It’s finally here — the week when almost everything is on sale.
The National Retail Federation expects more than 165 million people to take part in the five-day shopping marathon from Thanksgiving Day to Cyber Monday.
All the hype and pressure to buy can be overwhelming, so you need to have a plan if you want to find the honest-to-goodness bargains. NBC News BETTER contacted a half dozen shopping experts to get their advice.
1. MAKE A LIST
If you just wing it without a shopping list and a budget, you could wind up deep in debt.
About 35 million Americans are still paying off holiday credit card bills from last year, according to the WalletHub’s 2019 Holiday Shopping Survey.
Your list should include what you plan to get each person and how much it will cost. Impulse shopping can bust your budget, so stick to your list.
“And when you’re shopping, keep a running total of your spending — it’s amazing how keeping tabs on your spending will protect you from busting your budget,” said Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.
2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Look at newspaper circulars and online ads to see which stores have the best prices on the items on your list.
“Different stores have different things on sale, so you really have to cherry pick the deals,” said Lisa Lee Freeman, cohost of the HotShoppingTips podcast.
Black Friday websites and apps can make this a lot easier. You can see Black Friday circulars at BFAds.net or sort the sales by category (e.g., clothing, TVs, toys or videogames) at Blackfriday.gottadeal.com.
Freeman uses FLIPP, an app that searches newspaper fliers to help you compare prices for the same item from store to store.
“This way, you don't have to go through all the paper flyers physically and track everything, so it's a really cool tool to have on hand,” she said.
3. EVALUATE THE DEALS
The sale prices offered on Black Friday and Cyber Monday tend to be among the best prices of the year, but not for all items and all product categories.
“We do expect there to be some good deals on toys for Cyber Monday, but historically there are even better deals if you wait until December,” said Julie Ramhold, consumer analyst at DealNews. “If you can wait, prices on winter clothing will be better in January.”
(DealNews has a list of 9 things not to buy on Black Friday.)
Consumer Reports says the biggest discounts on top-rated big screen TVs typically take place just before the Super Bowl.
“To separate the ho-hum deals from the good ones, you need to know the price history of that particular product,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder and editor of ConsumerWorld.org. “You can't just look at the crossed-out price, the so-called ‘regular’ or ‘list’ price. Many retailers inflate those original prices to make it look you’re getting a great deal. The only way to know for sure is to check the price history for that item.”
Dworsky recommends Camelcamelcamel, a site that lets you compare today’s price to its price history at Amazon during the past year.
Freeman also likes Honey, a browser extension that not only finds and applies coupons automatically, but also provides the price history on many items.
4. RESEARCH THE PRODUCTS
“A low price on a lousy product is no bargain,” Dworsky cautions.
You can check the reviews on retail websites (but recognize that some of them may be fake) or see what professional product testers have to say at sites such as Consumer Reports, PCMag, Wirecutter or CNET. You can find some amazing Black Friday doorbuster deals on TV’s from lesser-known brands, but you may not be happy with their performance.
“A lot of times, when we review these TVs they're in the lower part of our ratings,” said Jim Willcox, senior tech editor at Consumer Reports. “So, if it's the main TV for your house, it may not be the best set for you to buy.” (Consumer Reports has a list of the Best Black Friday TV deals for 2019.)
5. CHECK STORE POLICIES IN ADVANCE
Most major retailers have a price-match policy, but there’s a good chance it doesn’t apply during Black Friday weekend. And be sure to find out about the return and exchange policies, especially for electronics.
6. START EARLY
Don’t wait until Black Friday. Many retailers are currently offering pre-Black Friday sales. Black Friday starts at JCPenney.com on Wednesday morning and at Walmart.com at 10 p.m. Wednesday.
“Most deals will be available online starting early Thanksgiving morning, so you can shop even before you sit down to your turkey dinner,” said Ramhold of DealNews.
7. GOING TO THE STORES? YOU NEED A PLAN
You couldn’t pay me to fight the Black Friday crowds, but some people love the excitement and the thrill of the hunt.
“Some doorbuster specials are in limited quantities, which means your chances of getting one are pretty slim,” said Willcox of Consumer Reports. “And remember, the whole idea is to get you into the store so that you can buy more profitable items once you’re there."
If you’re headed to the stores on Thanksgiving Day when many major chains will be open or on Black Friday itself, you need a game plan.
Where do you want to shop and when do those stores open? Prioritize stores that have a limited quantity of the doorbuster item you want — and get there hours before the store opens.
One strategy is to go with a group of friends or family members. You can split up the stores to maximize those blockbuster deals and then meet up later to swap items.
8. SHOPPING ONLINE: WATCH OUT FOR SCAMS
Most holiday shoppers will buy something online, even if it’s just an online gift card. Nearly half of them (46 percent) are concerned about being victimized by fraudsters, according to the 2019 TransUnion Holiday Retail Fraud Survey.
Paul Bischoff, a consumer privacy expert and the editor of Comparitech, says there’s good reason to be concerned.
"Scammers will set up fake websites and sell stuff that doesn't exist,” he said.
His advice: Don't click on links in email or advertisements. You could download malware or wind up giving your personal information to a crook.
"You can be taken to a phishing site that looks exactly like a real shopping site when, in fact, it's a copy of that website,” Bischoff explained. “So when you type in your credit card information and password, that information gets sent straight to the criminals.”
If you see an ad for something you want, go to the retailer's website directly, rather than clicking on a link.
DON'T MISS: What to buy and what to skip on Black Friday
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