Sneaky previews of ads

  • Article by: JACKIE CROSBY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2007 - 8:57 PM

Word of Black Friday deals is already popping up online, and Wal-Mart has threatened legal action.

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Black Friday may be 23 days away (about 550 hours for those on the Midnight Madness countdown), but details of some door-busting deals for the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy already are making their way online.

A four-page Ace Hardware ad hit the Web in September -- a record-setting scoop that got posted nearly 10 weeks ahead of Black Friday, which lands on Nov. 23 this year.

Ads for Macy's, Sears, and Toys 'R' Us also are already posted on several websites that have cropped up in recent years solely for the purpose of leaking retailers' Black Friday deals.

While bargain hunters sign up for e-mail alerts when new ads are posted on the sites, which include bfads.net, blackfriday.gottadeal.com, blackfridayads.com and blackfriday.info, retailers are none too pleased. The newspaper circulars are closely guarded secrets, considered a key to gaining a competitive edge over rivals.

This year, for the first time, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has threatened legal action. A note sent to about 10 websites from a Washington, D.C., law firm on behalf of the retailer warned of "criminal penalties" if the sites post any of Wal-Mart's Black Friday advertisements before Nov. 19.

"It's just wrong to be dealing in stolen information or to encourage people to steal such information," Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley said in an interview.

Although Target Corp. has sent out warnings in the past, the Minneapolis-based retailer isn't taking preemptive action this year. The company considers the pre-Black Friday ad postings to be a "serious infringement of intellectual property rights," said spokeswoman Lena Michaud, but is considering the best way to combat the growing practice.

Black Friday gets its name from the notion that it's the first day retailers turn a profit, or get "in the black." Black Friday is one of the biggest shopping days of the year, though the top-ranked day usually happens closer to Christmas. As retailers raise the bar on gimmicks and enticements, including midnight openings, Black Friday has become a madcap event, as sleep-deprived shoppers duke it out for deals.

Among the bargains in this year's early leaks: a DeWalt 7¼-inch circular saw for $59.99, down from $109.99 at Ace Hardware, and half off a Breadman breadmaker at Macy's ($39.99 for the early birds). But disclaimers abound about the reliability of the ads, a point retailers also are quick to make.

"We'll be making last-minute changes on many of our offerings and our ads until shortly before Thanksgiving," said Macy's spokeswoman Jennifer McNamara. "Nothing's finalized yet."

But Michael Brim, the webmaster of bfads.net, describes his work as a "humanitarian effort," though he's said he makes "spending money" through retailers who give him a cut from any sales made through his site.

Brim, 20, is a junior at California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo who launched his site in 2003 when there was little competition. A bargain hunter who camped out with his parents at 4 a.m., he wanted to make it easier for sales-seekers to compare prices.

Brim has a "don't ask" policy about where the ads come from and says vaguely that those who supply the site with ads "probably just come across them."

Brad Olson, founder of blackfriday.gottadeal.com, said those who post leaked ads sometimes get a free T-shirt or backpack "as a token of our appreciation."

Wal-Mart's Simley said there's a "long supply chain" of people who have access to the top-secret Black Friday ads, including company insiders, art houses, printers and newspapers. (A Star Tribune spokesman said the paper prohibits employees from removing any preprinted ads or coupons and from bringing cell phones or cameras into production areas. Violators could be fired.)

Bluster or buzz?

Last year, Richfield-based Best Buy Co. Inc. was among a handful of retailers to send cease-and-desist orders to the websites. Others to send hostile notices include Office Depot, Sears, Kmart, Linens and Things and Home Depot.

But Stephen Hoch, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, suspects that the retailers' stance may contain a bit of bluster. In the end, Hoch notes, retailers' ads are pretty similar. And anything that gets shoppers talking is a good thing.

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