I’ll be honest: since about 2009, I haven’t left the house on Black Friday. Instead, I usually sleep in after a long evening spent eating a big meal and having a few glasses of wine with family members. I do get up and check a few online sales, but I haven’t found anything in a brick-and-mortar store that makes it worthwhile to actually go out there and battle the crowds.
That doesn’t mean I don’t utilize the bargains on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. I usually do end up buying an item or two each year based on those sales (though they have usually been online buys), but I have a very specific strategy that I use to make this work.
(For those who may be unfamiliar with the terms or who live in another country, Black Friday refers to the day after Thanksgiving in the United States. It’s a day when many workers are on holiday and, with the close proximity to Christmas, many retailers simultaneously feature large sales to attract Christmas buyers. The end result is crowded stores. Cyber Monday refers to the following Monday, the first day back to work after the Thanksgiving holiday for many people, when many online retailers have large sales.)
Each year, here’s how I handle Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
1. Don’t Make Christmas Gift Lists Based on Black Friday and Cyber Monday Sales
I make my Christmas lists entirely in a retailer-free zone. I don’t use sales flyers or catalogs to make my lists.
Instead, I spend time thinking about what the recipient would want by thinking about it on my own, observing them, talking to them, and listening to them.
How does this person spend their time? What does this person talk about? What do they use a lot? What are they passionate about? If you can answer those questions about your recipient, you probably have a bunch of gift ideas for them right there.
I try to have two or three times as many ideas for my recipients than gifts I will actually buy them, so that I have some options. Sometimes, my ideas are a bit vague, so I’ll do some research or ask questions on appropriate forums. I’ll sometimes come up with as many as five specific items for each person on my list (and more for my own children).
2. Consider Homemade and Used Items
Some of the items I would be happiest to receive this year are used items (some out-of-print books that are still fairly common and not overly pricy) and homemade items (foodstuffs, homemade beers and wines, a big knitted stocking cap to fit my large head, etc.).
Part of the reason for this is because it’s easy to just go to the store and buy items I decide that I truly want. Thus, items easily available at the store are probably fairly low on my “want list.”
This is true for most adults who are reasonably financially secure, which makes up most of the people on my gift-giving list.
The gifts I usually want to give to these people – homemade items or harder-to-find used items (like vinyl DEVO records) – have nothing whatsoever to do with Black Friday.
3. If There’s Any Doubt At All, You Don’t Need That Item
Many people use Black Friday as a tool to shop for themselves. They enjoy the rush of excitement due to the surge of people and the big discounts on miscellaneous items that they might want.
Here’s the catch: you don’t need most of that stuff. Sure, it’s tempting to want to buy stuff in a store when everyone else is buying stuff, but that’s not reason enough to buy, buy, buy.
If you’re not sure, here’s a strategy I use when I’m in a buying situation like that. I simply hold the item in my hands for at least ten full seconds and think about whether or not I actually need the item (I call this the “ten second rule“). If any doubt creeps into the picture during that time, I put it back on the shelf.
I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve talked myself out of buying expensive items that I really had no business buying.
4. A Sale Price Is Not a Reason to Buy
Many people try to “excuse” unnecessary purchases by saying that it’s fine to buy if it has a big sale price on it. “It’s 25% off, so it’s okay!”
Here’s a tip, though: even if the discount is big, if you have any doubt at all about whether you really need that item, skip it. A 30% off discount on something you don’t need is still money spent on something you don’t need. A sale doesn’t somehow turn something unnecessary into something necessary.
Just because you spent $25 less on it doesn’t make it any better when that item ends up filling up your closet in a few months.
5. Don’t Go to Stores Without a Very Specific Purchase in Mind
Still, Black Friday and Cyber Monday can both be useful for knocking specific items off of your gift lists. The trick for doing it and actually getting value out of it is to start with your actual gift lists, though.
For example, let’s say you decided that a low-end tablet computer is a good idea for your nephew this Christmas and that a certain price fits within your budget. You’ve identified a few models that match what you’re looking for, but you have a target price.
That’s a perfect situation for digging through the Black Friday and Cyber Monday ads. You know exactly what you are looking for – you’re just looking for a good price on it.
If you find what you’re looking for, then you have a store to visit. Your focus, when you go to the store, should be entirely on that item and nothing else. Go there, get the item, and leave. It is almost always costly to browse, as you wind up with items that you never intended to buy and almost certainly don’t need.
6. Use Price Tracking Tools to Find the Best Prices on the Items You’re Seeking
How do you know if a “sale” is actually a good sale? This is a problem that the internet is very good at helping with.
Beyond that, I also use CamelCamelCamel to track the prices of items that are on my gift list. I’ll enter all of the items that I’m considering buying into that site and then watch their prices over time. If they dip, then CamelCamelCamel sends me an alert. I find that kind of approach works very well when you know what items you want and are willing to be patient for the right price. I often get several alerts on Black Friday and Cyber Monday on the items I’m tracking, which makes it easy to just jump in, buy the item, and jump out.
For a more general comparison shopping tool, I find PriceGrabber to be the best of the lot and have used it on the fly to decide whether or not to make a certain purchase. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a good start.
One final tip – and one that I actually use heavily on Black Friday – is to check social media for “doorbuster” sales and other unannounced sales.
Most retailers have unannounced sales and other “surprises” in order to encourage people to go to the store anyway even if they don’t have anything that they particularly want from the store’s flyer.
Once upon a time, you had to actually go to the store to take advantage of these things. Thanks to social media, though, you don’t have to go out in the cold just to see if there’s something relevant to your wishlist.
My strategy is this: I follow several nearby retailers on Twitter and Facebook on Thanksgiving Day and watch them on Black Friday and Cyber Monday to see what they announce (I usually un-follow en masse late on Cyber Monday). I also search Twitter for #blackfriday a few times during that day just to see what pops up. I’ll usually add the names of any specific items I’m looking for to that search.
Twice in the last three years, this technique has helped me to net an item that I wanted to give someone for Christmas at a great price, and I have high hopes for a couple of items this year, too. (These items have been online-only sales, of course.)
The real key to all of this is self-restraint and planning. If you have a thoughtful gift list, one that’s not merely generated from the Black Friday sale flyers, you’ll probably avoid the stores entirely on that day and just pick up a few items online over the weekend. If you find one or two items in stores that really click with your list and have a great price, then you can go in there with just your specific item in mind and get out with a great discount in hand.
Most of all, you avoid buying stuff you don’t need. That’s the biggest financial danger of Black Friday – unplanned purchases. They can do a real number on your wallet, but using these strategies can keep unplanned purchases at bay.