The Friday after Thanksgiving, or Black Friday, is traditionally considered the kickoff to the holiday season for shoppers. That’s less true today than it used to be, with many stores unveiling their holiday deals well before Thanksgiving. But there’s no denying Thanksgiving weekend is still a major shopping event. According to the National Retail Federation, nearly 190 million Americans shopped in stores and online over Thanksgiving weekend in 2019, spending an average of $362 per person.
All this shopping is excellent news for retailers, but for the shoppers themselves, it has definite downsides. After all, the day is called “Black Friday” for a reason. And contrary to popular belief, that reason had nothing to do with sales figures. Philadelphia police officers popularized the term in the 1960s when they used it to refer to the crowds and snarled traffic they had to cope with in the city’s shopping district.
In the decades since, those crowds have only grown bigger — and nastier. Nearly every year brings new reports about fights breaking out or injuries sustained during Black Friday sales. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic adds an extra layer of danger to the shopping spree, as just being in a crowded place is a health risk.
All this has left some shoppers facing a conundrum: Are the Black Friday deals trumpeted in the glossy sales fliers really worth the hassle?
Reasons to Stay Home on Black Friday
Shoppers who feel reluctant to venture out into the Black Friday frenzy have good reason to hesitate. Joining the throngs of Black Friday shoppers in stores has some serious drawbacks, including the following:
- Traffic. With hordes of shoppers hitting the stores, traffic backs up on the highways, causing significant slowdowns. Parking lots are crowded as well, leading to frantic competition for parking spaces. ABC News reported that on Black Friday 2016, a shopper was shot dead in a conflict over a parking space outside a Walmart in Reno, Nevada.
- Crowding. As bad as Black Friday traffic is, the overcrowding in and around the stores is often worse. Every year, news outlets display photos of mobs of frenzied shoppers shoving each other aside to claim prized doorbuster specials. In some cases, the dense press of shoppers turns dangerous or even deadly. On Black Friday 2008, crowds outside a Walmart in Green Valley, New York pushed in the store’s double doors and trampled a worker to death.
- Sleep Loss. In their competition to win a more significant share of Black Friday sales, stores are opening their doors earlier and earlier. Shoppers intent on securing the best bargains are forced to get up in the middle of the night to line up or camp out to score the best Black Friday deals. Perhaps the most extreme case of this was in November 2013 when shoppers started lining up outside a Best Buy more than a week before Thanksgiving Day.
- Cutting Thanksgiving Short. Rather than dealing with crowds literally busting their doors down on Black Friday, some retailers are starting their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day. In 2014, a few chains, including Sears and Toys ‘R’ Us, opened their doors on Thanksgiving Day and never closed them until closing time on Black Friday. Shoppers looking for doorbuster deals at those chains had to leave their Thanksgiving meals early, cutting one holiday short to start shopping for the next one. y 2018, Business Insider reported, some Black Friday doorbuster deals at Walmart, Target, and GameStop sold out before Thanksgiving Day was over.
- Disappointing Deals. Ironically, many of the Black Friday deals shoppers are lining up for aren’t really such great bargains. A 2018 analysis of Black Friday ads by the deal-hunting site NerdWallet found that Black Friday sale prices on many items, including a Samsung washer and a Dyson stick vacuum, weren’t as good as sale prices at other stores earlier in the year. In fact, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2013 that many retailers actually raise their prices before Thanksgiving to make their Black Friday “discounts” look even deeper.
- Danger to Life and Limb. Black Friday crowds sometimes get out of control, often with dangerous results. In addition to the two cases noted above, there have been numerous reports of fights breaking out among Black Friday shoppers, sometimes involving guns or other weapons. There’s even an entire website, Black Friday Death Count, dedicated to recording these stories. Admittedly, the majority of Black Friday shoppers don’t get caught up in violence, but there seems to be no way to predict where a crowd will become unruly.
- Germs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that shopping in crowded stores over the Thanksgiving 2020 weekend poses a high risk of spreading COVID-19. It proposes online shopping on Black Friday and Cyber Monday as a safer alternative.
Alternatives to Black Friday Deals
If pushing your way through Black Friday crowds isn’t your idea of fun, but you think the deals are just too good to pass up, there’s good news. Hitting the mall on Black Friday isn’t the only way — or in many cases, even the best way — to score good deals. Other alternatives, such as shopping online, shopping locally, and waiting until later in the year, often save you just as much cash without all the hassle.
1. Shop Online
For over 10 years, retailers have touted Cyber Monday as the online equivalent of Black Friday. The event began when retailers noticed a big boost in online sales on the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, possibly because people were taking advantage of faster Internet connections at their workplaces. To capitalize on the trend, retailers started offering exclusive Cyber Monday sales online, and Cyber Monday became a shopping event in its own right that now rivals Black Friday in importance. In 2020, DealNews reported it had found more staff picks — its “best of the best” deals — available on Cyber Monday 2019 than on Black Friday.
However, online shoppers don’t necessarily have to wait until Monday to score bargains. According to CNBC, many retailers now offer identical deals for Black Friday both in-store and online, so you can shop the sales all weekend long without leaving home. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend. In 2020, the holiday shopping season got off to a “soft start” in October with Amazon Prime Day and the competing sales offered by other retailers.
Pro tip: If you’re planning to shop online this year, make sure you add the Capital One Shopping browser extension. While shopping on your favorite retailer’s websites it will automatically add available coupon codes at checkout.
2. Shop Locally
Another alternative to hitting the mall on Black Friday is to do your holiday shopping at local businesses. Strolling along Main Street wandering in and out of shops is a much more relaxing experience than battling Black Friday crowds at the big-box stores. It keeps you off the overcrowded highways, and if your business district is in walking distance, you can leave the car at home altogether and avoid having to fight for a parking space.
The downside of shopping locally is that mom-and-pop shops usually can’t offer the same huge selection and rock-bottom prices as the big chains. However, many small businesses offer deals on a smaller scale for Small Business Saturday, a local-shopping event launched by American Express in 2010. According to American Express, Small Business Saturday shoppers spent an estimated $19.6 billion at local stores and restaurants in 2019.
3. Shop Secondhand
If you’re looking for a deal on the latest gaming system or tablet computer, you probably have no choice but to buy it new. However, if all you want is to find gifts the people on your list will love, shopping secondhand saves a ton. Used books, clothes, music, movies, and jewelry are often in excellent condition for a fraction of what they’d cost new.
Places to shop secondhand and save include:
- Online stores like eBay, Amazon, and Bonanza
- Craigslist and other local for-sale listings
- Thrift stores
- Flea markets
- Garage sales
4. Shop Earlier – or Later
According to Consumer Reports, there’s no need to wait until Black Friday to find bargains. Most so-called Black Friday sales actually start well before Thanksgiving — at some stores, as far back as the start of November. Shoppers who hit the stores before Thanksgiving not only score the same deals while avoiding the worst of the holiday crowds, they actually have a better chance of finding the items they want in stock.
However, if you’re like the many shoppers who are planning to pick up a little something for themselves during their holiday shopping spree, you’re sometimes better off waiting until after the holidays are over. That’s when retailers have the best deals on many items, including:
- Winter Clothing. Eric Jones, a retail expert interviewed by Kiplinger, says November is too early in the season for good deals on winter apparel. For the best prices, wait for clearance sales in late January and early February.
- High-Definition TVs. HDTV sets go on sale on Black Friday, but they’re often off-brand models without a proven track record of reliability. According to Digital Trends, you’re likely to find the best prices on name-brand models in March when electronics manufacturers mark down last year’s models to make way for the newest ones.
- Exercise Equipment. Fitness gear also tends to go on sale in January when many people are working on New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or get in shape. Tech columnist David Pogue says a lot of home gym equipment, including treadmills and stationary bikes, is discounted 30% to 70% this time of year.
- Jewelry. Late January is the best time to shop for jewelry. Brent Shelton, another expert quoted in Kiplinger, says this is when jewelers and department stores are most likely to offer bargains. Pogue claims you can find still better deals during the July lull between gift-giving holidays.
- Bedding. Bedding like sheets, towels, and comforter sets traditionally goes on sale in January. Courtney Jespersen, an expert who also spoke with Kiplinger, says she’s seen discounts of 50% or better at Macy’s, Kohls, Overstock, and Pottery Barn during this month.
5. Just Shop Less
Perhaps the most radical approach to saving more on Black Friday is one discussed in a 2018 Bustle article. It’s about a Black Friday alternative called Buy Nothing Day. Started in Canada in 1992 as a protest against consumerism, this 24-hour break from shopping has spread to 65 countries around the world.
Participants celebrate Buy Nothing Day with a variety of alternatives to Black Friday shopping, such as:
- Anti-Consumerist Protests. Some people use Buy Nothing Day as an opportunity to protest consumer culture in humorous and fun ways. One popular protest is the zombie walk, during which nonconsumers lurch aimlessly around shopping malls, buying nothing and staring around blankly. If shoppers stop them to ask what’s wrong, they take the opportunity to explain their anti-consumerist viewpoint.
- Going Back to Nature. Other Buy Nothing Day participants choose not to protest consumer culture but simply to retreat from it for the day. Instead, they enjoy the natural world with activities such as group hikes, bike rides, and kayaking. Outdoor retailer REI supports this idea with its Opt Outside campaign, closing the store on Black Friday and urging its customers to spend time outside instead. Several states have hopped on board as well, offering either free admission or free parking at state parks. Search online to see if your state is one of them.
- Street Parties. Some folks celebrate Buy Nothing Day by taking to the streets for free, noncommercial parties. They involve activities that don’t require spending money, like music and dancing.
- Staying In. For many people, Buy Nothing Day is an opportunity to relax at home. It lets them unwind from the stress of Thanksgiving preparations, spend time with family, and cultivate hygge, the Danish lifestyle of cozy companionship.
- Winter Coat Exchanges. Some communities hold winter coat exchanges on the day after Thanksgiving. Part charity event, part clothing swap, these events provide a place for anyone who has an unwanted winter coat to drop it off and for anyone who needs a coat to pick one up for free.
For some people, being part of an excited crowd of Black Friday shoppers is fun. They enjoy the thrill of the hunt, and they feel a sense of camaraderie with the other shoppers waiting in line for holiday deals. If you’re one of them, there’s no reason you shouldn’t join the crowd on Black Friday — just check first and make sure the deals you’re hunting are really bargains.
But if there are other things you’d rather do with your Thanksgiving weekend — like enjoying the last of the beautiful fall weather or hanging out with relatives you only see once a year — there’s no need to give them up for the sake of a bargain. Instead, do your holiday shopping at other times or in different ways without making a big dent in your wallet.
Do you shop Black Friday deals? Do you prefer to shop in-store or online?