Last Updated Nov 23, 2010 9:50 AM EST
Before you rush to scarf down the turkey and sweet potato so you can make it to the mall on Thursday, my advice is to slow down. The hidden truth retailers don't want you to know is that Black Friday (or Black Thursday, for that matter) is often a triumph of marketing over substance and real savings.
Here's why I suggest staying home and shopping later:
- Think bait and switch. Retailers lure you to stand in line at ungodly hours by advertising supposedly great discounts that only the early-risers or Turkey Day shoppers will be able to snag. But those advertised "door buster" deals are notorious for being in very low supply. As Consumer Reports' shopping expert put it to USA Today: "Very few people are actually the beneficiary of" Black Friday deals. Yet after standing in line for hours to get into the store, you're not just going to leave empty-handed, right? So you end up buying a bunch of other items that you probably won't get nearly as good a deal on. Score one for the marketing team.
- It's the herd mentality at its worst. I have to give it to the marketing mavens at the big-box retailers. They know breathless media reports of jam-packed malls are the best advertising they could ever get, making you feel you could miss out on some great deals. But those bargains are probably long gone by the time you see/read/hear about the report. Moreover, retail sales are anemic, with revenues at big-box retailers rising just 0.2 percent in October. So it's not as if retailers are doing so well that they'll suddenly stop offering deals in the five weeks between Black Friday and Christmas.
- The madness of crowds. Two years after a shopper was trampled to death in the early morning rush to get inside a Long Island Walmart, the federal government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration is still concerned enough to have issued Black Friday crowd-control tips to major retailers including Walmart, Target, and Macy's. Some towns are even beginning to say no mas to Black Friday altogether. Dartmouth, Massachusetts passed an ordinance preventing stores from opening early unless they have received a special waiver (due to legalities this may not be enforced until 2011), while the good people of Victor, New York -- a Rochester suburb -- have put the kibosh on the local Wal-Mart opening earlier than its standard 7am.
- Set a budget, make a list, and stick to it. Sounds pedestrian, I know, but according to Consumer Reports, nearly 14 million Americans are still paying off credit card debt from last year. Yikes.
- Wait. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, nearly 75 percent of Black Friday purchases won't be for holiday gifts, but just general household purchases. So why rush? And check out my MoneyWatch colleague Farnoosh Torabi's list of 7 Things to Wait For.
- Take a retail therapy day. OK, if you need holiday gifts, or just don't want to wait, how about taking a day off from work to get your shopping done? You'll avoid the weekend crush and the herd mentality pressure that comes with it. No calling in sick; take it as an official vacation day. According to Expedia, we typically end up with three unused vacation days a year. Grab it now. (One caveat: if your employer allows you to roll over the value of unused vacation days into your 401(k), that's gotta' be your priority.)
- Shop online. Deals abound in cyberspace, and there are no crowd control issues. Plus, major retailers including Wal-Mart, Target and J.C. Penney are offering free shipping for online purchases during the 2010 holiday shopping season. Yet another reason to do all of your shopping from the comforts of your own home.
More on MoneyWatch
Money-Saving Holiday Shopping Tips
Best Days to Shop Online
The Best Holiday Gift
Black Friday Kicks Off Holiday Shopping