By Katherine Boyle
The Washington Post
— Black Friday is Election Day for retailers. There are winners and losers. Strategies that work and ones that don't. Retailers spend months planning for the weekend, offering unbelievable deals to shoppers in the hopes of increasing turnout.
Customers, too, have a lot to win or lose. According to the National Retail Federation, we spent $52 billion on Black Friday weekend in 2011. And like with elections, you'll take a shellacking if your strategy doesn't hold up against the competition.
We've said previously that it's not always best to shop Black Friday sales. Holiday sales are starting earlier and extending through the season, so Black Friday savings aren't as jaw-dropping as they once were.
But like it or not, Black Friday is an American tradition; retailers will deliver door busters to those who don't mind standing outside in the cold Thanksgiving night.
If you're up for the frenzy, have a game plan. Here's what retail and shopping insiders think you should know about that other big day in November.
Q: Should I do my holiday shopping on Black Friday?
A: Many shopping experts are saying no. Jody Rohlena of ShopSmart Magazine said holiday savings began on Columbus Day. But ritual drives the Black Friday frenzy: "It's the kickoff for the holiday season," said Craig LaRosa, a retail consultant at Continuum. "It's social currency for a lot of people. Getting the best deal is something to brag about." Walmart, Kmart, Target and Best Buy are all opening Thanksgiving night before midnight. Many stores, including Kohl's and the Disney Store, are starting their sales a few days before Thanksgiving. Because retailers have started the holiday sales, we don't recommend limiting yourself to Black Friday.
Q: Well, I'm going to shop on Black Friday anyway. How do I prepare?
A: Rohlena recommends familiarizing yourself with the store layout before Black Friday. "If you're looking to buy a door buster, know where it's going to be in the store," Rohlena said. "Ask the manager whether the side door will be open." Know the times that the stores open, and be prepared to wait in long lines. Getting a door buster has never been an easy task, and experts are expecting high turnout again this year.
Q: Are there websites I should visit?
Most retailers released previews of their Black Friday circulars early this month. Visit stores to get their Black Friday ads, or check out some of our favorite comparison sites: Pricegrabber.com, Blackfriday.com, Fatwallet.com/Black-Friday, Bradsdeals.com. Follow @BlackFriday on Twitter. "Make sure you're following retailers on social media," LaRosa said. "Many retailers are announcing their deals there." And sign up for email alerts from your favorite retailers. You can always unsubscribe after the holidays.
Q: What should I buy on Black Friday? I'm going to be there, so should I buy other stuff I need, too?
A: "They're counting on you doing that," said Michael O'Hara, chief executive of online shopping platform Yumani. "They're selling these door busters at cost. They're not making money on the limited items, so they're planning you on doing your other shopping." At one-stop shops, retailers will make their money off the other goods you throw in the cart if you don't get a door buster, which means there's no such thing as trickle-down deals. If bananas are on sale at Target or Walmart on Black Friday, they'll probably be on sale the day after, too.
Q: What are these price matches I keep hearing about?
A: You should study up on price-matching policies. Target and Best Buy are implementing aggressive price matches and will match the prices of Walmart.com and Amazon.com during the holiday season. This is great news for consumers. And it's not over once you purchase: You can use price matches if the item goes on sale in-store after you buy. So stay alert, and as always, keep your receipts!
Q: Everyone is talking about QR codes and smartphones. Do I need a smartphone to save?
A: No, you don't need a smartphone to save. But "it can be a great tool if you know how to use it," O'Hara said. "You can use various apps to scan QR codes [for price comparisons]." Deal Hunter has written previously about our favorite shopping apps. But you should continue to compare prices, before and after you buy.
Q: I get caught up in the frenzy and buy stuff I don't need. How do I avoid this?
A: "Leverage the return policy," LaRosa said. According to the National Retail Federation, $217 billion in merchandise purchased last Black Friday was returned. Holidays are the best time to correct shopping mistakes. "That's when retailers are relaxed," he said. "They make it easier to return."
Q: This sounds stressful, and I'm tired of waiting in long November lines. Will sales be better after Black Friday?
A: You're not going to find a door buster after Black Friday. But there will be holiday sales well into January. "Brick-and-mortar stores are competing more than ever for foot traffic, so be prepared to hear about new deals after Black Friday," LaRosa said. But no deal is worth losing your sanity.
Q: So, are you going to Black Friday?
A: I enjoy studying the excited shopper in its natural habitat, so yes, I will be going. But many experts aren't: "Five or 10 years ago, the values were truly extraordinary," O'Hara said. "But margins have dropped today. I'd be hard pressed to tell anyone to run out at 2 a.m. to save a couple of dollars."
The Bottom Line: If you're partaking in the Black Friday madness, have a strategy. Look at ads, know the location of the door busters in the store, and compare prices and ads before and after you purchase. If you hate shopping, avoid Black Friday. December deals will be almost as good as the door busters.