Like the evil black goo in a science-fiction trope, Black Friday is seeping further into the month of November, bringing with it a sense of shopping fear and urgency. Because you wouldn't want to miss a great deal, would you?!
Retailers -- online and brick and mortar -- tell you that not only do they have fabulous-don't-miss prices, but that they're the only ones offering these spectacular bargains.
News flash: They stretch the truth.
Here are some tricks I use when trying to figure out whether a price is a bargain, reasonable, deceptively average or just plain bad. (Many of the examples here are for cameras, but hey, that's how I roll.)
1. Decide what you want to buy before you start shopping.
You don't want to buy something just because someone tells you it's cheap; decide what you want to buy before you start looking at prices, otherwise you're more likely to be lured away by an illusory bargain. If you decide on Product A because you've thought it through and decided it best meets your needs given your budget, don't get distracted by shiny bargain Product B when it's in front of you in an email blast.
2. Know the price patterns of the product category.
For big ticket items -- which can be relative, given your budget -- you need to know where a particular product is in its cycle. For instance, with cameras, older models are frequently cheaper than the current model. Until they're suddenly not.
3. Know your model numbers and SKUs.
I know it sounds obvious, but the only way to make sure you're buying what you intended and to make valid comparisons is via the manufacturer SKUs (stock keeping units), which are unique identifiers for each product and bundle. And unless you know the full model number, you run the risk of buying the "wrong" Samsung 55-inch TV or thinking you're getting this year's model when you're not.
You've probably seen the offers which list every feature of the product -- except the name -- like "Headphones, In-Ear earbuds, Earphones headset with Mic Stereo & Volume Control for iPhone 6, 6 Plus, iPod, iPad Air, Samsung S6 S5, HTC, LG G4 G3, Android Smartphones, MP3 Players (Black)." This isn't true for just generic products, and you may actually miss a good deal because the retailer decided to work the search-engine-optimization angle instead of name recognition.
4. Check the manufacturer's site first.
A lot of manufacturers post their weekly deals and holiday promotions. The prices listed on their sites are your first line of defense against misleading ads. That great deal for $800? It frequently turns out that the manufacturer is offering it for $750, and that "deal" is based on the old "official" price of $900. In general, you should always find out what the list/suggested price is (aka RRP in the UK and Australia); don't assume that all prices will be better than the manufacturer's. For instance, I often see cameras online priced higher than list. Especially look for instant rebate offers: If there's a $400 instant rebate on a product, you can bet that every retailer (amazingly) will be advertising prices $400 lower than before.
5. No official price? Search is your friend.
Some manufacturers will provide a price when the product is first announced and then never post it anywhere publicly ever again. You know who charges those prices (or at least lists them)? Authorized dealers. These are the folks who charge what the manufacturer wants them to in order to get first crack at selling the products. Search on keywords like the manufacturer's name and "authorized dealer" to find these. (Amazon provides these for many products.) They'll list the manufacturer's price as the crossed out "regular price" or "list price." I can't stress this enough: never, ever pay more than that price.
6. Create a spreadsheet.
This may seem like overkill, but for some categories -- such as cameras -- prices can vary widely because of the different configurations offered. The only way to know that you're comparing apples to oranges is to track the prices for different configurations. It will also help because you should calculate, for reference, what 10, 20, 25 and 50 percent off the list prices are. That way when an ad screams "25% off!" at you, knowing that's only $20 helps keep your perspective.
7. Unbundle the bundles.
If you've ever shopped for a dSLR, you've seen ads with a blinding snowstorm of accessories: "Canon EOS Rebel T5i 18.0 MP CMOS Digital Camera Digital SLR Camera and DIGIC 5 Imaging with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens + 58mm 2x Professional Lens +High Definition 58mm Wide Angle Lens + Auto Flash + Strong lightweight Tripod + UV Filter Kit With 24GB Complete Deluxe Accessory Bundle."
Amazon posts this as having a list price of $1,000 -- you're saving $330! Except you're not, because while the price of the bundle is $670, the basic kit (lens plus body) you really want is only $650. Everywhere.
Now you're going to pay $20 for stuff you didn't really want or need because you disregarded step 1 -- more if you consider that the higher price means higher taxes too, and possibly a higher delivery fee.
But certainly you'd at least use those memory cards? In this case, for that $20 you can get better, higher capacity cards.
That's not to say that all bundles are bad. If you were planning to buy a body plus a standard zoom and telephoto zoom, for example, then you can usually get better prices for all three together rather than individually. The key here, though, is the word "planning." At least when you start your shopping, ignore looking at confusing bundle ads. (Caveat: I am not one of those people who believes that everything free is worth getting.)
8. Ignore the gift cards, at least initially.
A variation on these bundles is getting a free gift card. Again I say look at the prices of what you intended to buy first, and if that's a good deal, consider the gift card a windfall. There are some people who track and use gift cards, but most people never do.
9. Watch out for hidden fees.
While the hardware might seem like a great deal, a lot of products today require subscription services to take full advantage of them. For example, anything that has to do with streaming (as in music or video) or mobile devices and service usually has a subscription attached.
If you don't see a good deal on the product(s) you're shopping for, then don't buy them yet. There's a significant chance there will be better prices in the weeks between Black Friday and the New Year, especially for higher profile products.