The unofficial start to the holiday shopping season is just around the corner and Dev Shapiro has left nothing to chance.
The Dallas resident and veteran bargain hunter has spent the last three weeks developing a plan of attack for Black Friday sales, the day after Thanksgiving when US retailers slash prices on everything from flat screen TV’s to the hottest toys.
Limited supplies fuel a frenzy among sleep-deprived shoppers willing to brave the crowds and weather to be among the first in line when the doors open.
"Starting in September, I go to Web sites, scan the ads, participate in message boards and do my own intelligence," said Shapiro, who last year landed a $150 laptop and a $10 MP3 player at Best Buy , his Black Friday retailer of choice.
"At around 6 p.m. on Wednesday (the day before Thanksgiving) I go to the store to do reconnaissance because the employees are already setting up for Black Friday," says Shapiro. "I see where they’re placing the pallets."
He then goes home, grabs his gear, and meets a growing group of Black Friday aficionados in the store parking lot by 11 p.m. – a full 30 hours before the store opens at 5 a.m. Friday.
"We’re out there with tents and laptops, chairs and books," he said. "We bring a DVD so we can watch movies and someone always brings a generator and a big screen TV. You do kind of doze off, but then people start showing up and you really get an adrenaline rush."
His ace in the hole this year? "I’m taking care of the bathroom problem," he says. "I rented a Port-A-Potty on wheels."
For shoppers like Shapiro, Black Friday bargains have become as much a part of the holiday tradition as candy canes and Burl Ives.
Some 133 million bargain hunters are expected to take to the stores this Friday, according to the National Retail Federation, which is forecasting a 4 percent increase in holiday sales this year to $474.5 billion. If so, it will be the weakest sales growth since 2002, when they rose 1.3 percent.
While consumers once relied on newspaper ads released Thanksgiving Day to develop shopping strategies, most now get their information weeks in advance through Web sites that publish Black Friday promotions and ad circulars.
"We started this Web site to help consumers find the best deals," said Varun Mahajan, founder of theblackfriday.com. "If you’re looking for a GPS, you want to know in advance where you can get the best deals. If you wait for the fliers that come out that morning, they may be gone by the time you get there."
According to Hitwise, an online competitive intelligence service, online traffic for Black Friday advertising Web sites increased 52 percent this year over 2006. Searches under the term "Black Friday ads" jumped 91 percent compared to last year and are up 954 percent since 2005.
Wal-Mart received the most traffic, followed by Sears and Best Buy. The terms "iPod," "Wii" and "Uggs" were the top three product searches.
"Consumers are becoming increasingly more knowledgeable about the availability of Black Friday promotions online and are actively seeking out the Web sites which offer the advertisements before public release," said Heather Dougherty, director of research at Hitwise.
Indeed, Black Friday Web sites cultivate sales ads from a variety of sources.
"We get them from any source you can imagine that would have access to newspaper ads," said GottaDeal.com founder Brad Olson. "Employees of graphic design studios, newspaper distribution people or friends and family of employees."
The sites may be popular with shoppers but retailers have taken strong exception to their business.
Both Macy’s and discount powerhouse Wal-Mart Stores have sent cease and desist orders to a number of Web sites that publish sales information before their public release, requesting that their circulars be removed.
Both GottaDeal and theblackfriday.com complied.
"The large issue is that our promotional material is our own proprietary property and it is our decision when they are made public and when they are not," said Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman for Cincinnati-based Macy’s.
He adds that store advertisements frequently change "up to the very last minute" so there is a "concern of having incorrect information out there."
Wal-Mart, which would not comment on on the legal issues, began publishing its Black Friday ad circular online Nov. 19 this year to meet the demands of Internet-savvy consumers. The Bentonville, Ark.-based discounter will release a new set of "secret in-store specials" on Thanksgiving Day – one day early.
Olson of GottaDeal.com says the ads posted on his Web site have been "very reliable in the past, especially when we receive pictures of the actual ad."
But the potential for consumer misinformation has Daniel Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations for the National Retail Federation, concerned.
Butler says the practice hurts retailers and consumers. "If something leaks early, often it has not been edited so it could have typing errors or inaccurate prices."
HE adds that some Web sites pay individuals a finder’s fee for advanced copies of ads. "You don’t know if it’s true or not, which leads to a deterioration of brand for the retailer and the consumer gets to the point where they don’t know what to believe," says Butler.
Shop.org, a division of the NRF, launched CyberMonday.com last year for online shoppers looking for accurate, online holiday promotions. Over the last five years, says Butler, the Monday after Thanksgiving has become the busiest day of the year for online shoppers.
"People go out on Black Friday or over the weekend with family or friends, and when they go back home they look to see if what they weren’t able to find over the weekend is available online," says Butler."
The rapid growth of online shopping, in fact, is expected to take some of the wind out of Black Friday’s sails this year, says Marshall Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y.
Black Friday Looking Grey
“This year the day after Thanksgiving is going to be called Grey Friday,” he says. “We’ve already seen direct communication with consumers through the Internet, with retailers offering Black Friday-like prices earlier. They keep informing and engaging customers throughout the year to create a loyalty so we see sales happening sooner.”
For Black Friday shoppers Shapiro and his friends, however, the online shopping experience can never replace the camaraderie found in a cold huddle outside the stores at 4 a.m.
"I still go out for the great discounts, but it’s also about the people – about playing football in the parking lot," he says. "Every time I go out there I make friendships with people in line and we keep in touch throughout the year. It’s become tradition."
His parents, who have delivered Thanksgiving dinner to Shapiro in the Best Buy parking lot for the last five years, are also warming to the idea. "They thought I was crazy at first, but then they started getting great Christmas gifts and now they think it’s pretty cool," says Shapiro.
When he heads home from his Black Friday shopping trip this year, he says, he’ll be falling asleep in front of a new flat screen TV.