So Black Friday is coming--but not all that glitters is gold. While those who mine the long lists of post-Thanksgiving sale items will surely find some gems, prudent shoppers will be sure to do their homework and read the fine print--which, as usual, may serve up a few lumps of coal.
We consulted with a group of shopping experts, and the consensus is to treat Black Friday sales like any others, because this year especially, they probably will be. Here are some of the top pitfalls to avoid.
Cheap Cheap Stuff
That 32-inch set going for $300 or the $10 kitchen appliance sounds like a steal--but you or the gift recipient might not be that thrilled with it in the long run. Some of the super-low prices designed to get you in the door are low because the merchandise is cheaply made.
What does this mean? DealNews.com CEO Dan de Grandpre says low-end manufacturing manifests itself in different ways depending on the product. An appliance's engine might burn out quickly; a cheap netbook might have a small hard drive or too little RAM (and no expandability) compared with the full-blown notebook next to it on the shelf. The TV may not have great image quality or, in the case of an LCD set, a good refresh rate (60Hz vs. the smoother motion capabilities of newer 120Hz or 240Hz sets). And don't expect supercheap connected TVs or Blu-ray players, either.
The best defense here is to do your research. Ask about an advertised deal--especially if you see no specific model number. If it's a third-tier or no-name brand, beware--it's hard to tell what you're getting because sometimes these models won't have been reviewed. At least ask for specific model numbers because many manufacturers are starting to make low-end products just to avoid being shut out of the game. These products may or may not meet your needs, but the point here is to avoid an unpleasant surprise because of ignorance.
One popular Black Friday ploy is to show an item's price--after (sometimes multiple) mail-in rebates. I got caught up in one such rebate game last year: I wrote about a mouse going for $5, and a reader pointed out that you had to pay more like $30 to walk out of the store with the thing. (A variant of this is the supercheap netbook that requires committing to a two-year broadband plan at $70 a month.)
Such details are invariably in the fine print, which is sometimes difficult to see--especially if you're relying on Web reports on various Black Friday Web sites and don't have the actual newspaper ad in front of you.
Even if you're aware that mail-in rebates are involved, Jim Willcox, Consumer Reports' senior editor for electronics, says that you should be honest with yourself about how diligent you will be in following up with the paperwork involved. It's well known in marketing circles that rebate offers are going to cost manufacturers less than actual discounts or price cuts, because a certain percentage of buyers simply won't send in for them. If you're likely to be in that group, then you're not getting the advertised deal. (And of course, mail-in rebates are particularly problematic for items you intend to give as gifts, since getting the rebate typically involves providing a copy of the receipt as well as the UPC code from the packaging.)
The Doorbuster Dilemma
Some of the best advertised prices in Black Friday ads are for so-called doorbusters--items the vendor typically labels "quantities limited," meaning they might run out before you get into the store. But even if you're able to snag the product, a sales person might try to convince you that you'd really rather spend more for a better product (see "Cheap Cheap Stuff," above), on which the store will make more money. "They'll actually denigrate the cheaper TV," Consumer Reports' Willcox says.
Again, advance research is the best defense--if you're getting up at 2 o'clock in the morning to get a specific doorbuster, it behooves you to make sure you really know and want the product. Don't fall into the old bait-and-switch trap--or the related pitfall of impulse buys that you haven't researched. Make a list and stick with it. And make sure your deal is really a deal. Some of the deals we've seen don't represent as a deep a discount as we've seen in the past. Sure, a $1200 55-inch HDTV is a good price, but is the 42-inch HDTV from a lesser brand an even better deal?
Buy Now or Later?
You'll definitely find deals on Black Friday. But that doesn't mean you won't find them later, too, in the run-up to Christmas--so don't panic if you oversleep and can't be part of the first wave of shoppers in Costco, Target, Wal-Mart, or any other Black Friday mecca.
"Prices may go up after Black Friday but they rarely return to where they were before," says Consumer Reports' Willcox. And some product categories may well get cheaper in the not too distant future. DealNews' De Grandpre and iSuppli HDTV analyst Riddhi Patel both suggest that some TV shoppers might do better to hold off.
"It's not necessarily a good day to buy high-end HDTVs," De Grandpre says, adding that while low-end sets will likely be as cheap as they'll ever be on Black Friday, prices for better sets might come down closer to Christmas or right afterwards. Patel says that larger-size sets, particularly, might go on sale closer to the Super Bowl. TV analysts at DisplaySearch echo this perspective. (See "HDTVs for the Holidays: No Bad Time to Buy" for more.)
Store Policy Changes
Finally, Black Friday shoppers should also be on guard for changes in general store policies, such as suspended price-match guarantees or tighter return policies. For example, you might not have the same window of time for returning an item, and a pledge to match a lower advertised price might not be honored within the same time frame.
Willcox says it's not uncommon for stores to do this for doorbuster items especially, so ask the sales staff. Again, you don't want a gift recipient to be stuck with something neither you nor they can return.