Envy them or fear them, you know who they are: those sharp, stealthy shoppers who squeeze the most out of Black Friday deals.
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The Black Friday ninjas.
Whether you want to join their ranks, score a couple of really good buys or just avoid the spectacle altogether this year, it pays to learn a few of their secrets.
Here are 12 top strategies from consumer experts, retailers and super-shoppers to nab the best of the Black Friday bargains.
Make a list -- and a budget
Shopping ninjas think like Santa: They make a list and check it twice.
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"Make a shopping list," says Mark LoCastro, spokesman for DealNews.com, a shopping and deal-tracking site. "You have to know what you're shopping for."
Be specific. Not just "a large-screen TV." What size and what features? Even better: what brand and model? That way, you can compare quality and price.
Make an overall budget and be prepared to stick to it, says Hillary Mendelsohn, author of "thepurplebook: The Definitive Guide to Exceptional Online Shopping" and founder of shopping site ThePurpleBook.com. For each of the larger items, how much do you want to spend and what's the most you want to pay?
Do your homework
Shopping ninjas aren't just skilled. They're prepared, too.
"I don't think you can just show up with a cup of coffee in your hand at a store anymore," says Anne Obarski, director of customer service strategies for Merchandise Concepts.
This is where getting specific on the shopping list helps -- all the better to compare prices before the big day. That way, when you decide what you want, "you can educate yourself on where your best price is," says Kendal Perez, marketing manager for CouponSherpa.com.
And you'll be able to spot the truly good deals among the pseudo-sales and so-so merchandise.
Which stores will offer the best prices on the items you want? You can often find out weeks ahead of the big day. "The word is out there," Obarski says.
A few of the popular ad flier and price-comparison sites:
Bargain shopping starts long before you hit the stores in the wee hours of Black Friday morning.
Some ad-flier sites leak Black Friday ads early, giving you an idea of the best places to buy the items on your list, Mendelsohn says.
Two tricks to save time and money:
- With many ad-flier sites, you can sort by product categories (like TVs or tablets), LoCastro says.
- Some price-tracking sites allow you to set up email or text alerts for deals on certain products, or specific sale prices, he says.
Going through the online versions of ad fliers is just half the job.
"Do your homework on the prices and the specific products," says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, an online resource guide.
Read lots of product reviews and know what the item normally costs, he advises.
If you really want a good deal, it's not enough to know who's offering what at a discount; know the real value of that merchandise, he says. It's not a deal if the merchandise is a "piece of junk," Dworsky says.
Look for 'rolling deals'
It used to be that the best deals were reserved for the hardy folks who camped out for hours Thanksgiving night and were first through the door Friday morning. Not anymore.
These days, retailers want to pique consumer interest and hold it. To accomplish that goal, many stores have "rolling deals," Obarski says. You'll see one slate of specials at 5 a.m., another at 8 a.m. and another one at 10 a.m., she says.
So snagging a buy might not require missing dessert or late-night leftovers on Thanksgiving, or even getting up before dawn Friday.
Don't wait for Black Friday
Want to get a jump on the Black Friday crowd? You might be able to score a bargain Wednesday night, says Dan Butler, senior adviser to the National Retail Federation and president of Maple Point Consulting.
"Many stores set up on Wednesday night," he says. So if you shop the last two hours before closing on Wednesday evening -- after the signage is up and the prices have been programmed into the cash registers -- you might be able to get some Black Friday discounts, Butler says.
And some stores, looking to draw shoppers earlier, offer deep discounts well in advance of Black Friday, LoCastro says.
Travel in groups
Like ninjas, smart holiday shoppers run in packs.
Not only is it more cost-effective to share gas and one parking spot, but they maximize their time, shoe leather and ability to grab deals. (Plus, it's more fun.) While one of you stands in line to pay, the others are moving on the next store (or department).
Result: more bargains in less time.
Don't overlook the basics for any marathon: Drink plenty of water and wear comfortable shoes, Butler says. During a typical Black Friday trek, you tend to "go more places and do more and get worn out."
Designate an online helper
It's the staple of every classic caper movie: The fast-fingered tech expert at the keyboard gets the team what they need on the spot (and in record time). It's a great Black Friday strategy, too.
Retailers seldom advertise that some of those Black Friday door-buster deals are available online, too, Dworsky says. "Which means you can stay in your pajamas and be able to order some of the (deals) people are lining up for," he says. "You can just click and get it."
The practical problem: You won't know whether the bargain on the item you want will be available online until the Black Friday sale starts, Dworsky says. And shopping via cellphone -- especially in a crowd -- can sometimes be problematic.
Dworsky's solution: Designate one team member to work the computer from home -- and stay in touch by phone, he says. That way, you spend your sneaker-power on those deals that are in store only.
Identify the real deals
Not every "bargain" is really a bargain.
Before you get caught up and throw that item in the cart, ask yourself: Is this something the recipient would want? And is the price really that great?
"You have to recognize the difference between the price and the real price," says Paco Underhill, founding president of Envirosell, a retail research and consulting firm, and author of "What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping." He adds: "If you buy something because it's being offered at a crazy price and it's not something you need or can use, it's not a bargain."
Instead, be "a truly targeted shopper," he advises. This isn't your last chance to get a bargain on what you seek.
"If you're truly looking to save money, something that might be 30 percent off Nov. 30 might be 40 percent to 50 percent off Dec. 20," Underhill says.
Ask for price matching
Even on Black Friday, price matching is alive and well, LoCastro says.
"Bring your smartphone and if you see it cheaper elsewhere, show the sales associate," he says. If the store you're in won't price match, "use your phone and buy it (cheaper) at another store."
It helps to get organized before hitting the stores. You don't want to be the person holding up the line, Mendelsohn says. So have everything (printouts or URLs) at your fingertips.
Don't forget the coupons
What makes a good deal better? How about an additional discount?
One way to find more discounts: Use mobile apps while you're in the store, Perez says. "We're seeing retailers offer additional deals or discounts and coupons that you can use" to boost your savings, she says.
Another strategy is to follow the stores and brands you like on social media. It's a great way to get alerts, coupons and extra deals, LoCastro says.
A third option: If you're already in the store, go online and type in the name of the store and "deal," "sale" or "coupon," says LoCastro, who used this strategy to get an additional 35 percent off a tuxedo shirt he bought for a wedding. "It was great -- I felt fantastic," he says.
Even if the sale or deal is online only, "they want to make the sale," LoCastro says. So if you ask the employee or a manager, they may match the deal, he says.
Have a fallback plan
"Consider shopping on Cyber Monday as a follow-up to Black Friday weekend," Butler says. "If you didn't get what you needed, ran out of energy or forgot something," you may still find it -- available and on sale -- online, he says.
And keep in mind that Black Friday isn't the end of the holiday bargain-shopping season. It's the beginning. "There still will be deals in December," says Obarski. "There always are."
Another angle to consider: Would the item cost you less with free shipping? Especially if you had it sent directly to the recipient?
Free shipping "is one of the most popular incentives during the holidays," Mendelsohn says. Her favorite site to track who's offering it is FreeShipping.org.
Love it or leave it
Black Friday shopping isn't for everyone. If you want to find bargains, you can find them in stores and online throughout the season.
Black Friday shoppers "do it because it's a tradition and they love the adrenaline rush of being the first one in and telling their friends they stood on line," Mendelsohn says.
And if that's the reason you're going, own it, Underhill says. "Go and enjoy it for what you're enjoying it for."
But whatever you're shopping for, "it's all stuff," Mendelsohn says. "Really think about what you need. Don't just go out and be part of the frenzy. Make it fun."
See what's next
Now that you know how to grab a deal on Black Friday, here are the best things to shop for.
Copyright 2014, Bankrate Inc.