Nine tips to Black Friday savings and sanity

Consumer Reports News: November 19, 2010 06:08 AM

On Thanksgiving weekend, an estimated 44 percent of Americans expect to hit the mall or the keyboard in search holiday bargains. Although that’s a lower overall percentage than last year, the figure still represents some 102 million consumers, more than 60 percent of whom hadn’t even begun their shopping as of a couple of weeks ago, according to Consumer Reports’ latest holiday poll.

The poll confirms that Black Friday itself and the Saturday and Sunday thereafter, while still prime time for shopping, isn't the draw it used to be. Over the past five years, the percentage of people who said they planned to shop on either Friday, Saturday, or Sunday after Thanksgiving has dipped slightly but steadily, based on our poll.

Online merchants aren't feeling the pinch; it's the brick-and-mortar stores that are suffering. During Thanksgiving weekend last year, 45 percent of those surveyed said they planned to shop at a physical store; this year, the figure dropped to 37 percent. By contrast, 23 percent of consumers expect to shop online at some point during the weekend, the same as in 2009.

We don't have an explanation for the falloff in in-store shopping during the big holiday weekend. But we do have a theory. It might be attributable at least partly to the fact that blockbuster sales are so common now that they've become almost ho-hum. Think about what motivates Black Friday shoppers. It's a sense of urgency to grab a limited number of incredible bargains by waking up extra early or staying up particularly late. It's all about the narrow window of opportunity. If big sales are ongoing, the sense of urgency is lost.
Among those shoppers who will be shopping on Black Friday, they tell us they plan to fill their carts mostly with electronics (notably video games), clothing, toys, and gift cards. Expect a big jump in consumer purchases of e-book readers like the Kindle and Nook, and TVs, but not just any old sets. Consumers say they crave TVs with internet connectivity or 3D capability.

According to our poll, half of Americans believe that the deals in stores are as good as those to be found online. But younger shoppers, those 18 to 34, are more confident that the Internet is the source of the biggest bargains.

Regardless of where you shop and what you buy, here are some points to keep in mind:

• When one sale ends, another begins. No doubt, you can land some impressive bargains on Black Friday. Many merchants count on holiday business for as much as 40 percent of their annual sales, so wheeling and dealing are commonplace. But are the deals so irresistible that they’re worth battling traffic, long lines, and crowds?  As noted earlier, competition for your shopping dollar is intense these days, and retailers have been running periodic specials day after day, week after week, dangling perks like buy-one-get-one-free, flat discounts of 25 to 50 off your entire order, free shopping, and other bonuses to keep the cash-registers ringing. So what’s the rush?

• It’s not always worth breaking down the ‘door.’ We’ve seen a flurry of those ballyhooed doorbuster promotions promising things like $200 laptops since early October. Black Friday earned its reputation as a bargain-hunter’s paradise because retailers feature a few of these high-profile items as “loss leaders,” which are sold at or below cost to draw you in. Such specials are typically offered in limited quantities; forget about rainchecks. If you enjoy the thrill or the hunt, give it a go. But don’t bother to show up unless you’re willing to wait on line, sometimes for hours before the store opens, and brace yourself for disappointment. There are no guarantees.

• Sniff out the most appealing specials in advance. There are numerous Web sites that obtain and publish advance notice of Black Friday deals. Many of the hot specials are already listed on Fatwallet, Walletpop, Gottadeal, and TheBlackFriday. The sites often feature downloadable circulars and coupons, too. You can also find out which products come with rebates and which merchants offer free shipping.

• Try to get it for less online. If you spot an eye-popping deal in a circular, visit a price-comparison Web site to determine whether you can get it cheaper elsewhere from a reliable seller. Some sources worth checking: Bizrate, Nextag, Pricegrabber, and Pricescan. You might want to try Amazon, too, as our reader surveys have cited Amazon as a good merchant for appliances, electronics, and books.

• Don’t forget about bonus discounts. When you shop online and click to the checkout page, you’ll usually see a box to enter a discount or promotional code. These underused codes can be a source of unexpected savings, from free shipping or expedited delivery at no extra cost to additional savings of as much as 25 percent. Black Friday ads often provide access to the codes. So do other sources such Couponcabin, Couponcraze, Couponalbum, Keycode, Shoppersresource, and Couponwinner.

• Sign up for e-mail alerts. When you do so at your favorite stores, you’ll be peppered announcements of upcoming promotions and targeted with exclusive coupons not readily available to everyone. Shoppers can also learn if the products they want are stocked and available. In addition, many retailers will let you purchase the item online and pick it up locally. More and more retailers include coupon codes – often in fine print—on their websites as well.

• Request a price guarantee. If you want to maximize savings, ask if the retailer has a low-price guarantee entitling you to a refund of the difference between the new price and what you paid if the item goes on sale or if you find it for cheaper elsewhere. Seven to 15 days are the norm for most price adjustments. Also note that most price-matching policies apply to the price charged by a “local” competitor, not Web sites like Amazon.com or even warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s.

• Eye return policies carefully. The blanket policy for most products at big-box stores is 90 days, but may be shorter for electronics. And many goods like software can’t be returned once the seal is broken. In addition, you might be subject to a restocking fee on some items, usually around 15 percent, if you return an box that’s been opened. Some merchants extend the return period for holiday purchases, but they reserve the right to refuse to take back anything without a receipt or gift receipt, especially if the item was bought with cash. Even if a store agrees to take an item back without a receipt, you’ll probably receive a gift card or store credit only. And you’ll get back the lowest price the item actually sold for, not necessarily what you paid for it. You’ll also need your receipt for warranty service.

• Get notified if the price drops. More sites are popping up that can help shoppers follow the price history of items they want to buy and alert them when it drops. Pricepinx is one such site, another is Ookong.

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