Black Friday is not an official national holiday, but this year we may as well consecrate it as such—the nation's fortunes depend dearly on how much you and your fellow citizens spend on this first day of the holiday shopping season. Don't lose your scruples, though, just because the economy hangs in the balance. Yes, you'll be able to find some great bargains this weekend, especially on technology (Check out this 22-inch widescreen LCD monitor for just $140, including shipping.) But there are many deals you should avoid, too—things that sound like bargains but that on closer inspection are no bargain at all.
In general, don't buy anything that you or your loved ones don't need just because it's on sale. This sounds obvious, but the rule is easy to forget during a shopping stampede. Remember, retailers are counting on your irrationality—the whole point of a "doorbuster" sale is to get you into the store to seduce you to spend cash on more profitable items. So, check your shopping cart before you check out. Ask yourself: Do I really need this contoured lap desk, or am I just buying it because it's half off? Also, beware items that have some kind of continuing cost—cell phones, printers, and other devices that seduce you with a low up-front expenditure in return for subscription or maintenance fees.
Beyond those broad proscriptions, there are a few specific product categories that you should avoid entirely. Print out this list and take it with you when you hit the mall. It'll save you a bundle.
Blu-ray players: Early this year, Sony's Blu-ray emerged victorious over Toshiba's HD-DVD in the high-definition video disc wars. Now the market's flooded with cheap Blu-ray players: On Friday you'll be able to snap up $200 units at Best Buy, Circuit City, and Sears, and if you stop by your local Wal-Mart early enough, you might be able to get this Magnavox player for $128.
But try to restrain yourself. Sure, Blu-ray defeated HD-DVD, but its real enemy is the regular old DVD—and it'd be premature to bail on DVDs at this point. First, DVDs still look terrific. Yes, if you've got a big TV that is capable of displaying the highest-definition images, a Blu-ray movie will look incomparably better than the same film on DVD. But if you don't have such a setup—if your HDTV is smaller than about 40 inches or so, small enough that when you sit far away much of its detail fades—the difference between a superfantastic Blu-ray picture and a merely fantastic DVD picture will be less noticeable. And if you've got a standard-def TV, you'll see no benefit from Blu-ray.
At the moment, investing in Blu-ray is risky. There's a reason manufacturers are slashing Blu-ray players' prices—the things aren't selling very well. Meanwhile, several tech and entertainment companies—among them Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Netflix—are working on ways to bring out more HD movies over the Internet, eliminating the need for discs. If these efforts take off, Blu-ray may die.
Instead of buying a Blu-ray player, you could spend your $128 on 8 DVDs or six months of Netflix service. Or, save your money: You won't lose anything by waiting to see if Blu-ray survives. If it does, prices will continue to fall, and by the summer you'll be able to buy a better player for the same amount of cash.
TVs that are too big, or too fancy: It's a good time to buy a new TV. In 2007, manufacturers of flat-panel screens ramped up their plants in order to meet what they thought would be huge demand for big TVs during the 2008 Summer Olympics. Thanks to the flagging economy, that demand didn't materialize. Now, says Sweta Dash, an analyst at the market research firm iSuppli, flat-panel manufacturers are swamped with huge inventories. As a result you can find incredible bargains on HDTVs—32-inch sets are going for as low as $399, 42-inch units are $599, and you can get a 50-inch plasma for as little as $798.
But beware. When TVs are so cheap, it's easy to get pushed into one that's too big for your room or offers a higher resolution than you need. Succumbing to either temptation can be harmful to your wallet.
How big of a television should you buy? TV experts offer this handy rule of thumb: Measure the distance in inches between your couch and your TV, then divide by 1.5. The number you come up with is the biggest widescreen TV you should get. For instance, if you sit 6 feet away from the TV—72 inches—you shouldn't buy a screen larger than 48 inches. Anything bigger and you may begin to notice too much detail in the picture—pixilation, scan lines, and other artifacts that you wouldn't see on a smaller set.
You should also pay attention to the resolution of your new TV. There are two main kinds of HD sets: 720p and 1080p. These designations indicate the number of pixels squeezed into the picture. A 1080p screen has almost three times as many pixels as the 720p screen, which salespeople will gladly tell you translates into a substantially better picture, thus justifying the 1080p set's greater price tag.
In fact, 1080p TVs are packed with a lot of extra pixels that most of us don't really need. For one thing, because 1080p signals require a lot of bandwidth, every cable company broadcasts high-definition TV shows in 720p, so you're not getting anything more by watching Lost on a 1080p set. (Dish Network and DirecTV said recently that they'll put out some channels in 1080p, but skeptics say that their signals will be too compressed to look as good as true 1080p images.) And even if you're watching a 1080p video—like a Blu-ray disc—the differences between 720p and 1080p are nearly indistinguishable on TVs smaller than 55 inches or so. Even videophiles have a hard time telling any difference. So if you can get a lower-resolution set for less money, go for it. You won't miss a thing.
Extended warranties: If you buy an expensive piece of tech this weekend, expect the store to guilt you into "protecting" your purchase with an extended warranty or service contract. Retailers love these programs because they yield very high profit margins (often more than 50 percent). By all means, resist!
Extended warranties are almost always a bad deal—there's a very small chance that your product will break down, and if it does, there's a pretty good chance that the repair will cost less than the price of the warranty. In surveys of customers around the country, Consumer Reportsfound that only a small fraction of flat-panel TVs, digital cameras, and camcorders need repairs after three years. Computers fail at a higher rate, but a typical repair costs the same as a warranty—so why not skip the warranty now and just pay for the repair when you need it?
Photo printers: These are selling for as little as $100 this year, but you'd be wise to stay away at any price. That's because they require constant feeding—the cheap printer you buy today will ask you to replace its ink cartridges within a few months' time. The cartridges can sell for as much as the printer itself. Accounting for ink and paper prices, you'll end up paying about 25 to 30 cents per printed 4-by-6 photo. Online photo labs like Snapfish charge less than a dime per photo; Wal-Mart's photo service even lets you order online and pick your snaps up at the store. For the price of a $100 printer, you can get 1,000 pictures from a lab. So why buy the cow?
Digital picture frames. I've never understood the appeal of these devices—why do you want yet another LCD screen for your house? You can already look at your pictures on your computer (play them as a screensaver!), your TV, your iPod, and even your cell phone. That's not enough for you? And, anyway, pictures don't really pop on a screen like they do on paper. Plus, as a piece of decor, digital frames smack too much of the Sharper Image catalog; perhaps you can put yours next to your digital weathervane and sleep sound generator.
But with LCD prices plummeting, these devices are now cheap enough to tempt even hardened cynics. Small 7-inch models are going for as little as $40. When I polled my Slate colleagues on their experiences with digital frames, several suggested that they make good gifts for grandparents who don't otherwise have access to digital photos. If you buy one for grandpa, though, make sure to get a model that's easy to use—many people reported that their grandparents didn't know how to change the pictures in their frames, or generally got so flummoxed with the devices that they stashed them away for good. As an alternative, you might consider investing a few hours of your time to make grandma a physical photo book using an online service like iPhoto, Picaboo, or Shutterfly. These books cost as much as a digital frame, and they look much classier on the coffee table.
FM iPod transmitters. It sounds like a good idea: These devices broadcast your music over an unoccupied FM frequency, letting you listen to tunes in the car. But they don't work. Trust me. Over the years I've tried several models in different cars, and none has ever produced a clear signal for more than a few minutes. Your tunes sound like they're being sent from a distant station while you're driving through a mountain pass. They're selling for $20 to $50 this year. For that price, buy some blank CDs and make a few playlists for your commute. Your ears will thank me.