Lori Cunningham, 42, still remembers vividly that fateful Black Friday a few years ago when she lost a bit of her dignity.
She arrived at a closeout retail store called Tuesday Morning in Los Angeles at 6 a.m. and it was so crowded she ended up crawling under a throng of people trying to get to a heavily discounted reproduction of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
Her target was a Paris scene priced at $190, down from $350, but a fellow female shopper grabbed it just as she got to it. “We did a tug-o-war,” she recalled.
Looking back now, she said, “I wouldn’t do that again.” But she also wouldn’t miss a Black Friday, adding, “You need to keep the prize in your mind and hold your arms out to protect yourself so as not to get trampled.”
While it may sound crazy to people who stay far away from the nation’s malls and stores on the biggest shopping day of the year, the thrill of the hunt is what drives people like Cunningham to keep going.
This year the deals, real or not, are going to be hyped as they rarely have been in the past, retail experts said. That means you need to craft a Black Friday strategy if you want to take advantage of the best bargains and stay safe among the crush.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Keep a cool head when you’re going elbow to elbow with the crowd, or when you’re online in the early morning hours. The already-crazed promotional holiday season may bring out a larger crop of line cutters this year.
- Check out online coupons that may be needed to get the best deals when you head into the stores.
- Beware of deals that really aren’t deals at all.
Cunningham, a stay-at home mom who writes a tech blog called WellConnectedMom.com, considers herself a Black Friday shopping aficionado and develops an elaborate strategy.
For weeks she has been getting e-mail updates from a Black Friday ad-scanning service to develop her wish list. Before the big day, she’ll scope out the stores to check out available stock and where item is located on the sales floor.
When Black Friday arrives she’ll get up a little before 3 a.m., pack a folding chair, flashlight and hot chocolate and map out a few potential destinations. She’ll avoid stores with the biggest lines, driving around or waiting in the parking lot until crowds thin to a small herd instead of a massive horde.
And the crowds will be massive: Some 49 percent of households will be sending at least one person out to the malls and stores the day after Thanksgiving, compared with about 40 percent in some recent years, according to C. Britt Beemer of America’s Research Group.
“If you’re actually going to go to the trouble to get up early and get in line, forewarned is forearmed,” said Christine Frietchen, editor of ConsumerSearch.com.
She encourages people to "keep the whole Christmas spirit in mind, especially after the disaster of 2008 when a Walmart worker was trampled to death by a throng of shoppers at a store in Long Island.
Another tip: Make sure you got the right credit card back, advised Lauren DiLauro, who has seen her share of Black Friday scuffles having worked for 12 years at a major department store. She now runs a web-based business called Feng Shui Fashionista. She also recommends that shoppers double-check to make sure they get the deal price. Often the discount has not been put into the system.
One of the biggest challenges with Black Friday is actually getting good buys.
Already, retailers have started price wars and they’re expected to intensify as the holidays draw near.
Walmart and Target already launched a toy pricing war early this season, and other retailers have been cranking up the hype.
John D. Morris, senior analyst for BMO Capital Markets, said retailers are trying to keep up the excitement this year by cross-promoting between online and in-store deals. "You can be online and see what’s happening and get special promotions for use in stores," he said.
That means shoppers might have to harness the power of cell phones and other portable devices as well as Web-based applications to sniff out the best deals.
“I utilize the power of my iPod Touch and install many of the Black Friday apps to get the latest bargains and deals,” said Lisa Sims, author of “Stretching A Dollar To Save And Make Thousands” and a Black Friday connoisseur. “I also sign up for the mobile text coupons that stores such as JC Penney, Belks and Target use so that I can get additional savings on Black Friday deals.”
But no matter whether you use the latest technology or go old school the key is to focus on getting real deals and not just being caught up in the hype.
ConsumerSearch’s Frietchen cautioned consumers to be careful of the fake sale. Her website has a whole section on busting the phony Black Friday bargains.
- A Black Friday "doorbuster" at Bass Pro offering the Garmin nuvi 1450, GPS unit with a 5-inch screen for $170. “But right now on Amazon it sells for $169 with free shipping,” Frietchen said.
- A Black Friday Kohl's ad at Kohl’s features the Dyson DC25 Animal vacuum cleaner for $399. “But we found it available as of Nov. 8 at ABT.com — a well-respected online retailer—for the same $399 price plus free shipping,” she said.
The other thing to beware of is the big-deal marketing blitz for a product with severely limited inventory, she said. One example is a washer/dryer in a Sears circular for Black Friday at about half-price. The catch is that there are only four available per store.
One item on Cunningham’s deal hit list this year is a Google TV. “In my book, it's the hottest technology right now. It gives people the ability to surf the net fully from their TV's,” she noted.
Would she get in another deal duel over a hot bargain this time around? “I’d like to say, I wouldn’t do that again,” she added.