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."
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.
Also, pick your battles. Retailers deliberately place the hottest items at opposite corners of the store in the hopes that you'll pick up other items as you traverse the sales floor. All this traveling takes time, especially in a deal-hungry crowd. "If another deal is on the other side of the store, either send someone else to get it or forget it," says John Paul Zahary, a Black Friday veteran in Toms River, N.J. "Otherwise you will be stuck in line for hours."
Go with a posse. This naturally leads to another strategy: Find a band of brothers and sisters for your Black Friday campaign. Different members of a team can focus on different parts of a store, or go to different stores at the same time. "Because we have multiple people, we increase our chances of getting the item," says Daggett, who often goes with two or three friends.
Shopping with your spouse, however, can cause some awkwardness if you plan to buy him or her a Christmas present. One tip from the Black Friday forum: Take some blankets to throw over your cart so that your husband or wife can't see what you've purchased as you wait in line.
Control your impulses. For retailers, Black Friday deals are a tease; they're hoping you come in the store to get a cheap TV and walk out with a bunch of regular-priced or not-greatly-discounted items. Try your hardest to resist: The only reason to brave the crowds on Black Friday is to secure savings of 30 percent or more on items that you actually want.
Even if you do find deep discounts, you've still got to make sure they're worth the effort. For one thing, you should only go shopping for stuff that won't be on sale later in the year. Clothes, for instance, are always deeply discounted at the end of the season, so it doesn't make sense to stand in line for hours to get them the day after Thanksgiving. Also, pay attention to the fine print on a deal that looks too good to be true. "There will be cheap laptops available but you get what you pay for," says Zahary. "Many times, you get lower-end processors and not as much memory. You can probably get more bang for your buck during a back-to-school sale in the summer or when certain items reach clearance."
Have fun! Black Friday superfans concede that they're an odd bunch. They all know that these days it's possible—and maybe even likely—that you'll get better deals online. So why go out at all? Because for some people, shopping on Black Friday is insanely fun. And if braving the cold and the crowds isn't your idea of a good time, you shouldn't bother.
"I love the thrill of going out and getting a deal," Zahary says. "It's very satisfying, like you conquered an objective in life, while still saving money and getting something wonderful for yourself, family and friends." Steffj89, a BFads forum regular, writes, "I love the crowds, the thrill of the deal, the people, the noise, this is MY SUPERBOWL."
And here's what Daggett had to say: "I'm a little guy—I weigh no more than 120 pounds and I'm 5-foot-6. So, yeah, it could turn deadly at any moment, but that adds to the adrenaline rush. As crazy as it sounds to most people I would rather not be anywhere else but in that crowd of customers beating the crap out of each other for an item. If you can grab that item you feel like a million dollars. I know that sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it's true."
Good luck, be safe, and get a good deal!
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