ATTENTION holiday shoppers, here is your annual public service announcement: The overwhelming majority of Black Friday deals are duds.
We all know the drill by now. Retailers' sales promotions begin weeks before Thanksgiving, with a smattering of modest deals that eventually build up to the shopping bonanza that is Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving. That is followed by Cyber Monday, a so-called online shopping extravaganza that takes place the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend.
To whet shoppers' appetites further, it has become increasingly fashionable for online retailers to build up anticipation for Black Friday with so-called flash deals. These last only a few hours, putting pressure on consumers to make purchases with little or no research.
Yet however you shop, the chances of snatching a great deal for a quality item are slim, largely because Black Friday is mainly designed for retailers to clear out unwanted goods, and because best-selling products rarely drop much in price. So we teamed up again with The Wirecutter, a website for product recommendations that was recently acquired by The New York Times, to weed out the good deals from the bad.
Year round, The Wirecutter tracks product prices across the web to unearth worthwhile deals on high-quality items. Less than 1 percent of the tens of thousands of Black Friday deals online last year were good deals — that is, discounts on high-quality, well-reviewed and durable products — and this year the situation is likely to be the same, said Adam Burakowski, The Wirecutter's associate deals editor.
Fret not, frugal shopper: Getting a good deal is still possible. It just takes a bit of forethought and web sleuthing, Mr. Burakowski said.
"Come up with a list and ask yourself, What am I interested in and what is the price now?" he said. "Just a slight check in advance would help out most consumers."
This year, Americans are expected to spend $884.5 billion during the holiday shopping season, a 3.3 percent increase from last year, and Black Friday is expected to be the No. 1 shopping day, according to the research firm eMarketer. Here's how a bit of research could help prevent you from needlessly burning piles of money.
Before we get into sleuthing for good deals, it's important to understand a bad or mediocre deal. Retailers enjoy exaggerating their discounts for products in the weeks leading up to Black Friday, as well as on the actual day.
An example of a bad deal on Amazon: On Monday, Amazon listed a set of 42 Rubbermaid storage containers for $16 as one of its deals of the day. But a quick search on Camel Camel Camel, an online tool that looks up price histories on Amazon items, reveals that the set was priced at $10 in late October and $14 earlier this month. So $16 is nothing to be excited about.
Sometimes mediocre deals can be tricky to catch. Toward the end of October, Amazon listed a deal for its Kindle Paperwhite e-reader for $100. On the surface, this may seem like a good deal because the retail price is $120. But at the beginning of October, the Paperwhite was discounted to $90 — a price drop that Camel Camel Camel could not detect because the discount was applied at the end of the checkout process, Mr. Burakowski said.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
So what's a good deal? Amazon this week listed for $30 an Anker battery pack for charging mobile devices. That is worthwhile, because the price of the item had remained flat at $40 for over a year, according to its price history.
The lesson? Make a list of products you want to buy. Then check their Amazon price histories and buy the items if they drop to your desired amount.
Daniel Green, a founder of Camel Camel Camel, also recommends this shortcut: Create a wish list on Amazon.com and import it to Camel Camel Camel. That way the site automatically watches all the items and alerts you when the prices drop.
There's also a more automated option if you don't want to do all the homework. Follow the Twitter accounts for the deals pages run by The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, its sister publication for home appliances and accessories. During the week of Black Friday, their team will be posting good deals on Twitter for high-quality items as soon as they see them.
The same lessons for shopping wisely online apply to brick-and-mortar stores.
Before you line up at Best Buy or Walmart, browse the ads, highlight the products you want to buy and check their Amazon price histories online to assess whether the deals are any good.
However, sales catalogs don't include everything that's on sale, and when you're in the store, navigating deals while shoving through a crowd will be more challenging. That's where the free smartphone app ShopSavvy may be helpful to have on your phone. ShopSavvy said people can use its app to scan an item's bar code, and the software then loads the price of that item at different online and physical retail stores.
For example, I used ShopSavvy to scan a bar code for a pack of Swiffer duster refills. Within seconds, the app loaded the price of the refills at various stores: $10.34 at Walmart, $9.97 at Amazon.com and $14 at Walgreens. If I scanned that item at a store, I would put it down and order it on Amazon.
There is an easier way to avoid regrettable purchases when shopping in physical stores: Just don't do it, and shop only online. The good deals at physical stores are as rare as the ones you would find online, Mr. Burakowski said. So before subjecting yourself to the misery of sleeping outside Best Buy, consider staying home and watching the deals roll out on the web.