Top 10 Black Friday Shopping Tips for 2021

Follow CR's advice to get the best deals now and through the holiday season

Shopping bags with striped pattern Illustration: Chris Griggs/Consumer Reports, iStock

Some of us wait all year for the Black Friday shopping season, our heads filled with the promise of scoring the very best price on a new TV, smart speaker, printer, or other high-tech gadget.

But 2021 presents some unique challenges, with significant shortages in some product categories—yes, laptop computers and gaming consoles, we’re talking about you—combined with higher shipping costs and longer delivery times for items ordered online.

It’s also tricky to know when to shop. Some of the biggest retailers kicked off their holiday sales weeks earlier than usual this year, and consumers will have to decide whether to buy early to make sure they get the items they want, or hold off until closer to Black Friday in hope of getting the best deals.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many people may choose to minimize their in-store visits and instead shop online. But industry experts expect stores to be more crowded than they were in 2020.

More on TVs

One thing isn’t changing, though: Many of those deals masquerading as fantastic bargains are not as good as they look, and it’s easy to be fooled.

No worries—Consumer Reports has been tracking Black Friday deals for years, and we know all the tricks. Our top 10 Black Friday shopping tips will help you find the best offers and keep the frustration—and overspending—to a minimum.

The final three tips in the list below apply specifically to TVs, always a hot-ticket item at this time of year.

1. Start early. Analysts we spoke with agree that starting to shop early this year will be a good strategy, not only because deals are kicking off earlier but also because hot products may sell out quickly, or fail to arrive at your doorstep on time.

“There are certain items that you shouldn’t wait until Black Friday or Cyber Monday to shop,” says Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst at shopping site DealNews.com. “For instance, any of the newer game consoles—PS5, Xbox Series S or Series X, or the Nintendo Switch OLED—are going to be hard to find, and it’s unlikely we’ll see discounts for Black Friday and Cyber Monday anyway.”

Toys should be bought early, too, she says. “This summer manufacturers were warning there would be stock issues this holiday season, so it’s best to preorder toys that aren’t out yet and grab the ones you’re interested in when you see them.”

Stephen Baker, vice president for industry analysis at the market research firm NPD Group, is a bit more sanguine about shortages, apart from higher-end graphics cards and game consoles. “If it is a category—such as PCs or TVs—where there are alternatives to a specific model, you should be able to find something. In my opinion, the biggest issue for most consumers this year will be pricing, due to both the much higher costs of products, and the declining levels of promotional activities.”

Sales at some retailers have already begun. Amazon, for example, is now running what it calls “Black Friday-worthy” deals in several product categories.

Target already ran its first Deal Days event, from Oct. 10 to 12, in stores and online. Among the buys were a 55-inch Element 4K Roku TV (the Element E4AA55R) for $330, about $100 off, and a set of Beats Solo 3 headphones discounted from $200 to $130—and that remained the price even after the sale officially ended.

Like last year, Walmart will hold three separate Deals for Days” events throughout November, with the sales kicking off online and then moving to stores. The first event, featuring electronics and toys, begins online Nov. 3 and continues in stores starting Nov. 5. Deals will include a 55-inch TCL 4K Roku TV for $228.

The second deals event, which will also include apparel and home goods, kicks off online Nov. 10 and continues in stores starting Nov. 12. An HP i3 laptop will be available for $279. Details and dates for the third event haven’t been announced yet.

One new thing this year is that Walmart+ members—who pay $13 per month or $98 per year for an Amazon Prime-like membership—will get early access to online Black Friday events. Walmart+ members will be able to shop the deals 4 hours earlier than the scheduled start times for nonmembers.

Best Buy says that its Black Friday deals will start a week before Thanksgiving, on Friday, Nov. 19. Specific deals haven’t yet been announced, but the company says contactless curbside pickup will be available at all Best Buy locations.

2. Skip the in-store sales and shop online. While there will probably be a few more in-store promotions than there were last year, analysts expect a smaller number than in pre-pandemic days. But retailers will offer more of the same promotions online that they do in stores. And online shoppers may see more free delivery offers and ship-to-store programs with curbside pickup.

”Over the past couple of years—even pre-pandemic—we saw promotional activity being extended across all retail channels,” NPD’s Baker says. “This year we might actually see an uptick in online promotion right after Thanksgiving as retailers try to excite bored Black Friday consumers. I think the days of crazy in-store-only Black Friday morning promotions are likely at, or nearing, their end.”

Several major retailers—including Best Buy, Costco, Target, and Walmart—have already announced they’ll be closed on Thanksgiving. We’ll have to wait to see what types of promotions they’ll be offering over the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend for both in-store and online shoppers.

3. Use websites and apps. To judge how good the deals really are in crunch time, you need to track prices leading up to Black Friday. The same goes for Cyber Monday, which now stretches into a week of online specials. But you don’t have to go retailer by retailer to compare prices. The Consumer Reports website lists the current prices at various outlets for the products in our ratings. You can also try Google Shopping, PriceGrabber, and Shopzilla. When you’re in a store, smartphone apps such as BuyVia, Shopkick, ShopSavvy, and Shopular let you scan bar codes or QR codes to compare prices, get discounts, and score coupons.

There are now dozens of websites that post leaked—and authorized—Black Friday ads. We regularly check BestBlackFriday.com, DealNews, TheBlackFriday.com, Deals Plus/BlackFriday.fm, and GottaDeal. Sign up for deal alerts, which you can usually filter by product category.

Retailers such as Amazon, Best Buy, Target, and Walmart have their own shopping apps, as well. Amazon’s mobile app, for example, lets you use a smartphone camera to scan products and price-shop when you’re in a store. (When you’re done crossing everything off your holiday list, delete the apps you don’t use to protect your privacy and security.)

But direct comparison shopping can be really tough in the run-up to Black Friday. The best deals often feature models unavailable at other stores or nowhere to be found earlier in the year. Here are two quick tips:

• Browser extensions can help. These are small bits of software you can add to web browsers such as Chrome and Firefox to customize your browsing experience. For example, CamelCamelCamel and Honey are tools that will show you price histories and price alerts or coupons as you shop online.

• To be a web-savvy shopper, add items to your shopping cart if they have a price you like, so you can find them again quickly and be all set to order. Then go check the websites of other retailers to see whether the price is really special. Putting an item in your cart doesn’t reserve it, though—you need to place your order and get a confirmation that it has been received.

4. Use loyalty programs. Store loyalty programs often grant members early access to coupons, sales, and promotions, then let them earn rewards on what they buy. So sign up for Black Friday shopping alerts. In some cases, you can even find out whether the products you want are in stock or eligible to buy online and pick up at a store, which can save you money on shipping.

5. Get social. The Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds of your favorite retailers are a great way to find out about exclusive deals and promotions. Retailers will often reward customers who like or follow them with special alerts to Black Friday discounts and incentives. And of course texts, tweets, and social media posts are an easy way to share Black Friday shopping intel with your friends, too.

6. Create a budget—and stick to it. Yes, this sounds simple. But Black Friday sales, especially the doorbuster specials available in limited quantities, are designed in part to get you into a store or shopping online so that the retailer can sell you stuff you weren’t intending to buy. It’s really easy to get caught up in the excitement and overspend. Decide ahead of time how much you want to your Black Friday shopping spree to cost, and do your best to resist impulse buying, especially if you’re not sure how good a deal is.

With the shift to online buying, more of us will be using credit cards to pay for purchases. One benefit is that many cards will double the manufacturer’s warranty. But be wary of the interest-free promotions offered by store credit cards. They’re fine if you’re disciplined enough to pay off the balance before the promotional period ends, but if you don’t do that, you’ll get stuck paying interest on the full amount of the purchase, even if you’ve paid down a lot of the balance.

7. Check all store policies in advance. It’s always good to know a store’s price-match and return policies. Analysts expect more retailers to price-match specific deals this year. Almost all the major retailers have some form of price-match policy, and they’ve been expanding them almost every year.

For example, Target has already announced that shoppers buying anything from Oct. 10 through Dec. 24 will be able to request a price adjustment if the price drops later in the season. Target also says it will continue its policy of matching select competitors’ pricing within 14 days of a customer’s purchase.

Some stores suspend their price-match guarantees on certain items during the Black Friday weekend, however, so read the fine print. Check the return and exchange policies for Black Friday sales to make sure that the store won’t charge a restocking fee for any item you take back.

Tips Just for TV Shoppers

Televisions deserve some special attention because so many people shop for deals at this time of year. Here are three Black Friday shopping tips for anyone looking for a new TV.

8. Buy a big TV to get the steepest discount. Analysts say that when promotions get rolling this year, the biggest price cuts are likely to come on larger sets, sizes 65 inches and above. Of course, these typically start off at higher prices than small sets.

However, it’s hard to predict how good the deals will be. Paul Gagnon, a senior research director at the market research firm Omdia, says that prices rose through much of the year, which is unusual. He cites unexpectedly high demand earlier in 2021, as well as rising transportation costs, shipping delays, and shortages in key components, including TV panels.

“LCD panel prices are now falling, but the logistics logjam is worse now than before, and the price for shipping containers has skyrocketed,” Gagnon says. “The net effect is that higher shipping costs are more than offsetting the decline in LCD panel prices, but it’s not yet clear how that will affect holiday promotions.”

9. Consider a “derivative” TV model. Starting this month, you’ll begin to see low-priced TVs made specifically for Black Friday. Some are available only through a single retailer. These sets are called “derivatives,” because they’re derived from mainstream models—they just have different model numbers and maybe scaled-back features, such as fewer HDMI inputs or a simpler remote control.

We don’t test all the derivative models, but we do bring a number of them into the lab. We often find some derivative TVs from major brands that performed equally well in CR’s tests, despite being priced $100 to $150 lower.

Not every TV introduced at this time of year is a true derivative, though. So it can be hard to judge the quality of newly introduced sets, and it’s difficult to compare prices, too. Consumer Reports will report on heavily promoted sets as they come on the market, and help you pick out the better deals.

10. Beware the cheapest set. Super low-priced doorbuster specials draw people in with visions of savings, but the sets—often from lesser-known brands—are not always worth the price.

“It is always worth reminding people that Black Friday products are often older technology or specifically engineered to sell at a special Black Friday price and may not be exactly what a consumer would choose,” NPD’s Baker says.

Keep in mind that you’ll be watching your new TV for a number of years. If you’re not happy with the features or picture quality, you may regret not spending the extra $50 to $100 to get something better.

Those loss-leader TVs are usually at their rock-bottom price, too. A retailer may have more wiggle room on a step-up or flagship model, and you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for a better price—regardless of the time of year.

When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.


James K. Willcox

I've been a tech journalist for more years than I'm willing to admit. My specialties at CR are TVs, streaming media, audio, and TV and broadband services. In my spare time I build and play guitars and bass, ride motorcycles, and like to sail—hobbies I've not yet figured out how to safely combine.