Business

Think Black Friday is best day to get a deal? Think again

As the hardiest of shoppers prepare for the annual Black Friday consumption frenzy, many are convinced it's their one shot at a great deal.

But "that's not even close to the truth," said Matthew Ong, senior retail analyst at online personal finance company NerdWallet Inc.

Bargain hunters can — and, in some cases, should — avoid the Black Friday weekend crush, several experts said.

Many characterize the shopping bonanza as an expertly marketed ploy to capitalize on shoppers' fear of missing out. By dangling a small batch of irresistible savings, stores land hordes of hopeful shoppers all scheming to score the retail version of Willy Wonka's golden ticket.

Yet only a tiny percentage of customers end up with the most desirable deals. The rest, unwilling to leave empty-handed, walk away with lesser bargains arranged appealingly nearby.

The weekend is crowded with misleading promotions, including deceptive discounts off misstated "original" prices and deals that could have been had a year earlier, according to NerdWallet. More than 90% of Black Friday ads this year feature items being sold at exactly the same price as they were last Black Friday, the financial advice website said.

And some door-buster prices are available throughout the year, including a $79.99 Tommy Hilfiger jacket at Macy's that NerdWallet said was also offered during the retailer's Veterans Day sale. At Target, researchers discovered a KitchenAid mixer selling for less than its advertised Black Friday sale price.

"Consumers make poor decisions when they're under duress, and this is most obvious on Black Friday," Ong said.

There will be plenty of competing shoppers this year to provide that stressful situation.

From Thursday through Sunday, the National Retail Federation anticipates that as many as 140 million shoppers will hit stores or retail websites. Although that's less than the 147 million who planned to do so last year, it's still more people than are active daily on Twitter, reside in Mexico or attended all the professional football, basketball and baseball games played in the U.S. last year.

In addition, more companies than ever are opening their doors on Thanksgiving, or as Westfield Topanga mall is billing it, Grey Thursday. So on top of the shoving, sleep deprivation and occasional stampedes the shopping event tends to breed, there will be an extra layer of hostility born of the decision to stand in line instead of tuck into turkey.

Black Friday itself remains the busiest and most productive day of the year for retailers. Consulting firm Accenture found that the appeal of the day is at a five-year high, with more than half of survey respondents saying they'll participate.

Retailers have been in a promotional mood for months as they try to attract wary shoppers. They're trying to make up for sales that have been weak through much of the year, damaged by volatile weather, shaky consumer confidence, the government debt stalemate and a payroll tax increase.

Forecasts for the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period — which can sometimes account for 40% of a retailer's annual sales — are dour. Morgan Stanley predicted the worst holiday sales since 2008.

Worried retailers may continue discounting well past Black Friday in an attempt to suck in last-minute stragglers, analysts said.

Sharon L. McCollam, Best Buy Co.'s chief financial officer, told analysts in a Tuesday conference call that keeping up with rivals on bargains and discounts is "table stakes" in the holiday game.

"We are committed to being competitive on price," McCollam said. "So if our competition is, in fact, more promotional in the fourth quarter, we will be too."

DealScience, an online bargain aggregator based in Los Angeles, found that Wednesdays are the week's best day to save money, with a third of all coupons published on that day.

And hold on to those receipts: This year, more than 20% of big-box retailers are offering a price match guarantee, according to DealScience. If fact, most retailers will issue a rebate for the price difference if they put an item on sale after you bought it at a higher price.

Overall, Dec. 4 will be the best day to shop for the holidays, with the least amount of traffic between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to ShopperTrak. Stores on Saturdays and Sundays, in comparison, are expected to be overwhelmed with people scrambling to check off their gift lists in four weekends instead of the five they had last year.

"Come into a store on Wednesday, and shelves will be fairly well replenished, things will be back in order, there will be lots of workers to give you attention and much less commotion," ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said. "You can really focus on the deals that are available."

For certain gifts, the best prices land far from Black Friday.

The best deals for toys come in the last two weeks of the holiday season, said Jim Silver, editor in chief of TimeToPlayMag.com.

But that doesn't apply to the most popular playthings. Such items are rarely discounted because of high demand, and they might not be available late in the season.

Silver said he visited several Wal-Marts in mid-November, and all were already sold out of Big Hugs Elmo. He said he also expects stores to have trouble refilling shelves with LeapPad Ultras once supplies of the children's tablets run dry.

"Buy what you have to have now," Silver said.

In other product categories, Black Friday-caliber deals are emerging weeks early.

A team from RBC Capital Markets visited stores in mid-November and reported that "promotions across the mall already appear aggressive." And the use of "bounce-back" promotions — in which shoppers get a discount for every increment of spending — is increasing.

Amazon.com Inc. said it's launching its deals Sunday, five days before Black Friday.

An email blast from Home Depot this month encouraged subscribers to "get Black Friday prices on appliances now." It offered free shipping to stores and homes on more than 400,000 items. So-called "special buy" deals already being presented included $200 off washing machines and $1,001 off an LG French door refrigerator.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. started offering "Pre-Black Friday online-only specials" — including an LG television marked $50 off its list price — on Nov. 1. Then, on Nov. 22, the retailer dropped prices on toys and electronics to preempt similar Black Friday door-buster deals planned to launch a week later at stores of Target Corp., Toys R Us Inc. and Best Buy.

Even Rue La La, a flash sale site described by Chief Executive Steve Davis as "Black Friday and Cyber Monday 365 days a year," launched its Gift Center two weeks earlier than it did last year.

"We wanted to get consumers into the gifting spirit early and not wait for Black Friday or Thanksgiving," Davis said.

Online, holiday shopping started two months ahead of schedule, according to research from PayPal, which said the volume of Cyber Monday mobile payments surged 190% last year after booming 552% the year before.

Expanded free shipping offers and the promise of convenience will help Cyber Monday revenue grow an expected 13.1% to $1.8 billion this year, according to IBISWorld. Although Black Friday is projected to generate $13.6 billion in revenue, that would be only 3.9% more than in 2012, the group found.

"Black Friday may lose some of its luster," IBISWorld analyst Nikoleta Panteva said. "A lot more retailers are catching on and realizing that consumers aren't necessarily keen on leaving their house."

With holiday deals increasingly kicking off on Thanksgiving, a movement to boycott store openings on the holiday is growing. A Facebook community called Say No to Shopping on Thanksgiving launched Oct. 14 and has more than 49,000 likes.

In Altadena, writer Meaghan Murphy is mulling over whether to buy a gift card from Nordstrom, a retailer normally out of her price range but one she admires for refusing to open on Thanksgiving.

"I understand that retailers want to make a buck, but I don't see the point of greed taking over common sense, which seems to be what's happening," said Murphy, 45. "Instead of buying sweaters and trinkets nobody's going to want to look at in two months, we focus on being together with family."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

Twitter: @tiffhsulatimes

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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