Before lining up at a retail store or firing up your computer for Black Friday bargains this week, ask yourself one question: Have you ever scored a great deal from the annual post-Thanksgiving shopping bonanza?
If you were hard-pressed to think of something, you would not be alone. Black Friday, which has traditionally been the moment to flock to stores for steep discounts, and which has evolved to also include major online sales events for retailers like Amazon, Best Buy and Walmart, is not all that it is billed to be. We asked J.âD. Levite, the deals editor of the product recommendations website The Wirecutter, for some data on just how beneficial the deals are on Black Friday â and the answer was not encouraging.
Year round, Mr. Levite and his team track product prices across the web to unearth discounts on goods of all types, from gadgets to kitchenware. They also look at whether the product is high quality and durable based on their own testing and other reviews, and whether the seller or brand has a reasonable return or warranty policy. By those measures, Mr. Levite said, only about 0.6 percent, or 200 out of the approximately 34,000 deals online, which typically carry the same price tags inside retailersâ physical stores, will be good ones on Black Friday.
Credit Minh Uong/The New York Times
âThere are just more deals on that day than any other day of the year,â he said. âBut for the most part, the deals arenât anything better than what youâd see throughout the rest of the year.â
Thereâs a smarter way to shop than relying on Black Friday. With the plethora of web tools now available, consumers can research online and then use trackers to follow product pricing for drops throughout the year. While itâs a time-consuming effort, the method is more precise for understanding pricing trends, both online and in stores.
One useful tracking tool is Camel Camel Camel, which is geared toward users of the online retail behemoth Amazon. Using the Camel Camel Camel website, people can view a productâs price history on Amazon.com and then create alerts to receive an email as soon as the itemâs price falls to a certain threshold.
By following prices over time, interesting trends emerge. One is that some product prices are raised in October, a few weeks before Black Friday. The prices are reduced again on Black Friday.
Mr. Levite cited the example of the Basis Peak Ultimate Fitness and Sleep Tracker, which was listed on Amazon at around $ 150 in September. At the beginning of November, the gadget shot up to $ 170. This week, the price tag fell back down to $ 150.
âWe do not raise prices ahead of Black Friday deals to make deals look more attractive,â Sarah Gelman, an Amazon spokeswoman, said.
Camel Camel Camelâs database also shows some items have predictable pricing patterns over the course of a year. A pair of bookshelf speakers made by Pioneer are typically $ 127, but that tends to drop significantly in August â to $ 60 in August 2014 and to $ 88 in August 2015, timed to the back-to-school season. This week, the same pair of speakers was again $ 127. In other words, there are times of year when different types of products decline in price â and Black Friday isnât one of them.
Price tracking also illuminates the seasonality of products. Between June and August, when people are more likely to plan camping trips, tents often get heavier discounts on Amazon, for example. Camel Camel Camelâs database showed that a Coleman six-person tent cost $ 169 in August, but the price is now about $ 236.
Other items rarely budge in price. A sous vide Iâve watched for months is priced around $ 180; its lowest price was $ 173 in April, according to Camel Camel Camelâs database. It wouldnât hurt to buy items like this anytime you want, or to wait for the pricing to drop when a new version of the product is released.
Daniel Green, the founder of Camel Camel Camel, agreed with these assessments. âShopping the Black Friday sales is no different from any other time,â he said.
Thereâs still a way to take advantage of Black Friday by checking for price reductions on specific items â like a particular television set â that you have been wanting. I found a well-reviewed Vizio television that was $ 1,633 in April but dropped to $ 1,098 this month, according to Camel Camel Camel.
Price tracking data also illustrate that the lack of real deals holds true for Cyber Monday, the Monday after Black Friday that is billed as an online shopperâs heaven with numerous digital discounts. Rendering the shopping event even more absurd, Walmart has said it would begin its Cyber Monday Sunday evening, so people wouldnât have to stay up late to shop online.
Of course itâs a tad late to start price tracking now. So for this week, try other web tools like PriceGrabber.com, which compares pricing of products across different retailers. On the website, you enter the name of a product, and the tool pulls up a search. Clicking the âCompare Nowâ button shows the bottom line pricing of the product (including tax and shipping costs) for various retailers, including Amazon, Target and Walmart.
The New York Times also tested other shopping tools. They include ShopSavvy, an app for scanning item bar codes to do price comparisons online, and Slice, an app that tracks your previous purchases in case the price of something you recently bought gets marked down later, which may spur a refund.
Some shopping data suggests that consumers are wising up by shopping well ahead of Black Friday. About 25 percent of American consumers had already finished some holiday shopping before Halloween, according to a report from eMarketer, the research firm. The report also said 48 percent of American shoppers last year finished most of their holiday shopping by Cyber Monday, up from 40 percent the previous year.
Some retailers are opting out of Black Friday. Last month, the sporting goods retailer REI said its stores would close during Black Friday as part of a campaign urging people to go outside. Ben Steele, the chief creative officer of REI, said in an interview that the company made the decision after assessing the chaotic environment that Black Friday tends to create.
âDo we want employees to leave their families early on Thanksgiving? No,â Mr. Steele said. âThereâs an opportunity for us to do something different.â Other stores, like Joeâs Bike Shop in Maryland and Outdoor Research in Seattle, have since said they were closing shop this Friday, too.