Black Friday — it's the mother of all shopping days. A day when millions of people wielding billions of dollars scratch and claw for the biggest bargains. So what's the best plan of attack?
"My advice is to skip it entirely," says Jody Rohlena, senior editor at Shop Smart magazine.
Black Friday has been such a staggering marketing success that it's spawned Black Thursday, Cyber Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday… the list goes on. The upside, as Rohlena sees it, is there's no need to focus all your energy, time and money on one day.
"We're gonna see really good markdowns all the way up to the Holidays, and guess what — when retailers have inventory that they're trying to unload, they're going to keep setting up new sales, so there can be advantages waiting," says Rohlena.
But whether you brave the crowds of Black Friday or not, you still need to be prepared. Even if you're a dedicated brick-and-mortar shopper, the Internet is your best starting point. There's a host of websites — BFAds.net, BlackFriday.com and SlickDeals.net — dedicated to tracking the best deals out there, as well as store hours.
"Take a look at those ads beforehand and really find out if they're great deals or not," advises Rohlena. "You can do quick searches at PriceGrabber.com, for example. Don’t assume because it's in a Black Friday circular that it's a great deal."
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To help assuage your fears of overpaying, Rohlena says the big news this holiday season is in the realm of price matching. At a lot of stores, if you buy something and then find it cheaper someplace else, they'll refund you the difference.
If big box stores and national chains aren't your thing, Rohlena is a big fan of Small Business Saturday.
"People may think that prices are higher in those smaller independent retail stores — they may not necessarily be," he said. "And there's an advantage: If you ask for a better deal, you might be dealing directly with the owner, they have a lot more leeway to give you a better price. If you ask nicely, of course.
"If you go on AmericanExpress.com, you can register you card, if you use your AmEx to shop on Small Business Saturday at a participating retailer, they will give you a $25 credit. Spend $25, get the credit back on your bill — there's another really good reason to participate: free money."
If there's something you just have to have in-hand, Rohlena suggests a reconnaissance mission: going to the store a few days early to find out where your prey will be on display, the nearest entrance and the exact hour it will be available.
Among the other Internet tools available to the modern bargain hunter is the Black Friday Survival Guide app, which has a newsfeed, lets you search each store by category or each category by item, tells you exactly when each sale begins, provides competitor prices and lets you build a shopping list you can email to a loved one.
If the thought of the traffic and the crowds makes your chest tighten, the Internet is here to help but still requires a good plan. Rohlena recommends CyberMonday.com, CyberMonday2012.com, FreeShipping.org to see who's got free shipping and @cybermonday at Twitter.
With all of the new shopping tools at our disposal, why wade into the insanity of Black Friday at all?
"For those of us who really want to make sure we're giving a nice gift to someone we care about, I think it's important to be able to compare things physically, if you know what I mean, as opposed to virtually, online," says Dr. Tina Lowrey, professor of marketing at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and editor of "Brick & Mortar Shopping in the 21st Century."
"And for a lot of people, I think they enjoy being around other people that are in the holiday spirit, it's sort of an infectious kind of social gathering to be around… the communal nature of going out and being with other people who are out for the same reason."
Rohlena is unmoved.
"I know too much," he said. "I'm not going anywhere on Black Friday."