You're already behind on your Black Friday shopping — 'It actually started in October'

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At this point, Black Friday feels like as much of an American tradition as Thanksgiving. Thursday comes with turkey and Detroit Lions football, and Friday brings doorbusters.

But in recent years, at least partially because of the pandemic, Black Friday has expanded from one day into a whole season of sales. And in case you hadn't noticed, it's already started.

"It actually started in October," says Louis Ramirez, deals editor at Tom's Guide.

This year, Amazon added a second Prime Day in October to go along with its annual sale in July. "The way they spun it was, 'This is for all you people who want to get your holiday shopping done early,'" says Ramirez. "That opened up the floodgates for other retailers to do the same."

Don't worry, you're not too late to get good deals. Here's how deal experts say the rules have changed for Black Friday shoppers, and how you can take advantage.

Different timelines for different deals

Finding the deal you're looking for could mean hitting a moving target. "Some of the deals that started in October have expired. Some have come back," says Ramirez. "There will be new rounds of deals through the end of the year."

So how do you know when to act? Depending on where you're shopping, the sooner you buy, the better off you'll likely be.

Several stores, including Target, have a holiday price guarantee, says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst at DealNews. "If you shop now and the price drops before December 24, you can get a price adjustment," she says.

Although she expects a spate of new deals to roll out on Friday, it may be wise to pounce on discounts if they're currently being advertised as part of a Black Friday sale, Ramhold says. Best Buy's current slate of discounts, for instance, are unlikely to change on Friday, she says.

"If they sell out, there's no guarantee that they'll be back in stock," Ramhold says. "You don't want to sit on those labeled as Black Friday deals for too long. If you have the ability, go ahead and jump on it."

No need to wait in line: 'All the deals are available online'

Some retailers will still call their Black Friday sales doorbusters, but there's no need to storm the place, experts say.

"There will always be people who finish Thanksgiving dinner and go line up, but things have flipped. All the deals are available online," says Ramirez.

That's been the landscape for a few years now, says Ramhold. "We kind of saw in-store-only deals on their way out before the pandemic, and then the pandemic really ruined that," she says.

There may be a few exceptions for "things that make sense," says Ramhold. "Warehouse clubs may have in-store deals on perishable items that they're not going to ship you."

Otherwise, you're likely to find identical deals online and in the store.

Cyber Monday isn't really a thing anymore

When Black Friday was the domain of big-box retailers, the internet shopping holiday Cyber Monday gave smaller, online retailers a chance to get in on the action.

But nowadays, with the likes of Target and Walmart offering online deals all weekend, you're unlikely to find anything special or different on the Monday after Thanksgiving Day.

Some retailers will have separate branding for Cyber Monday, while some may coin a phrase that encompasses the whole weekend.

"Some stores will have different sales on each day. Others will change the name. It depends where you're shopping, but when you dig into it, the deals may not be all that different," says Ramhold.

In short, everyone and their mother will be putting things on sale all weekend, and maybe have done so already. To get the best deals, retail experts offer two big strategies:

  1. Use a price tracker: Whether you're shopping early or on Black Friday proper, giving yourself an idea of what something usually goes for can help you know if you're getting the best discount. If a site such as CamelCamelCamel shows you that an item you're looking at is priced close to the bottom of its range, you can be comfortable that you're getting a good discount.
  2. Narrow your options: "Make a list of what you want to buy — what you're giving others and what you want to buy for yourself," says Ramirez. "That way you can stick to the list, and it makes it easier to track down and compare prices."

Want to earn more and work less? Register for the free CNBC Make It: Your Money virtual event on Dec. 13 at 12 p.m. ET to learn from money masters like Kevin O'Leary how you can increase your earning power.

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