Long before your Thanksgiving dinner has settled, retailers start to lure you in on Black Friday and Cyber Monday with doorbuster sales and in-store discounts.
Online stores have already begun “leaking” their big — and now weeklong — Cyber Monday sales.
Whether you plan to get in line or shop from home, here are some ways to beat the marketing madness and be a smart shopper.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the retail frenzy, even if you don’t want to. The ads are everywhere, everyone is talking about deals and it seems like everyone has something on sale.
On the surface, it seems appealing: You get an early start on holiday shopping and you save some money, too. If that refrain sounds familiar — like you fell for it last year — do a little homework now to save yourself both temptation and money later.
Adam Burakowski, the deals editor for Wirecutter, The New York Times’ product review site, suggested keeping an eye out early for deals coming before the big shopping days. “Last year, we saw a decent amount of products drop to their Black Friday prices a couple weeks ahead of time, so you can save yourself a lot of hassle if you start watching deals early,” he said.
Wirecutter collects Black Friday deals from retailers around the web here.
“Figure out your holiday shopping list before Black Friday, and come up with some gift ideas for as many people as you can. Most people, myself included, tend to procrastinate on this, but if you have a good sense of the things you want to buy for the holidays, Black Friday is a great chance to knock them out early while saving money,” said Shep McAllister, editor of Kinja Deals, a site that also tracks deals around the web.
If you want a specific item, check its price today at multiple stores. Add those items to a wishlist or your shopping cart (and then abandon the cart) so you can see how much the prices change between now and Cyber Monday. This helps reveal exactly how big a discount that sale price really is.
Retailers often offer deep discounts on limited quantities or specific product models in order to lure in buyers. Making a list in advance avoids the old “this is close enough” rationalization, and it’ll keep you from buying something you didn’t really want just because it was on sale.
“Make sure you note the correct model number, since sometimes during the holidays, retailers will feature products that look almost identical but might have completely different features than you’re expecting,” Mr. Burakowski said.
But do retailers mark up items just to slash their prices on Black Friday?
Mr. Burakowski explained that yes, that happens, but things have changed compared to years past, when the problem was bigger, and the deals less attractive. “You’ll see a lot of house brands on sale and definitely see the street price of items bounce up before the holiday, but there’s enough great deals that it’s worth the hassle. As long as you do a bit of research ahead of time, you’ll be able to score some serious discounts.”
Aside from using wish lists to track prices, there are tools for your smartphone or computer that can help make sure you’re actually getting a bargain.
CamelCamelCamel, available for Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox web browsers, can track price fluctuations on Amazon to make sure you’re not leaping at a discount that’s actually small margin off a previously marked up price.
Invisible Hand, also available for Chrome, Firefox, and Apple’s Safari browser, shows you a discreet notification while you shop online that will alert you to a lower price at another online retailer. It even has an iPhone app so you can take its price-matching tech on the go.
Honey, another browser extension, tries a different approach, and automatically searches the web for coupon codes applicable to your purchases at online retailers before you check out. If it finds one, it’ll automatically apply it to your cart to save you money. While it doesn’t find discounts for you or make sure you’re getting the best price, it does go that extra mile to save you a little cash before you click “purchase.”
The downside to tools like these is that they require extensive information about where you’re shopping and what you’re buying in order to work. Similarly, many of them get a cut of your total when you place an order with an online retailer. Neither approach is insidious, but you should be aware of both before you use them.
Mr. Burakowski also noted that sometimes your best bet is to just wait a little bit. Fill a cart and abandon it, and many online retailers will email you a coupon code or free shipping asking you to complete the transaction. Sometimes you can even ask for a coupon code via the retailer’s live chat before you check out.
When asked if you should jump on deals as soon as you see them, Mr. Burakowski said there’s no need to. “Last year, we saw a tremendous growth in retailers starting their deals Thursday — as in, we posted almost as many deals Thursday as we did Friday, and a similar amount on Monday,” he said. “Many of the Monday ones were repeats of the ones featured across Thursday and Friday, so you may get another chance to score some of those deals you missed out on.”
Mr. McAllister agreed. “Some Black Friday deals are already going live, and almost all of them will be available on or before Thanksgiving day,” he said. A lot of those will remain available through the weekend, and bleed into the deals advertised as part of Cyber Monday, which will mostly go live on Sunday, because these terms are effectively meaningless at this point. Internally, we just refer to the whole thing as Deals Week.”
Just keep an eye on stock levels. Only jump if you’re worried something will be so popular it’ll sell out.
Shopping online in your pajamas is certainly more comfortable than sitting in the cold waiting for a store to open. Mr. Burakowski said that if your impulse is to stay home, follow it.
“I’ve never liked lining up overnight and don’t think it’s worth it in 99 percent of cases, unless you’ve got a very specific product in mind that has extremely limited quantities,” he said. “While everything you see offline will be available online, it can be a lot more difficult to get one of the truly rare deals online than if you’re first in line and guaranteed to get it.”
“The only place you should line up on Thanksgiving afternoon is on the line of scrimmage for a family football game,” Mr. McAllister said. “Basically every deal you can get in stores will be available online, and usually matched by multiple other retailers. There are still a handful of doorbusters that are really and truly brick-and-mortar only, but they’re typically low-quality products that you should probably avoid anyway.”
For some, lining up for Black Friday deals is tradition, or a way to spend the day after Thanksgiving getting into the holiday shopping spirit. If getting the best deals and saving money is your goal, it’s not worth it.
For others, shopping at home — or not at all, as in the Buy Nothing Day campaign — is a pleasant alternative to encouraging stores to force retail workers to work on Black Friday or even as early as Thanksgiving afternoon. In fact, many retailers have opted to close on Thanksgiving entirely, in contrast to those opening ever-earlier.
Finally, whether you shop in-person or online anytime during the holiday season, it’s important to protect your personal information. We offer some tips to keep your personal data safe here and some ways to watch out for identity theft here.
Keep an eye on your credit and bank statements for fraudulent charges, avoid signing up for high-interest store cards or giving out too much personal information, and use strong passwords when shopping and banking online.
Similarly, take steps to protect yourself from online shopping scams and bait-and-switch listings.
Shop from reputable sellers and retailers — and that includes on sites like Amazon, which allow third-parties to list products for sale.
Mr. Burakowski noted: “I’d advise shoppers to be extra careful about third party listings on some of the major sites like Amazon. We’ve been seeing a fair few more scam listings, dramatically below the street price of the item from sellers with zero feedback that somehow can become the featured seller.” This rule also applies to sites like eBay, Jet, Shopify and eBid.
The best thing you can do is just be patient. Sometimes the best deals are yet to come, and you’ll find them later in the season, on your own schedule, from a retailer you trust. Do your homework and keep a cool head, and you’ll be happier for it.