At its essence, Black Friday combines one very good thing--discounted merchandise--with a number of very bad things.
These very bad things can include absurd sale hours, sprawling lines, bitter weather, and frenzied, game-faced shoppers that will have you watching your cart and your back.
Still, 212 million Americans visited stores and retail websites over the Black Friday weekend in 2010, according to the National Retail Federation. And while some believe Black Friday is named for the time retailers move into the profit margin for the year, the real blackness for many consumers comes at the end of the day when they realize how much they've spent.
Because of the clever advertising and chaos surrounding Black Friday, it's easy to to lured into phony bargains. To avoid this, you must arm yourself before going in. Think of Black Friday as a tactical operation that requires advance reconnaissance, strategic planning and precise execution.
Here's your step-by-step guide to surviving financially:
Step 1: Reconnaissance
Decide on a reasonable budget--be truthful with yourself--and write down that amount. In 2010, the average shopper spent about $365 per NRF data, but your spending amount should be specific to you.
Peruse newspapers ads and visit retail and Black Friday websites (theblackfriday.com, bfads.net) to determine what you want to buy. Remember, deals offered in stores may not be advertised online and vice versa. Still, consider signing up ahead of time for email alerts from retailers that interest you.
Be aware that among the genuine deals on Black Friday, there are plenty of lame offers too. Cross-check prices to ensure your getting the best price among stores, and be sure to note small details. If you're interested in a laptop advertised in a circular, but the ad doesn't provide all the technical specifications, find those out in advance to determine whether it's really what you want.
Beware bundled merchandise, particularly electronics. For instance, a retailer might package a TV and a Blu-ray player together for what they claim is an amazing price. But find out the cost of each item individually to determine just how amazing that offer really is. And if you want a TV but don't need the Blu-ray, ignore the offer and move on. You can't save money on items you weren't going to buy in the first place.
Step 2: Planning
Shopping without a plan can open the door to random buying and emotional shopping (the day can be stressful, after all.) Once you've identified your preferred deals through reconnaissance, make a list with each item, its location and its cost.
Using your list, plan which stores to visit and in what order. It's often useful to gather everything you need and put it all in one place (ideally, your car) the night before. Here's a sample checklist:
- Money/credit cards
- Shopping list
- Extra shopping bags
If you want a limited, hot-ticket item, you might have to camp outside a store. If you're game for this, plan what you'll need to bring, when you need to arrive and who you'll bring with you. Ask the store in advance for the rules on when to gather and where.
Pack lightly, though: Excess items could weigh you down on the stampede to the game consoles.
Step 3: Execution
Sticking to a plan on Black Friday takes self-discipline. Don't get distracted by things that aren't on your list. If an item on your list is gone, forget it. Don't try to find something similar on the spot. Otherwise, you could easily end up exceeding your budget.
Keep your cool throughout your shopping and avoid getting caught in any moments of hysteria. Black Friday can bring out the worst in some shoppers, but you can't let the chaos be your guide. Your plan must be your guide. To the extent you remember this, Black Friday success is yours to achieve.