What I learned today about Black Friday sales

Although a lot of people, including money saver types, recommend against buying anything at all on the day after Thanksgiving, I rolled out of bed and fought the crowds early this morning.

I think I came out ahead.Having the ads ahead of time helps to plan out strategy. I don’t read Fat Wallet religiously like some people do, but earlier this week I found a link to a nice spreadsheet on Digg that listed all of the available deals, sortable by category, store, and everything else imaginable. That helped immensely.

A big part of the key is knowing what you want and sticking to it. Get into the store, get the biggest item right away, then go get the smaller items.

I nearly got burned by not planning for traffic. I figured since I left my house before 6, I should be able to zip through the commercial area to get to Office Depot in about five minutes. I was wrong; with the stoplights all on flash, it was worse than rush hour. My five-minute trip took more like 30, and the store was open by the time I got there.

I went in, but it was a waste of time. There were three things on my shopping list, and all of them were gone, including the little things. I grabbed a ticket for the printer I wanted, but when I took it to the register, I was told they were all gone, after I stood there by the register for 15 minutes. "Well, we’re a little busy now," was the smart-aleck reply I got from the stock guy when I asked why it took 15 minutes to tell me they were gone.

Lesson learned: If it doesn’t look like they have what you want and someplace else has it, leave. Immediately. It’s more productive to stand in line at a store that hasn’t opened yet.

I somehow managed to get to Office Max about half an hour before they opened. The line was already wrapped around the side of the building when I got there, but by the time the store opened, the line was much longer.

I know Office Max’s layout a lot better than Office Depot’s layout, so I actually managed to get everything on my list and get out of there quickly. The item I really wanted–the printer–cost $20 more there, but it was still a good deal at the higher price, and there weren’t any rebates for me to mess with.

If I’d been going to more than two or three places, it would have been a good idea for me to map out my route using Google Maps to eliminate any backtracking. That way, if two stores I wanted to visit were going to open at the same time, I could get to the nearest store.

The Office Max trip really drove something home: If you’re really serious about getting something, it helps to visit the store earlier in the week to get familiar with the layout, so you can get to the items on your list quickly.

Another important point: I didn’t mess with anything not on my list. Everything I bought came at a substantial discount. Part of the idea of Black Friday doorbuster sales is to get you into the store to buy other things because you’re there anyway.

And about that list: Before you put something on your list just because it looks like a good deal, ask yourself if you’d still buy it if it were full price. Last year I bought a USB flash drive and a spindle of DVD recordables because I needed them. This year I bought a bigger USB flash drive because I keep filling up the 1 GB drive I bought last year. These are things I would have bought anyway, but it was worth waiting for a good deal.

If you only use a printer once, it’s not a bargain, whether you pay $99 or $249 for it.

I also checked to make sure the price really was a good deal. Sometimes the prices at Newegg, Amazon, or some other online vendor are lower already. I didn’t buy anything that I could get cheaper online from the comfort of my living room.

Finally, you need to make sure you save enough money to make it worth your time. This year I saved more than $200, so it was worth getting up at 5:30 this morning to go do it. It’s not worth getting up at 5:30 and standing in line for 30-45 minutes to save $6 on a USB flash drive. Last year, since my savings amounted to about $20, I bought my stuff online and saved the trip. Of course the stuff ended up being backordered, so it took nearly a month for it to arrive. I was willing to live with that.

Today, I was home with my loot by 7:30. That’s as good as making $100 an hour. Actually it’s better, since it’s tax-free.

So, to recap:

1. Make a list of the things you want.
2. Make a list of the stores you’ll visit, based on the things you’re going to buy. Start with the store opening the earliest.
3. If possible, visit the stores earlier in the week and find the items on your hit list, so you’ll be able to find them quickly on Black Friday.
4. Locate the addresses of all of the stores, and plot out your route using Google Maps to avoid backtracking if possible.
5. Try to arrive at each store half an hour early. The less time you actually spend inside each store, the better. Most of the killer deals are gone within 20 minutes.

Some people recommend buying online instead of going to the stores, or buying the item earlier in the week and then price-matching it on Friday afternoon when the crowds are smaller. Make sure you know the rules; some stores won’t do this.

As for buying online, Office Max was selling its items at full price this morning. Office Depot’s web site wasn’t working, so they probably were honoring their prices but I wouldn’t have been able to buy them. Keep in mind that if you buy online, you’re at the back of the line, so you won’t get the item quickly and the store may weasel out of giving it to you at all.

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