Black Friday – the Friday after Thanksgiving – has traditionally been viewed as the kickoff to the holiday shopping season. 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 that Thanksgiving weekend is still a major shopping event. According to the National Retail Federation, more than 133 million Americans shopped in stores and online over Thanksgiving weekend in 2014, spending nearly $51 billion dollars – about $381 per person.
All this shopping is great 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. Instead, the name was popularized in the 1960s, when Philadelphia police officers 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, it seems, brings new reports about fights breaking out or shoppers being injured during Black Friday sales. 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 piles up on the highways, causing major slowdowns. Parking lots are crowded as well, leading to frantic competition for parking spaces. On Black Friday 2012, Los Angeles Times reports that two shoppers were shot in a conflict over a parking space outside a Walmart in Tallahassee, Florida.
- Crowding. As bad as Black Friday traffic can be, the crowding outside your car is often worse still. Every year, the papers display photos of mobs of frenzied shoppers shoving each other aside to claim prized “doorbuster” specials. In some cases, the dense press of shoppers can turn dangerous or even deadly. On Black Friday 2008, The New York Times reports, crowds outside a Walmart in Green Valley, New York, pushed in the store’s double doors and trampled a temporary worker to death.
- Sleep Loss. In their competition to win a bigger 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 claim a place in line. Perhaps the most extreme case of this was reported by Fox News 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 simply 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 in order to start shopping for the next one.
- Disappointing Deals. Ironically, many of the products that shoppers are lining up for aren’t actually special Black Friday bargains at all. An analysis of Black Friday ads by the deal-hunting site NerdWallet found that more than 90% of retailers were advertising at least some of the same products at the same prices as they had in the previous year. In addition, many of these prices were exactly the same as discounts that had already been offered during other sales throughout the year. Some retailers even went so far as to mark up their prices on certain items right before Thanksgiving to make their Black Friday discounts look deeper.
- Danger to Life and Limb. Black Friday crowds can get a bit 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. Admittedly, the majority of Black Friday shoppers don’t get caught up in scenes of violence, but there seems to be no way to predict where a crowd will turn unruly.
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 even, in many cases, the best way – to score good deals. Other alternatives, such as shopping online, shopping locally, and waiting until later in the year, can save you just as much cash without all the hassle.
1. Shop Online
For about 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 right after Thanksgiving weekend, possibly because people were taking advantage of faster Internet connections at their workplaces. To capitalize on the trend, sites started offering special Cyber Monday sales, and Cyber Monday became a shopping event in its own right that now rivals Black Friday in importance. In 2014, DealNews reported that it had found more “top-shelf deals” available on Cyber Monday than on Black Friday itself.
However, online shoppers don’t necessarily have to wait until Monday to score bargains. DealNews notes in a separate article that up to 70% of the in-store deals retailers offer for Black Friday are also available online for the same price – or in some cases, even less. In fact, some retail experts say you’re better off making your online purchases on Black Friday. Because you’re competing with shoppers from all over the world, not just your local area, deals are likely to sell out by the time Monday rolls around.
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. You can stay off the overcrowded highways, and if your business district is in walking distance, you can even 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. American Express estimates that 88 million shoppers took part in Small Business Saturday in 2014, spending more than $14 billion at local businesses.
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 for everyone on your list, you can save a ton by shopping secondhand. You can buy used books, clothes, music, movies, and jewelry in excellent condition for a fraction of what they’d cost new.
Places to shop secondhand and save include:
- Online stores such as eBay, Amazon.com, and Bonanza
- Craigslist and other local for-sale listings
- Thrift stores
- Flea markets
- Garage sales
4. Shop Earlier…or Later
As the NerdWallet study shows, the prices you find at Black Friday sales aren’t necessarily lower than sales prices offered at other times of the year. In fact, in some cases, the sale prices aren’t really discounted at all.
As proof, NerdWallet displays sale fliers from Kmart and Ace Hardware showing Black Friday “sale” prices that are actually identical to the prices for those same items offered earlier in the month. So shoppers who hit these stores before Thanksgiving could have scored the same deals while avoiding the holiday crowds.
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 could actually be better off waiting until after the holidays are over. That’s when you’ll find the best deals on many items, including:
- Winter Clothing. According to DealNews, you can get discounts of 50% to 80% on name-brand winter wear during after-Christmas sales. If you can afford to wait until late February, you can get still lower prices during winter clearance, although your selection is likely to be limited by then.
- High-Definition TVs. While HDTV sets certainly go on sale on Black Friday, they’re often off-brand models without a proven track record for reliability, according to Kiplinger. You’re likely to find the best prices on name-brand models in late January, a week or two before the Super Bowl.
- 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. At this time of year, you’ll see big markdowns on treadmills, stationary bikes, and other home gym equipment – anywhere from 30% to 90%.
- Jewelry. Right after Valentine’s Day is the best time to shop for jewelry items. Howard Schaffer, a retail expert quoted in Kiplinger’s, says post-Valentine’s Day sales offer discounts of anywhere from 15% to 25%. However, DealNews claims many retailers offer still steeper discounts, ranging from 60% to 94%.
- Perfume. Fragrance is another item that tends to go on sale after Valentine’s Day. You can score discounts of 50% or more in late February and March, especially at online retailers.
5. Just Shop Less
Perhaps the most radical approach of all to saving more on Black Friday is the one offered by Adbusters. It has rebranded Black Friday as “Buy Nothing Day,” a time to challenge the “consumerist machine” and its constant pressure to buy.
Participants celebrate Buy Nothing Day with a variety of alternative activities, such as:
- Anti-Consumerist Protests. The Adbusters site suggests a variety of humorous ways to protest consumer culture on Black Friday. In “Credit Card Cut Up,” for instance, you cut up a credit card in the middle of a shopping mall. “Whirl-Mart” involves steering a conga line of empty shopping carts around a mall.
- 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.
- Street Parties. Some folks celebrate Buy Nothing Day by taking to the streets for free, noncommercial parties. These can involve music, dancing, or any other kind of activity that doesn’t involve spending money.
- Winter Coat Exchanges. Some communities hold winter coat exchanges on the day after Thanksgiving. Part charity event, part clothing swap, these events simply 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 actually 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, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t join the crowd on Black Friday – though you should probably check first and make sure the deals you’re hunting are really bargains.
But if you can think of other things you’d rather do with your Thanksgiving weekend – things like enjoying the last of the beautiful fall weather, or hanging out with relatives you only see once a year – then there’s no need to give them up for the sake of a bargain. You can do your holiday shopping at other times, or in other ways, without making a big dent in your wallet.
Do you shop Black Friday deals? Do you prefer to shop in-store or online?