On Your Mark, Get Set, Shop!
Some consumers dream of Black Friday all year long, relishing the predawn moment when they can run the door-buster gauntlet.
But what products are likely to be discounted, making the early morning quest worthwhile?
At Dealnews.com, staffers call the seven-day period around Thanksgiving "National Deal Week," says Dan de Grandpre, the site's editor in chief and CEO. After all, stores open at midnight or even Thanksgiving Day, and many discounts continue through the weekend.
Shoppers should beware of lowball pricing, says Tod Marks, a senior editor at Consumer Reports. Find out "is it the latest or the greatest, or is it some sort of leftover from past seasons?" he says.
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Electronics bargains will include Blu-ray players as cheap as $40, de Grandpre says. But he says Black Friday sales circulars will be filled with off-brand merchandise. "Black Friday is about cheap stuff at cheap prices," he says.
Retailers might sell a 46-inch LCD television for $350 but not a top-of-the-line 3-D model. Stores dictate price points to manufacturers with Black Friday sales in mind. Manufacturers hit those low targets with cheaper components -- a lower-quality screen or fewer HDMI ports.
While not the highest quality, these sets could be fine for a children's room, he says. "If you don't need something that's very high-end, it's the perfect time to buy," de Grandpre says.
What to Buy: Tablets
There are a lot of inexpensive tablet computers on the market now, with some Android versions priced less than $100, de Grandpre says.
The cheaper versions will have less memory -- only around 4 gigabytes -- so they won't hold a ton of music and movies. And the processors won't be as fast. But they still have 7-inch screens, the same size as more expensive competitors such as some Samsung Galaxy Tab models.
If you're not sure that a tablet will fit your lifestyle, consider starting off with a lower-priced version. "It's a good thing to buy before you buy an iPad," de Grandpre says, which can cost hundreds of dollars more.
E-reader pricing was difficult for Dealnews experts to pin down last year, but the site predicts discounts on the Kindle 3 Wi-Fi reader and the Nook Color. The devices will likely come with a credit toward future book purchases.
Those shopping for a GPS will find prices are plummeting. More consumers are relying on cell phones or even tablets to get around town, so stand-alone devices cost less, de Grandpre says.
A cheaper alternative is a windshield mount for your smartphone and an app that offers turn-by-turn directions, he says.
Televisions and Laptops: Check Your List Twice
Like televisions, laptops marked down on Black Friday tend to be really inexpensive because they have inferior processors and far less memory, de Grandpre says. "You are getting kind of a trade-off," he says. But they will handle basic computer functions such as email just fine, he says.
Prices for high-end televisions tend to drop in January, leading up to the Super Bowl, de Grandpre says. Historically, Dealnews research shows there have also been excellent sales on high-end models during mid-December. But that did not happen last year -- the best deals did not appear until January, he says.
If you're looking for the centerpiece for your home theater, "I think you want to shop both times," he says.
Part of the reason television prices fall in January stems from the seasonality of some products, says Marks. Traditionally, that's when new products are introduced and older models are being discontinued.
But there's another reason why you might not find great deals during the holiday shopping season, he says: People tend to buy TVs for themselves, not as gifts.
Stuff Stockings With DVDs, Video Games
Retailers often mark down video games and movies on Blu-ray to around $10 or as low as $5. And the quality of the film or game remains the same, whether you pay full price or get a discount.
Black Friday can be the best time of the year to purchase boxed sets or complete seasons of television shows, de Grandpre says. "They'll hit a price low that you may not see again for months or even a year," he says.
He expects to see deals on the "Harry Potter" series, now that all the movies are available on Blu-ray, as well as the extended "Lord of the Rings" series.
Prices fall so low for movies on Black Friday that it may be cheaper to purchase the disc outright rather than buying it through streaming services or pay-per-view options, de Grandpre says.
Consumers regularly weigh whether purchasing a disc is worth the additional cost. "Will you really watch it enough to get your value out of it?" he says.
"That's a decision people make all year long," de Grandpre says. "That decision gets a little harder around Black Friday" when the price of ownership is competitive with one-time use.
Deck the Halls With Kitchen Gear
"It's a good time to buy those as gifts and frankly a good time to stock up for yourself," he says.
The same goes for small, infrequently used kitchen electrics such as a fondue pot. These appliances might run $15, $10 or even $5 on Black Friday.
"Black Friday is the day to get those things you're not going to use so often at supercheap prices," he says.
And cheap might be fine, depending on your needs. Although you might not get the highest-quality blender or coffee maker, some of these items might make fine gifts for a college student stocking a dorm room, de Grandpre says.
November is a good time to buy furniture sold by mass retailers such as Target or Wal-Mart. Items frequently on sale include home desks, futons and five-piece kitchen sets.
Ikea often puts about 20 to 30 items on sale on Black Friday as well, which "is certainly a good value for a lot of people," de Grandpre says.
What Not to Buy: Toys
Santa's elves have been working hard all year long to make sure the shelves are well-stocked at major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target in time for Black Friday. But that's not when these products are at their cheapest, de Grandpre says.
Starting the week of Cyber Monday, toy prices tend to drop on thousands of products for all age ranges, including name brands such as Lego and infant toys by Fisher-Price, he says.
"The retailers just don't want to keep that inventory," de Grandpre says. After the holidays pass, demand will drop precipitously. "There are just not enough kids' birthdays then," he says.
But would-be Santas should move quickly if a particularly hot toy is on their kids' wish lists, as those may sell out. Prices start to go back up again about a week before Christmas, when stores can make money selling to last-minute shoppers, de Grandpre says.
Unlikely to Be Marked Down: Luxury Items
Luxury items don't tend to be discounted during Black Friday, de Grandpre says.
The best markdowns usually come from Wal-Mart, Best Buy Co. Inc., J.C. Penney & Co. and Kohl's Corp., he says.
But one retailer will have its only sale of the year: the Apple store. For seven years in a row, Black Friday has been the only day when items are discounted there. But de Grandpre says that just because there's a sale doesn't mean it's the best value.
"Prices at the Apple store typically aren't the lowest prices," he says.
Licensed online retailers, such as Amazon, MacConnection and MacMall, generally have lower prices, he says -- although the Apple store did offer an unexpected discount on iPads last year.
That leads de Grandpre to speculate that the iPhone 4S might be on sale. But you won't have to line up to find out -- they offer the same deals online.
Skip Black Friday and Still Save
Marks is skeptical of Black Friday savings. Retailers work hard to create a sense of urgency in consumers' minds, he says.
"Electronics have proven themselves to be a great loss leader to get them to come into the store," he says.
Marks recommends that consumers use the Internet to compare deals and to find stores that will match prices -- although some retailers only match brick-and-mortar competitors and suspend their practice during Black Friday.
"You can find out what a good price is and decide whether it's worth it to battle the long lines, traffic and crowds to pick up some bargains," he says.
Shoppers should also sign up for email newsletters or mobile alerts offered by stores they frequent to get word about the best deals.
Marks says that retailers are controlling inventory more efficiently than ever, so popular items may sell out. If there's a must-have item on your list, better buy it early -- especially if it's a specific color or size.
But don't feel pressured if you would rather stay in bed sleeping off a turkey hangover Nov. 25. "If you miss one sale, there will be another that will surely follow," he says.