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.
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