With Halloween now in our rear-view mirrors, it's time to start thinking about another fun holiday event: Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving that traditionally marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.
Not that retailers are willing to wait until that day, of course; in recent years, we've seen Black Friday sales start earlier and continue throughout the weekend, culminating in Cyber Monday, an online-only shopping event. But whatever the duration, the idea is to get the best deal you can on the items you really want.
Often—but not always—electronics items are at their lowest prices of the year on Black Friday, and it's easy to get caught up in the shopping frenzy and spend more than you you really want to. So here's a short list of Black Friday shopping tips that should help insure you get not only the best deals, but also some peace of mind once you bring the item home. Happy shopping!
Shop the ads before Black Friday.
In the next week or two, many of the major retailers will release (or leak) their Black Friday specials, so check one of the comprehensive Black Friday-focused websites, such as bfads.net, blackfriday.info, theblackfriday.com, and Black Friday@gottadeal.com, to see if you’re getting the best deal. Some sites allow you to filter your searches by product categories, such as TVs. Consumer Reports also compiles lists of the best deals we see, so regularly check here at our blog.
Shop online first.
Before you brave the crowds at the stores, check to see if the retailer is offering the same—or even better—deals on its website. In past years, some of the biggest retailers, including Amazon and Walmart, have offered several online sales during Black Friday week that have included many of the same items offered as part of their in-store Black Friday events—and often combined with low- or no-cost shipping deals. And some retailers will offer online exclusives you couldn’t get even by walking into one of its retail locations.
Sign up for e-mail alerts.
Many retailers now use e-mail alerts to encourage store loyalty and more frequent shopping. Sign up for alerts that will let you know about upcoming promotions and to receive exclusive coupons or discounts not readily available to everyone. Shoppers can also learn if the products they want are stocked and available, or if an item is eligible for a "buy online, pick up at store" option that can save shipping charges.
Check out QR codes.
More retailers are now using those square black-and-white Quick Response (QR) codes—which act like supercharged bar codes—in newspaper and magazine ads, on packaging, and even on websites. QR codes can be read by a cell phone equipped with a QR reader app. Often QR codes will simply provide more information about the product, including links to see videos, but they may also contain coupon codes or special deals. And this Black Friday, some stores may be targeting the most recent shopping phenomenon—"mobile" shoppers using their cell phones to research and purchase items—with special deals and offers via QR codes.
Shop close to home.
If you find the best deals are in stores, you don’t necessarily need to drive all over town to get them. With electronics, for example, our research shows that in many cases the prices for highly promoted TV sets from major electronics brands, such as Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony, vary by only a few dollars from chain to chain. So you can safely shop at the closest retailer without feeling that you’re missing out on a bargain. (Also, see our advice below on getting a price guarantee.)
Check the stores' return policies.
You may be familiar with your local chain’s return and exchange policies, but make sure that they aren’t different for a Black Friday special. Sometimes Black Friday sales are “final sales,” meaning the item can’t be returned. Other items may have a shortened return or exchange policy, or one where you can only get a store credit rather than a refund. Also, make sure there isn’t a restocking fee on a returned item.
Check the warranty
If you’re loyal to a certain brand, you may feel you’re aware of its standard product warranty. But even major brands offer special “derivative” models during promotional periods like Black Friday, and they may alter the terms of their standard warranties for these sets. For example, the term may be much shorter, or the repair provisions could be different: If a problem arises, there may be no in-home service for larger sets, or you might have to pay shipping if the TV needs to be sent to a service center. If so, make sure you’re comfortable with the terms, and find out in advance what will happen if you need the set repaired. You may find that it will be your responsibility.
See if you can get a price-match guarantee.
Often stores say they’re suspending price-match guarantees during the Black Friday weekend, but you should ask for one anyway. After all, these are supposed to be “the lowest prices of the year!”
Check specially priced “bundles”.
Often retailers—and sometimes, manufacturers—will combine two or more items into a specially priced package they say will save you money. But you should check the individual prices of these items at both the store and its competitors to see if you’re really getting a great deal. Our research during the past week uncovered some real savings, but we also found bundles that barely saved any money at all. And make sure you really need everything that’s included in the bundle. For example, we found several deals that combined an HDTV with a low-cost sound system that included a standard DVD player. With prices for Blu-ray players—and Blu-ray HTIBs— falling rapidly, this may not be as great a deal as it first seemed.
Buy the item you really want.
Items designated as "doorbusters" draw us in because of their low prices, but they may not be the best products for your needs. In electronics, for example, this is especially true of bigger-ticket items such as TVs, which you'll be living with for a number of years. Doorbuster items, particularly derivative models created specially for the event, usually have lower specs and lack features found on a manufacturer’s standard lines. While this may be fine for a second or third set, you may want better performance or more features for your main TV. Because so many shoppers are looking for the cheapest TVs, which provide little margin for the retailer, the sales staff may be more willing to cut deals on better models, where they have more wiggle room on pricing. And you may find that you’ll actually get a better deal by buying a slightly more expensive set that ultimately proves more satisfying for you and your family.
But avoid the old bait-and-switch trick.
That said, if you’re really buying only on price, stick to your guns and don’t get pushed toward a more expensive model. Retailers will sometimes advertise a great deal on a certain TV but then denigrate it once you’re in the store to buy it, hoping they can push you to a more profitable model.
Don't buy pricey accessories.
Even if you've purchased the right TV at the best price of the year, it's easy to be talked into buying pricey accessories, such as costly HDMI cables, that will negate any savings. Last year I helped a friend buy a TV during the Black Friday weekend, and it took three specific requests to get the salesman to show her moderately priced cables, which were hidden away out of sight. Even better, buy the cables ahead of time from a website such as monoprice.com or bluejeanscable.com and avoid the temptation entirely.
We hope you have a fun, satisfying shopping experience this Black Friday weekend. And if you have any great money-saving tips of your own, we'd love to hear from you. Happy shopping!
—James K. Willcox