Black Friday is a whole new game

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 18, 2011 - 4:04 PM

Shoppers and retailers navigate ever-changing rules on Black Friday. Midnight was the new kickoff time this year, until Wal-Mart announced that it's opening at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

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When it comes to shopping on Black Friday, the new economy is demanding new rules.

Next week, it'll be the night owl who gets the worm, not the early bird, with many big-box stores opening at midnight on Thanksgiving Day, four to six hours earlier than last year. Wal-Mart gave in to shoppers wanting a sneak peak at Friday's specials. Instead of letting the deals get leaked to sites that provide advance copies of the Thanksgiving Day circulars, the retailer released them last week via e-mail to anyone who signed up on its website. The hope is that it'll raise excitement -- and spending. Those are just a few of the many changes in store for Black Friday shoppers, who are more deal-driven than ever before and on the offensive with new tools to help them find the best gifts at the lowest prices.

With many retailers sitting on a glut of unsold goods, said Dealnews CEO Dan de Grandpre, this year's Black Friday discounts could be the best in years.

That's good news for shoppers.

"They're [retailers] pulling out all the stops," said Andrea Waroch of FreeShipping.org.

Old rule: Get up early on Friday morning to shop. New rule: Stay up late on Thanksgiving night.

Retailers such as Best Buy, Target, Kohl's and Macy's will open at midnight on Friday, creating a conundrum for every door-buster shopper -- whether to stay awake after the turkey gobble or take a short nap. Just as important, how will shoppers fill the time (and stay wake) until 4 a.m. when the next wave of stores (Sears, JC Penney) opens? Will Caribou and Starbucks pull all-nighters to keep shoppers alert?

Traditionalists worry that in the race to get the first crack at shoppers' wallets, retailers might even be open on Thanksgiving Day next year. But that genie has already left the bottle. Target is experimenting by opening its 29 stores in Denver from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving, but its Black Friday specials won't start until midnight, even in Denver. "This test is about providing guests with an opportunity to buy last-minute Thanksgiving shopping needs, including groceries," said Target spokeswoman Sarah VanNeevel. Toys 'R' Us opens at 9 p.m. Wal-Mart opens shortly thereafter at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving night with separate deals at 10 and midnight. The earlier hours are already causing objections, including from Change.org, which has more than 175,000 signatures protesting Target's earlier opening.

Old rule: Plot your shopping strategy on Thanksgiving Day. New rule: Plan your strategy weeks before Thanksgiving with websites and apps that leak the deals.

Nothing beats settling down with a bundle of Black Friday circulars from Thursday's paper, but dozens of websites (www.blackfriday sites.com) and a handful of smartphone apps such as Google Shopper now offer a chance to preview the ads days or weeks before. It gives comparison shoppers more time to find the best deals, such as the Best Buy door buster, a Sharp 42-inch TV for $200, regularly $800. Some deal-tracking sites such as Dealnews do a lot of the comparisons for you and list the best deals.

Old rule: Get the lowest prices on Black Friday. New rule: The best deal may occur on Thanksgiving Day, Cyber Monday or later.

Door-buster prices on Black Friday are hard to beat, but only a handful of people get the "limited quantities" when the doors open. Under the new rules, low prices are often found online on Thanksgiving Day or Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving) or closer to Christmas if sales are weak, said Dave Brennan, co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Even better, bargain shoppers can get those deals sitting in front of their computer in their jammies.

Old rule: Few retailers offered price-matching policies. New rule: Price matching is becoming more common as such big-box retailers as Amazon (TVs only), Home Depot, J&R, Lowe's, Office Depot and Office Max now offer it.

Both Target and Wal-Mart offer price matching year round, but, oddly enough, not on Black Friday. At least not this year. But the retailer offering the best price match is Amazon, said De Grandpre. "It will cut its prices live," he said. When Walmart.com activates a lower price, Amazon will match or undercut it. "Where else but online can you watch a live price war, a blow-by-blow boxing match?" he said.

Old rule: Flat-screen and big-screen TVs were one of the most popular sellers for early-bird specials. New rule: Most of us already have a flat-screen, so we've moved on to e-readers and tablets.

But don't expect deals on the newest models, like the Barnes & Noble Nook tablet or the Kindle Touch, said De Grandpre. Older versions will get the discount.

Remember last year when even Menards and Home Depot were selling flat-panel TVs as door busters? It's still a good time to buy a TV with prices dropping 15 to 20 percent from summer prices, according to Dealnews, but this year people will be elbow to elbow in the hunt for discounted e-readers and tablets, Brennan said.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. If you spot a deal, share it at www.startribune.com/dealspotter.

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