Every year, throngs of shoppers flood the nation’s leading retailers on the day after Thanksgiving, eager to seize their deeply discounted Black Friday haul. And every year, those who don’t venture out shake their heads at footage of shoppers camped in parking lots, fist fights over merchandise, and shelves swept bare in minutes.
For some, Black Friday is as much about people-watching as it is about shopping. But if you’re among those who want to score some serious deals, take a deep breath and reconsider: Black Friday might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
We’ll take a look at why that’s the case, when you may be able to score better deals, and how price trackers can be a crucial tool in helping you pay less without fighting the crowds.
Black Friday Might Not Be the Best Day to Shop…
Though there has been some pushback by stores that have stood firm on staying closed, many retailers have started opening on Thanksgiving Day to give the most dedicated shoppers a crack at the best deals. And retailers such as Amazon offer deep discounts for weeks before Black Friday.
According to a large Adobe Systems study of pricing data going back to 2008, prices actually hit rock bottom for the entire year the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the lowest prices of the holiday season were offered on Thanksgiving Day itself, not Black Friday. Similarly, a Savings.com study of 1.5 million deals over five years found the best prices about a week before Black Friday.
…but Cyber Monday is Worse
Recently, the line has blurred between Black Friday and Cyber Monday — the Monday after Thanksgiving traditionally popular for online shopping — said Daniel Green, co-founder of Amazon.com price tracker CamelCamelCamel.
“Cyber Monday was traditionally all about the tech toys, whereas Black Friday has a bit of everything,” he said. “In recent years, however, they have blended together into one long deals week, which may reduce the number of ‘good’ deals on any given day.”
Despite some predictions to the contrary, Cyber Monday proved more popular than ever last year. But if you’re among those planning on skipping Black Friday crowds in favor of Cyber Monday, beware: Adobe’s analysis actually found that overall prices zoomed back up to pre-holiday levels that day, and would-be shoppers were often frustrated by inventory decimated by earlier deal-seekers.
The news isn’t all bad: On Cyber Monday, you can still find deep discounts of up to 50% off on clothing, shoes, and certain small electronics. However, if you’re hunting deals on large electronics, appliances and home goods, computers, jewelry, and travel deals, experts say you’re better off looking at other times.
Jason Hamilton, co-developer of price tracker PriceZombie, said Cyber Monday is still worthwhile if you consider that prices are usually lower online from day to day. “I think Cyber Monday has better deals than Black Friday since most online retailers have a lower starting price to begin with. Online retailers will also drop prices on a significant amount of their existing stock to the lowest price of the year.
“One thing to keep in mind is that many online retailers will not guarantee delivery times for Cyber Monday deals,” he warned.
For Some Items, the Best Deals May Be Months Away
Year in and year out, nearly every item you’ll ever want follows a predictable pricing pattern. This happens for a variety of reasons — new and updated model releases force retailers to get rid of older ones cheap, or supply and demand dictate that seasonal items are no longer a hot commodity (snow blowers in June, anyone?).
In particular, you can save big on electronics if you pounce after a new model is released. “Shoppers can get a pretty good deal on the previous model of an item if they are willing to skip having the hot new thing,” Green said. “A great example of this is Canon DSLR cameras: Sure, the 5D Mark III is better than the 5D Mark II, but a lot of hobbyist photographers aren’t going to push either camera to its limit, so why not save a thousand bucks and go for the Mark II?”
You also may be able to nab a sweet deal by heading out once the holiday crush is over. “Look at open-box items just after Christmas,” Hamilton said. “It is amazing how many people return even high-end items, and many retailers routinely take 30% or more off for open-box items, bringing them down to well below Black Friday pricing. In many cases, the items I bought last year were not ever opened.”
The bottom line: You can often can get a deal equal or better than what you would on Black Friday by paying attention to this yearly pricing cycle. According to Consumer Reports, here’s when you can expect the best deals for certain products in any given year:
|January||Bedding/linens, Toys, Exercise equipment, TVs, Winter clothing|
|February||Humidifiers, Indoor furniture, Exercise equipment|
|March||Digital cameras, Humidifiers, Small consumer electronics,
TVs, Winter sports gear
|April||Computers, Digital cameras, Lawn mowers, Spring clothing|
|May||Athletic apparel/shoes, Camping/outdoor gear, Carpeting, Cordless phones, Lawn mowers, Mattresses, Small consumer electronics|
|June||Camcorders, Carpeting, Computers, Indoor furniture, Pots, pans, and dishware, Small consumer electronics, Summer sports gear, Swimwear|
|July||Camcorders, Indoor furniture, Outdoor furniture, Swimwear|
|August||Air conditioners, Backpacks, Dehumidifiers, Outdoor furniture, Snow blowers|
|September||Bikes, Digital cameras, Gas grills, Lawn mowers, Shrubs, trees, and perennials, Small consumer electronics, Snow blowers|
|October||Bikes, Computers, Digital cameras, Gas grills, Lawn mowers, Winter coats|
|November||Baby products, Bikes
Camcorders, Gas grills, GPS navigators, Toys, TVs
|December||Bikes, Camcorders, Gas grills, GPS navigators, Home appliances (large and small), Small consumer electronics, Toys, TVs|
Is Anything Worth Braving the Black Friday Crush?
But what about those tempting Black Friday ads that blare savings of 50%, 60%, even 70% off? Certainly, retailers’ top Black Friday deals — otherwise known as “doorbusters” — offer adventurous shoppers impressive savings that can still be worthwhile. Here are the items that pop up on stores’ ads year after year at rock-bottom prices:
- Appliances/home goods: Cookware, countertop appliances, tools, vacuums
- Large electronics: TVs
- Small electronics: Tablets, laptops, wearables
- Media: DVDs, video games
If you set your sights on a tempting Black Friday deal, make sure you’re realistic about what it will take to snag it. These doorbusters are typically retailers’ loss leaders; that is, the items are deeply discounted purely to get you in the door — so you’ll buy other things at not-as-compelling prices.
“Retailers trot out the big ticket items to attract shoppers, and hope they stick around to buy a bunch of other gifts, too,” Green said.
Black Friday ‘gotcha’ tactics
Unless you’re willing to camp out on the store’s doorstep, limited quantities mean you might not get the item you covet. Will you have the strength to walk away, or will you wander the store aisles in search of other purchases just to justify the trip?
Buyers should also beware of certain unexpected sales tactics including shorter-than-normal warranties, annoying mail-in rebates, and “gotcha” return policies that are stricter than they are the rest of the year.
“You really need to do some research before slapping down your credit card,” Hamilton said. “First of all, retailers use Manufacturer’s Retail Price as a base price when advertising things like ‘50% Off!’ PriceZombie will show what the product has actually sold for in the past. While Black Friday deals are usually the lowest price of the year, it may only be 5-10% off the regular price. Weigh the hassle of going to the store on Black Friday versus the savings.”
And when it comes to high-dollar electronics, be particularly careful: Experts caution that items such as doorbuster TVs are almost always off brands, and those that aren’t might be made with cheaper components.
“You think you’re getting the expensive, high quality, fully featured model, but on closer inspection the Black Friday model is similar but not the same,” Hamilton cautioned. “Check model numbers and features for the Black Friday model that is on sale, and make sure you’re buying something you really want to own. Especially with TVs, Black Friday sales are often for the previous year’s model or have cut down features like fewer HDMI ports or missing SD card slots. The unique model number also prevents store price matching policy from having to kick in.”
In other words, you won’t be getting cutting-edge technology for that rock-bottom price. If that’s what you want, be sure to wait until mid-December or January, when the better models see deeper discounts.
Price Trackers Make it Easy to be a Deal Hunter All Year Long
If you’d rather spend the day after Thanksgiving relaxing and spending some extra time with your family, you don’t have to miss out on low prices. Price trackers make it easier to score the best deals all year long — all you need is a little patience.
Here are our picks for the top three best price trackers, for the holiday season and beyond:
If you do any of your shopping at online megastore Amazon, no matter the time of year, check out the curiously named CamelCamelCamel. This price tracker focuses solely on Amazon, giving you a handy graph that lets you see how high an item’s price has gone in the past and where it is now in comparison. It also shows third-party prices so you can gauge whether there’s a better deal elsewhere.
You can simply type in the product you’re eyeing on CamelCamelCamel’s website, or you can install a browser extension that lets you track prices without even leaving Amazon. You can also sign up for email alerts that will tell you when an item drops below a certain price.
The SlickDeals price tracker isn’t quite as fancy as CamelCamelCamel, but it allows you to track deals at a wider range of retailers — more than 50 to be exact, including big-box stores such as Target, Wal-Mart, Sears, and Kmart.
All you need to do is enter the link to the item you’re coveting, and you’ll get an email when the price drops. You can also add a module to your web browser that shows you the price history of an item at any supported SlickDeals store.
If you want the detail of CamelCamelCamel across a wider range of stores, like SlickDeals, then you’ll want to check out PriceZombie. It’s compatible with more than 100 stores including Amazon, Best Buy, Ikea, and Overstock (though not Wal-Mart, unfortunately). PriceZombie actually lets you compare prices at a glance, showing what an item is going for at all supported stores that carry it.
PriceZombie also shows you price history and allows you to sign up for price drop alerts. A couple other nifty features: You can use the “filler finder” to find cheap items to tack on to your order to meet the minimum for free shipping, and the price protection tracker will notify you if a price drops after your purchase and makes you eligible for a refund through your store or credit card’s price protection benefits.
You can use Price Zombie by going to their website or as a browser add-on that you’ll need to install. It’s currently compatible with Safari, Chrome, and Firefox.
Don’t Shop on Black Friday Without a Plan
If we haven’t dissuaded you from a Black Friday shopping trip, at least cook up a strategy that will give you the greatest chance of success.
A good place to start is checking out ads in advance with BFAds.net, a site that collects all major retailers’ Black Friday ads as soon as they’re released (or leaked — whichever happens first). That way you can zero in on your must-have doorbuster(s), and decide whether it’s worth camping at that store before it opens.
On Black Friday, you’ll also do well to remember the frugal shopper’s mantra: If you don’t really need an item, either for yourself or as a gift, even the steepest discount can’t make it a smart purchase.