and out of the chute. This, along with driven wheels (there’s a transmission), easier controls, and clearing widths up to 30 inches or more, helps the best of these large models clear your driveway and walks in a hurry.

    The high-scoring Cub Cadet 3X 30HD 31AH57SZ710 (shown below), $1,650, and Troy-Bilt Vortex 2890 31AH55Q, $1,300, boast an additional impeller in front that helped us clear more quickly. They’re among the only models that aced our tests for all but noise. (We recommend hearing protection for nearly all gas models we’ve tested.) For less money, consider the Ariens AX254 921030, a CR Best Buy at $1,000, which did nearly as well.

    Two low-priced models to pass up are the Power Smart DB 7103PA-26, $650, and the Power Smart DB7651-26, $685. While they were effective at dealing with the end-of-driveway snow piles created by a municipal plow, their removal speed and throwing distance were unimpressive. Some similarly priced smaller models, such as the Craftsman 98536, perform better.

    Power With Storage: Compact Two-Stage Gas Models

    With clearing widths of 22 to 24 inches, compact snow blowers don’t clear as quickly as their larger siblings, and they often lack the easy controls that make the larger, heavier models easier to move around. But they will fit in your garage or shed.

    Two high-scoring compact two-stage models also have that extra impeller. That feature helped the 24-inch Troy-Bilt Vortex 2490 31AH54Q, $1,100, and the Craftsman 88870, $1,200, clear snow faster than some models with a wider clearing width. But you don't have to pay $1,000 for a compact model that gets the job done. The Craftsman 88173 ($680) not only costs less but is also one of few gas-powered snow blowers for which you don’t need hearing protection.

    Among compact, two-stage models that fell way short in our tests are the 24-inch Power Smart DB 7651-24, $560, and 22-inch Power Smart DB7659-22, $500. But there’s also one made by MTD, the same company that manufactures Cub Cadet, Troy-Bilt, and Craftsman snow blowers. The 22-inch Yard Machines 31A-32AD, $500, was among the worst at fast clearing, plow-pile removal, and throwing speed.

    For Lesser Snowfalls: Single-Stage Gas

    Single-stage snow blowers have only an auger for clearing, but that auger spins more quickly than in two-stage units. And since the auger is typically more of a rubber-tipped paddle, it tends to better clear down to the pavement. Most are less evenly matched against a plow pile, and they can’t handle snow beyond about 9 inches deep. Single-stage models do require less storage space.

    We recommend a handful of models of this type, but for sheer performance for the price, there’s no beating the 21-inch Toro Power Clear 721E, $570, which is the only single-stage gas unit we tested that aced our plow-pile test. It was also fairly fast at overall clearing speed.

    Not all Toro single-stage models performed well in our tests: The 18-inch Toro Power Clear 518ZE, $400, and the 21-inch Ariens Pro Path 938034, $450, and the 21-inch Poulan Pro PR621ES, $450, scored only fair overall.

    We’ve also tested battery-powered and corded electric models. But every model we’ve seen bogs down in anything more than a few inches of snow, making them suitable for only a walkway or patio. You’ll likely finish the work faster with a shovel.

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    Sears' Black Friday TV Deals Are Good, Not Great

    It looks like TV sales won't be a big draw at Sears this holiday season. In fact, the deals are buried—along with the rest of the electronics—in the back of the retailer's Black Friday circular. And, once we unearthed them, we didn't see anything that greatly impressed us.

    Still, the retailer is rewarding its Shop Your Way members with a private early-bird night of doorbuster deals on Sunday, Nov. 22. Invites to the 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. event—four days before the Black Friday sales kick off—will arrive via email and text. If you didn't get one, text the word "EXCLUSIVE" to 73277 to claim one, as long as supplies last. The private-night sales can also be accessed at sears.com from 3 p.m. Sunday to midnight Monday.

    Samsung UHD TVs

    Samsung has been among the most prominent TV brands featured in Black Friday promotions this year, and Sears has the company's sets at prices ranging from $230 for a 32-inch 1080p model to $2,000 for a 75-inch HD model. UHD TVs usually range from about $1,000 to $1,800, depending on the screen size and series.

    Here are some specific models with our take on each deal. If a model has been tested in our labs, subscribers will find it listed in our full TV Ratings. We've also included links to our model pages where applicable.

    • 65-inch Samsung UN65JU7500 curved-screen 4K smart HDTV, $1,800. This set is about $2,500 at Crutchfield and Best Buy. We tested the 55-inch version.
    • 65-inch Samsung UN65JU6700 curved-screen 4K smart TV,  $1,500. You can buy it now for less than $1,600 at several places.
    • 65-inch Samsung UN65JU6500 UHD smart TV, $1,400. Normally it's about $1,500 to $1,700.
    • 55-inch Samsung UN55JU6700 curved-screen UHD smart TV, the smaller sibling of the 65-inch set above, for $1,000. Not much savings: You can buy it now on Amazon and Walmart for under $1,100.
    • 55-inch Samsung UN55JS7000 UHD smart TV, $1,000. It normally sells for about $1,200.

    Samsung 1080p Models

    Based on the sets we've reviewed, these savings are pretty lean:

    • A 75-inch Samsung UN75J6300 1080p smart HTV, $2,000. This one can be purchased at a number of places for under $2,200.
    • A 65-inch Samsung UN65J6300, the sibling to the above set, for $1,100. It's about $1,400 at several retailers now.
    • A 60-inch Samsung UN60J6200 1080p smart TV, $700. You can buy this set for $750 at a number of retailers.
    • A 48-inch Samsung UN48J5200 1080p smart HDTV, $430. It's $480 at many places right now. The 40-inch version is $320. It sells for $400 to $430 elsewhere.
    • A 32-inch Samsung UN32J5205 smart TV for $230. It's about $280 at other places.

    Additional TV Deals

    If you're looking for a smaller TV or a different brand, here are a few more deals. LG TVs have typically performed very well in Consumer Reports' TV Ratings, but the same can't be said for models from Seiki and RCA.

    • A 20-inch Seiki SE20HY 720p TV, $100. This is hardly a deal, considering the set now costs $100 at Kmart, Sears' sister company.
    • A 43-inch Seiki SE43FK 1080p TV, $280. Again, no deal since it sells for the same price on Amazon.
    • A 32-incg RCA LED32G30RQD 720p TV/DVD combo, $200.
    • A 32-inch LG 32LF500B, $210. The 720p TV is about $215 at Walmart now. For more info on it, check out our Ratings.
    • A 50-inch LG 50LF6100 1080p smart TV, $550. This set, also tested, is $600 at Best Buy and Amazon.
    • A 60-inch LG 60UF7700 UHD smart TV (also in our Ratings) for $1,400. It's $1,500 at Walmart and Amazon.

    Sears' stores will be open from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving and they'll re-open at 5 a.m. on Black Friday. There will also be sales through the weekend. You may want to look into Sears' shopping convenience programs, too. With In-Vehicle Pickup, for example, you can buy online, drive to the store, and have someone bring your purchases right to your car.

    Over the next week, we'll be compiling a list of the best Black Friday TV deals, so keep checking back for news on where to find the biggest bargains. In the meantime, take a look at our Top 10 Black Friday Shopping Tips and our Countdown to Black Friday calendar.

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