The ultimate Black Friday survival guide.

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Nov. 24 2010 4:22 PM

The Ultimate Black Friday Survival Guide

How to get the best deals without losing your mind or losing a limb.

Black Friday shoppers. Click image to expand.
Black Friday shoppers

Black Friday isn't for the faint of heart. Sure, you might get some good deals if you wake up early to brave the crowds, but you'll also wait for hours in line, and you might get into a fistfight with the guy who tried to nab the flat-screen. Worst of all, you could lose out on the best deals and end up with a cartful of off-brand e-readers.

To help you avoid that fate, I interviewed several Black Friday veterans—people who've spent years dodging the morning crowds to get the best possible deals. With their help, I've compiled this Black Friday survival guide. Read it closely, and then get shopping. You don't have much time to waste.

Don't be a noob; do your research. If you're only just now thinking about going shopping on Friday morning, you're already late to the game. Black Friday enthusiasts have been planning their retail sorties for weeks, if not months. They've been monitoring sites like BFads.net and BlackFriday.info for early word on the best deals; they've scoped out opening times and crowd-management systems for all their nearby retail meccas; they've compiled in-store maps and spreadsheets outlining their Friday morning routines; and they've spent hours on online forums discussing Black Friday strategies.

"I go at it with military precision," says John Daggett, a 21-year-old Black Friday expert who lives in Milford, Conn. This will be Daggett's fourth Black Friday. He says that the biggest mistake first-timers make is lining up without knowing what they're looking for. "When the doors open the people like me who know what we're looking for, we run toward those items. The people who don't know what they're doing—they fan out to, like, DVDs or CDs. You end up with a majority of people getting small items. They're not really saving much money on them."

Not only will failures of planning ruin your Black Friday, it will cause problems for everyone else, too. There's a certain respect, among B.F. experts, for others who know what they're doing. The noobs, meanwhile, are just annoying. "When those type of people line up it creates this line that's insane," Daggett says. "Now, I'm not saying they don't have the right to line up, but it makes it extremely difficult for someone like me to get a good night's rest. They're kind of like filler."

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Avoid Wal-Mart and Best Buy. "Wal-Mart is like Dante's Inferno," says Jordan Weddington, a 19-year-old college student who's been shopping on Black Friday since he could walk. Everyone I consulted echoed this sentiment: Rookies think of Wal-Mart as the ne plus ultra of Black Friday, the epicenter of the American low-price shopping experience. But the smartest B.F.ers know to limit their exposure—they either avoid Wal-Mart entirely or, if they see some unavoidable deal, devise a scheme to get in and out as quickly as possible.

The reason: Wal-Mart gets ugly on Black Friday. It's true that the company imposed tight security and crowd-management protocols in the aftermath of the 2008 trampling death of a temp worker in Long Island. These include issuing tickets for the biggest items before the store opens (if you get a ticket, you're sure to get that item, so you don't have to rush) and hiring lots of guards to keep a close watch on the crowd.

But veterans say there's a culture of desperation at Wal-Mart that you don't see at other stores. People go crazy when the doors open, and once they get inside the store, it's a scene from Lord of the Flies. Daggett says that last year, his Wal-Mart had a pallet of JVC headphones, normally priced at $9.99, that were discounted to $4.99. The moment that Wal-Mart employees opened the pallet, "people went ballistic," he says. "They turned into savages, shoving the Wal-Mart employees out of the way, shoving them to the ground. The crowd immediately took over, throwing the box up into the air. They were ravaging each other for it. It was incredible."

While it's unlikely that you'll get injured, savvy Black Friday shoppers say there's a good chance you'll be scared for your safety. The deals you'll get—if you manage to outwit the crowds—won't be worth it. The Black Friday cognoscenti say that Best Buy is often as anarchic as Wal-Mart. They've got higher praise for Target, where the management is better at imposing order and usually keeps a greater stock of in-demand items.

For rookies, though, the best places for Black Friday shopping are the small stores that don't attract much of a crowd. "Try Office Depot, Office Max, or Staples—I've never seen more than 30 or 40 people outside those stores," Daggett says. "If you're a first-timer you can still get a taste for the adrenaline rush and still get a good deal."

Don't meander! "The biggest key to Black Friday success is getting out of the stores," writes one Black Friday sensei on the BFads forum. A rule of thumb is never to spend more than 20 minutes in a store. Go straight to the item you came for, then rush to the checkout line. The longer you spend in a store after the door opens, the longer you'll have to wait in line—and the longer you wait to check out, the more deals you'll miss out on at other stores.

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