Even uber-frugal consumers have heard of Black Friday, the United States’ quintessential shopping holiday. The end-of-year holiday shopping season’s official kickoff day also happens to be one of the best days of the year to snag deals on coveted current-year electronics, appliances, and apparel. Our regularly updated Black Friday shopping guide outlines can’t-miss deals from some of the country’s top retailers – check it out for a taste of what to expect.
Before e-commerce, Black Friday meant braving heavy traffic, crowds, and short tempers. Hardcore shoppers queued in line for hours, often before dawn, to take advantage of “door-buster” sales and claim popular items before supplies ran out.
Today, Black Friday is a multi-channel experience. Dedicated shoppers still line up in the dark and wait on endless checkout lines on the day of, but thanks to Thanksgiving sales and extended “Black Friday weeks,” the savings opportunities (and shopper volumes) are much more dispersed. Virtually all retailers complement in-person Black Friday sales with online blowouts, blurring the lines between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which falls just three days later.
Whether you’re shopping in-store, online, or both, follow these tips to get the most out of your Black Friday shopping experience.
How to Prepare for Black Friday
Get started on these action items well before Black Friday. The earlier you begin, the more organized you’ll be when the big day rolls around.
1. Know What You Can Afford
Citing National Retail Federation data, CNBC reports that the average shopper spent $289 on Black Friday 2016. That was actually down slightly from the previous year, but it’s still an impressive chunk of change. For reference, the average full-time worker earns $887 per week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Black Friday spending is one superlative category in which it’s perfectly okay to be below average. Sure, once-in-a-season sales are hard to resist, but your wallet will thank you later if you show restraint now.
Before you spend a dime on Black Friday, set a budget and stick to it. Make a list of everyone for whom you’ll be shopping, what you’ll buy them, and about how much you expect those items to cost. That’s your firm budget limit – spending more is unacceptable. As Black Friday gets closer, you can use the tips below to pinpoint actual item costs, stretch your dollars further, and (fingers crossed) finish the day under budget.
2. Research Pre-Black Friday Pricing
When is a discount not really a deal? When it merely reduces a wildly inflated sticker price to something approaching fair market value.
In the weeks and months leading up to Black Friday, set price alerts for exact-match and similar products you plan to buy during the holiday shopping season. Watch how (or if) they change over time, and what pre-holiday sale prices actually look like. With any luck, you’ll spot suspicious pre-holiday price spikes and avoid falling for gimmicks masquerading as deals.
3. Follow Retailers on Social Media
This tip pays dividends throughout the year, but it’s especially great during the holidays, when retailers ramp up promotional activity and offer last-minute deals in higher volumes.
I’m more of a Twitter guy, so my go-to social media strategy is a private Twitter list of retailers I routinely patronize. Starting a couple weeks before Black Friday, start checking your list for Black Friday flyers and one-off sale announcements.
If you have an active Facebook account, you should also follow your favorite retailers’ Facebook pages. Just know that you’ll probably start receiving targeted ads after you follow – which, depending on your appetite for ads and your Black Friday shopping strategy, might not be a bad thing. Depending on your privacy settings and browsing habits, your retail Facebook ads might be very well targeted to your tastes.
4. Sign Up for Retail Newsletters
Signing up for retailers’ email newsletters is even lower-stakes than following them on social media. It takes just a few seconds to enter your email address and costs nothing to receive a standard newsletter. To avoid clutter in your regular inbox, you create a burner email address just for retail notifications, or use an email client that segregates salesy emails in a separate folder. (This is one of my favorite things about Gmail – I get a lot of promo emails.)
Start paying attention to your newsletters a couple weeks before Black Friday. They’re the easiest way to stay on top of Black Friday promotions – more efficient and accurate than Googling and clicking on the first result, since they come straight from the source.
5. Bookmark Retailers’ Websites
Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t take full advantage of bookmarks. They exist for a reason, people!
Bring rudimentary organization to your retail bookmarks by adding a few words of description to each title. For instance, your Best Buy bookmark might read “Best Buy: electronics and computer stuff.” There’s no wrong answer here – whatever makes sense to you is fine by me. If you have lots of other bookmarks, you can further compartmentalize your retail collection by creating special folders for Black Friday or the holiday shopping season in general.
6. Understand Price Matching Policies
As Amazon lays waste to traditional retail and competition heats up within the dwindling ranks of survivors, price matching is increasingly the law of the land. If you can prove that Best Buy charges $20 more for the same exact phone than the AT&T Store, you can probably get Best Buy to come down.
Not all retailers price-match though, and some pointedly exclude clearance sales from the mix. Before you assume a retailer matches all comers, read the fine print on their website (usually available in a disclosure statement) and check their Black Friday flyers for exclusions specific to that day.
Most price matching policies require documented proof of a current discrepancy, so have your phone handy to display competing retailers’ flyers or product pages.
7. Understand Return Policies and Fees
Next, familiarize yourself with your favorite retailers’ return policies and restocking fees (if any).
Generous return policies allow no-questions-asked returns for full cash refunds (or credit card chargebacks) within a predefined timeframe, usually at least 14 days. Returns usually need to be unopened, in original packaging. It’s pretty rare for retailers to accept opened items for return, and rarer still for unopened returns to earn cash refunds. Store credit, possibly less a restocking fee, is a better bet. That said, some retailers loosen their return policies during the holiday shopping season – the eligible window might be longer, or the permitted condition dodgier.
Within product categories, major-retailer return policies tend to be pretty similar. Whether you buy it at Staples or Office Depot, you can probably get a full refund for that unopened 3-in-1 printer 10 days after you buy it.
Some types of items, such as undergarments, typically have stricter return policies or all-sales-are-final policies by default. When restrictive policies are industry standard, there’s not much you can do about them. On the other hand, you should think twice about patronizing retailers with unusually restrictive policies. In a competitive retail environment, you’re likely to have more generous choices.
8. Plan Your Itinerary
Before you leave the house, put together an efficient itinerary.
If you’re patronizing chain retailers, try to hit the closest or most convenient locations. There’s no need to drive all the way across town when there’s a comparable shop a mile down the road.
If pricing (and price matching) allows, do as much of your shopping as possible at superstores like Walmart and Meijer – places with lots of different departments and low prices across the board. Ditto for warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club – they don’t have everything, and their Black Friday deals aren’t the best, but their pricing is hard to beat.
Budget more time than you think you need at each stop. Already-busy shopping districts and malls become downright chaotic on Black Friday. If you venture into one, you’re all but certain to encounter heavy traffic and scarce parking.
9. Download a Black Friday App and Coupon Aggregator
Heading out on Black Friday without a shopping app is like arriving at a potluck dinner without a side dish. It’s just not good manners (to your wallet, in this case).
Happily, free Black Friday shopping apps abound. Popular options include:
- Shopular: Shopular is a location-enabled app that automatically serves you with relevant deals when you approach your favorite stores. Since it’s pretty much effortless to use, it’s a great product to bring to the mall when you plan to hit multiple retail locations. Plus, it has a built-in rebate feature that returns up to 25% off select purchases.
- Flipp: Flipp aggregates flyers and coupons from hundreds of retailers. It lets you upload personalized shopping lists too – perfect for Black Friday. Upload your retail loyalty cards to earn points or rebates on Black Friday buys.
- The Coupons App: Like Flipp, The Coupons App is a flyer-and-coupon aggregator. The customizable alerts are clutch – you don’t even have to log into the app (or check your email for the latest newsletter) to see late-breaking deals, including Black Friday flyers.
- TheBlackFriday App: The name says it all. Of these four, TheBlackFriday’s app is the most narrowly tailored to Black Friday deals. If you’re looking for an app exclusively for the occasion, this is your pick. It does include deals that fall outside the traditional Black Friday window too, so it’s not a complete one-trick pony.
10. Know What You’re Going to Buy (And Stick to It)
As I noted in point #1 above, the best way to avoid overspending on Black Friday is to set a budget and stick to it. And you can’t do that without knowing exactly what you plan to buy.
Before you head out on Black Friday, draft a comprehensive list of recipients for whom you plan to shop on that day and the exact items you plan to buy them.
You’ll likely work through multiple iterations of this list. Just make sure it’s finalized by the time you head out the door on Black Friday. Don’t deviate once you’re out and about, and avoid opportunistic purchases unless your hard budget limit can accommodate them.
Shopping on Black Friday
Do these things on (or near) Black Friday itself.
11. Use a Rewards Credit Card
This is sound advice at any time of year. Doubly so when it’s time to make big discretionary purchases.
While flat-rate cash back credit cards such as Chase Freedom Unlimited (unlimited 1.5% cash back) and the Citi Double Cash Card (unlimited 2% cash back) are superior in most cases to category-bound cash back cards such as Chase Freedom and Discover it, the latter group has an ace up its sleeve: the potential for outsize payouts on the right types of purchases at the right time.
Chase Freedom and Discover it both earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in net purchases in one or two rotating categories at a time – up to $75 in bonus cash back per quarter. When department stores, home improvement stores, or apparel stores appear in the fourth quarter mix, the stage is set for an irresistible savings opportunity.
This isn’t guaranteed, of course, but I keep a Chase Freedom card in my wallet just in case. Neither Freedom nor Discover it have annual fees, so there’s little downside to doing so.
12. Take Advantage of Sign-up Bonuses and 0% APR Promotional Periods
If you’re in the market for a new credit card, look for one with a nice sign-up bonus or 0% APR introductory promotion (or both).
One of my favorite no-annual-fee credit cards is Chase Freedom Unlimited. Its sign-up bonus is significantly better than most competing cash back cards’, and its 0% APR introductory promotion lasts 15 months and applies to purchases and balance transfers. The one-two punch of serious free money and no interest on carried balances for more than a year is pretty hard to resist.
Some cards are even better on the 0% APR front. Citi Simplicity‘s 0% APR period lasts nearly two years from account opening, for instance. That’s a long time to make up for holiday overspending – though it’s always a good idea to pay your credit card balance in full, regardless of the circumstances. If you do have to carry a credit card balance from month to month, check out our roundup of the best low APR interest credit cards on the market.
13. Use Discounted Gift Cards
This is one of the least-appreciated ways to significantly reduce your holiday shopping expenditures.
You can find discounted gift cards online, at popular (and legitimate) clearinghouses like Raise and CardCash. Both offer discounts of anywhere from 2% to 35% to face value – lower for popular merchants like Best Buy and Target, higher for niche merchants with less name recognition.
Before you buy discounted gift cards, make sure you’re getting the right type. Some sites offer physical gift cards and online-only coupon codes. If you’re shopping in person, you’ll need the former, unless the retailer is willing to accept a digital version.
If you’re suffering from a surfeit of gift cards you’ll probably never use, check out our post on what to do with unwanted gift cards and learn how to recoup part of your investment.
14. Shop for Gift Cards
Do you have hard-to-please recipients? Buying gift cards in one go is a lot easier than wandering the aisles, zombie-like, in search of that one item your parent or spouse just can’t live without. If you’re already shopping for discounted gift cards to use on Black Friday, pick up a few extra for picky loved ones.
15. Divide and Conquer
Black Friday shopping is faster, more manageable, and more fun with a friend or relative – ideally, someone shopping for the same recipient pool, like a spouse or sibling. Before you arrive at the store, divvy up shopping duties: you to cosmetics and electronics, your partner to apparel and sporting goods, and so on. You’ll save time, avoid duplication of effort, and probably pick up a story or two in the process.
16. Get a Head Start the Night Before
Though the practice is controversial, many retailers open on Thanksgiving, usually in the afternoon or evening. Some remain open into Black Friday. Whether they’re identical to the next day’s deals or their own thing, Thanksgiving discounts are to be expected.
Because Thanksgiving is a national holiday, shoppers with family obligations tend to be absent from the fray. If you can shake off your turkey coma, Thursday evening is arguably the best time to shop on the long Thanksgiving weekend.
17. Dress Comfortably
Black Friday falls in late autumn, a chilly time of year for much of the country.
That means lots of abrupt transitions from cold parking lots to heated stores, especially if you’re shopping before dawn. Unless the prospect of donning and doffing your heavy coat at every thermocline sounds exciting to you, you’ll want to dress at a happy medium. Wear a fleece or light jacket for your outerlayer, possibly with a snug-fitting underlayer to ward off the outside chill.
18. Arrive Early
On Black Friday itself, the best sales typically happen early in the morning. Doorbuster sales start at 4am or 5am and wrap up by 9am or 10am, and the most coveted items tend to fly off the shelves well before then.
If you absolutely need to buy that one top-shelf TV or appliance in person, make sure you’re there early enough to get it. If that means losing sleep to stand in line for a few hours before the store opens, so be it.
Not willing to brave lines or crowds? Patronize retailers that remain open continuously from Thanksgiving afternoon. Wait for post-Thanksgiving crowds to die down in the wee hours, then breeze in and take your sweet time.
19. Avoid Unsafe Situations
Black Friday is a perfect storm of traffic, crowds, long lines, early-morning start times, and limited inventory. It’s a toxic brew for sleep-deprived, turkey-addled shoppers focused on getting their way at all costs.
Like clockwork, Black Friday brings arguments and altercations, some of which escalate to tragic effect. GoBankingRates rounds up some of recent history’s most notorious Black Friday fights here.
Avoiding unsafe situations on Black Friday is a matter of common sense and basic precaution-taking of the sort you’d practice in any crowded situation:
- You Don’t Need to Be First in the Door. Even if you arrive well before the store’s scheduled opening time, you don’t need to jostle to be first inside. That’s a recipe for injury – and, when enough shoppers have the same idea, stampedes. Hang back and wait to enter until the initial rush ends.
- Keep Valuables Close. Most Black Friday shoppers are honest, but you’ll find a few bad apples in any crowd. Prevent opportunistic theft by keeping your cash and payment cards close, in an interior clothing pocket rather than your purse or back pocket. If you’re worried about electronic theft of EMV card information, consider an RFID-blocking wallet, which also happens to be a great way to prevent high-tech theft abroad.
- Don’t Fight Over the Last Item. If you can walk away with the last item in stock unmolested, go for it. If a fellow shopper challenges you, drop it – even if you were there first. They clearly want it more than you, and it’s not worth the trouble.
- Be Careful in the Parking Lot. Keep your wits about you in parking lots. Harried Black Friday shoppers aren’t the best stewards of pedestrian safety – it’s up to you to avoid angry and distracted drivers long enough to make it into the store and back out safely.
- Stash Purchases Out of Sight. The last thing you want to find after a long day of successful shopping is a smashed back window and a back seat devoid of your holiday purchases. Do yourself and your gift recipients a favor and stash purchases in your car trunk, away from prying eyes.
20. Get a Gift Receipt
Get gift receipts for every returnable purchase. Ask for a regular receipt as well, for budgeting purposes – you’ll want to remember how much the item cost without trawling through your bank account or credit card statement .
21. Bring Paper or Digital Ads
Don’t trust retailers to maintain accurate signage or advertise deals in-store. Bring a paper or digital Black Friday flyer for every retailer you plan to patronize.
Having proof that the deal was advertised at some point in the past doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get it. Retailers usually stipulate that deals are subject to change without warning, after all. But physical proof is often enough to persuade busy sales associates (or their managers) to give you the advertised discount, rather than fight a losing battle against a potentially irate customer. Plus, they’re essential to invoke price match guarantees.
No matter what happens on Black Friday, remember to relax and try to enjoy yourself. Shopping for holiday gifts isn’t the highest-stakes thing you’ll do this year.
Besides, let’s be honest: You’re probably going to disappoint at least one of your recipients. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can move on.
Black Friday Online Shopping Tips
If you plan to shop online this Black Friday, follow these guidelines.
23. Avoid Sketchy Websites
Avoid patronizing merchants that shrug at safety. When you visit a new e-commerce website, look for two things: SSL encryption and Verisign protection.
SSL certificates protect against payment card fraud, the bane of online retailers’ and shoppers’ existences alike. The encryption protocol makes it much more difficult for hackers to capture and collect usable payment card information in transit between consumers and retailers.
While SSL encryption is not foolproof, it’s better than nothing. You should never, ever enter your credit card information on a site without it, full stop. SSL-protected page URLs always have “https” prefixes.
Verisign is an industry standard that provides additional protection against a wider range of hacking methods, including hijacking attacks that entice shoppers to enter sensitive information or download dangerous files from ostensibly safe, legitimate websites.
Some browsers use algorithms to flag sketchy activity and deter users from visiting dangerous corners of the web. My browser, Chrome, goes overboard sometimes – in the past, I’ve been warned off from sites that I’m pretty sure are legitimate. But, when you’re dealing with sensitive information, it’s better safe than sorry. Look into browsers with these protections (or free plugins that do the same thing) if you plan to visit lots of unfamiliar sites this holiday season.
24. Shop in Your Browser’s Private Mode or With Cookies Disabled
You might find better deals – and you’ll definitely avoid your boss’s wrath when shopping at work – in your browser’s private mode.
Disabling cookies in your browser is a more foolproof way to avoid detection and snag better deals. However, disabling cookies can impede non-retail aspects of your online experience, so it’s not necessarily an unfettered good. Ad-blocking software is another option, though you need to carefully research and vet options before you download. A lot of junky ad blockers are worse than the disease they purport to cure – and, unfortunately, the free ones tend to be lower-quality.
25. Use a Price Comparison Tool
For retailers, Black Friday is one of the most competitive days of the year. Even if you’re exclusively patronizing merchants with price match guarantees, why go through the trouble of invoking it when you can get the best possible deal in the first place?
Before you make an online purchase, use a price comparison app or toolbar to instantly compare prices at top retailers. PriceGrabber is an industry leader, but there are plenty of other options – check out this roundup from Shopify for more details.
If you prefer an old-fashioned comparison shopping experience, check out deal aggregators and shopping blogs. Just know that many of these sites don’t automatically update, so they may contain outdated information. Always check with the retailer itself before buying.
26. Use Your Credit Card’s Online Shopping Portal
Several major credit card issuers have internal shopping portals that complement and magnify existing rewards programs. Chase’s Ultimate Rewards, Citi’s ThankYou Rewards, and American Express’s Membership Rewards are all great examples.
Credit card shopping portals routinely offer instant, member-exclusive discounts or rewards bonuses for cardholders. Typically in the 2% to 10% range, these discounts or rewards payouts aren’t as impressive as your standard Black Friday cut, but they might accrue on top of existing promotions – including Black Friday clearance sales. Read the fine print for details and exclusions.
You can also redeem the credit card reward points you’ve accumulated during the year at your card’s shopping portal. That’s a surefire way to significantly reduce the out-of-pocket cost of your Black Friday.
27. Get Instant Discounts and Rebates Without a Credit Card
Don’t have a rewards credit card? No problem. You can still earn substantial discounts to full price on online Black Friday purchases.
All you need is a browser plugin or mobile app that passes a portion of its retail affiliate discounts on to shoppers. Popular options include Ebates and Giving Assistant (which was designed for charitable giving, but allows you to selfishly take rebates yourself).
Depending on the app and retailer, you can reliably earn up to 10% off, and sometimes much more. Just be sure to read the fine print and confirm that Black Friday purchases (and clearance-type sales in general) are eligible at your preferred retailer.
Black Friday is quite literally just the beginning of the holiday shopping season. If you can’t or don’t want to shop on the big day, you still have weeks to make up for it.
The next big opportunity comes right after the long Thanksgiving weekend, on Cyber Monday. If you have some downtime at work or don’t mind starting your week a little early, you’ll save serious cash on Cyber Monday – the biggest online shopping day of the year, at least in the U.S. Start planning today with our handy Cyber Monday shopping guide.
What’s your favorite Black Friday shopping tip? Do you have a go-to strategy for the big day?