One of the questions I dread around this time of year is: So how good are the deals really on Black Friday?
It’s just that the answer can be so ... murky.
With thousands of different discounts on Black Friday, it is difficult to make a sweeping statement about one of the biggest shopping events of the year.
To be sure, some of those deals are pretty sweet, especially the door busters (those deep discounts on certain items in limited quantity that retailers advertise to lure people through the door). But a lot of stuff is still sold at full price.
And it’s hard to know what the prices on other products will be in the week or two before Christmas, let alone at other times of the year.
A lot of it depends on how well retailers did in anticipating demand. If they end up with a surplus of certain products, prices on those items will likely plummet later in the season.
The Wall Street Journal set out to try to answer this question earlier this year. They tasked the folks at Decide Inc., a consumer-price research firm, to track the online prices on products ranging from flat-screen televisions to Barbie dolls to jewelry for at least two years. (The study, however, didn’t track in-store prices, so it didn’t take into account some of the door-buster deals.)
The results were across the board. The prices of jewelry and watches tended to go up closer to Christmas, so it is better to buy those items earlier in the holiday shopping season, the newspaper concluded.
It was the same with a pair of Ugg boots, which had a list price of $159.95 and were selling for as low as $85 in September or October. But the average price on those items jumped to $135 and $137 on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, according to the Journal.
But in some cases, Black Friday was the best time to buy, according to the data. Video game systems such as Xbox had their biggest price drops around Black Friday with more than $100 in savings.
Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst for BMO Capital Markets, said the best prices for toys can generally be found around Black Friday, too.
Toys R Us tends to raise its prices on toys in December, he said. That is partly because mass market retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target tend to be more conservative with their toy inventories, not wanting to be stuck with a lot of surplus in January. So Toys R Us can afford to raise prices because they have more selection and inventory closer to Christmas.
The retailer “sells toys year round, so they don’t mind having some stuff left over,” Johnson said.
Louis Ramirez with Dealnews.com said Black Friday is also a great time to buy a lot of electronics — as long as you’re not looking for the best name brands.
“But it’s no longer so much about one day,” he said. “It’s become more like Black November. We’ve been seeing pretty aggressive deals all month. ... So you can find just as good deals this week and next as you can on Black Friday.”
This is a great time to buy a secondary TV for the bedroom, for example, when stores offer a lot of discounts on third-tier brands, he said. But it’s better to wait later in December to buy some of the better brands such as Sony and Samsung.
Ramirez advised consumers to check the fine print before heading out to stores to get door busters, because sometimes stores just carry three or four items of the advertised deal.
And these days, you can increasingly find those door-buster deals online, too. Dealnews.com found last year that about 70 percent of all in-store door busters also were offered online.
Last year, for example, Best Buy and Wal-Mart ended up offering a couple of its door-buster deals online, which came as a surprise, Ramirez said.
“That’s the tricky part — you don’t know exactly which stores and door-buster deals will make it online,” he said.
Toys R Us is putting all of its door busters online this year. Sears is also doing so starting Sunday afternoon for members of its rewards program.
As you wade through Black Friday madness, Tracy Hardgrove, a vice president for the Better Business Bureau in St. Louis, gives this timeless advice: Do the research.
“It’s best if consumers do a little comparative shopping with several retailers,” she said.
And, of course, make sure you read the fine print on those circulars and understand the return policy.
“There is a common misperception that retailers are required to provide a refund,” she said. “But it is a courtesy. So check the return and refund policy.”