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Prices for this year's top toys -- including classic brands and new dolls, electronics, and Star Wars merchandise -- seem clustered in the $35 to $70 range, and the cost of filling up stockings and wrapping gifts for kids, grandkids, nieces, and nephews can mount quickly. That makes it crucial to find deals on the hot toys of the season, or at least avoid price gouging. And while Black Friday, the official kickoff of the holiday shopping season, may seem like the perfect time to grab deals on kids' toys, don't count on it.

Black Friday deals aren't always the best -- nor are they unique.

Retailers try to spur impulse purchases by billing Black Friday prices as one-time-only discounts. But a side-by-side comparison by Brad's Deals shows that Black Friday deals can be identical from one year to the next, and the lowest prices actually recur throughout the year. Adobe, analyzing data on 1 trillion visits to online retailers and more than 55 million products, found that discounts on toys were actually highest on the second Monday in December.

There's danger in waiting, especially for popular toys.

Shoppers looking to stock up in November may want to take a toy's popularity into account when deciding whether to buy. Adobe reported that up to 15 percent of the products online shoppers viewed in the weeks leading up to Christmas were out of stock, and toys were especially likely to be unavailable.

Consumers shopping in December still may not need to worry. Retailers restock after the rush of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and there are still plenty of deals to be found. A 2015 analysis by suggested Dec. 16 was the best day to find deals on toys (based on prices and coupons from the previous year). Why then? Because pressure to move inventory may spur retailers to offer discounts and incentives to last-minute shoppers -- but once again consumers need to be wary of putting off purchases of the year's hottest gifts, which might have limited inventory.

For true risk-takers, Super Saturday -- the Saturday before Christmas -- could offer some of the best last-minute sales. It's one of the busiest shopping days of the year, though, and with Christmas on a Sunday this year, it's a big gamble.

Credit card price protection could save a lot of hassle.

Instead of trying to predict when a toy's price will be the lowest, savvy shoppers armed with the right credit card may be able to guarantee it. Some credit cards offer price protection, which allows cardholders to ask for a rebate if a price drops after they buy. Certain types of products and sales may be excluded, though.

Before making a purchase, check with the card issuer to see if price protection applies to Black Friday deals, and whether there are other restrictions. As with retailer price matching, the items may need to be identical right down to the model number, meaning some Black Friday-exclusive merchandise does not qualify. But the lower price doesn't necessarily have to come from the store where the cardholder made the original purchase.

Shoppers who have made a purchase covered by price protection generally have 60 to 90 days to use it. Even purchases made in early November could be covered through the end of the year. Cardholders may need to fill out a claim form and submit it alongside a copy of the receipt, the relevant credit card statement, and a dated ad with the lower price -- or a signed statement from a store manager. A request could be made before Black Friday or Cyber Monday using an early release copy of a flier with the holiday sale prices.

There's often a per-claim limit of $250 to $500 -- enough to cover potential price drops on most toys. There may also be a limit to the number of claims that can be filed or the total claim amount that can be received each year.

So, what's the best strategy?

Using credit card price protection to buy early and requesting a refund later may be the surest way for shoppers to ensure they get a good deal and get the toys on their shopping list. Some people don't have or don't want to use a card for holiday shopping, though, and cards also don't always offer price protection or extend the policy to every sale or product.

Shopping early is a good idea for the hottest toys, because they might go out of stock. For less popular options, toy shoppers might find the lowest prices in early to mid-December, based on previous years' sales.

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