Tech Industry

Beware! That Black Friday or Cyber Monday deal probably isn't a deal

10 tips for separating the bargains from the ballyhoo, plus a bonus warning.

Now playing: Watch this: Avoid bad 'deals' on Black Friday and beyond

The word "Doorbuster" intentionally brings with it a sense of urgency, conjuring up the image of deals so great that you've got to blow through the doors of your favorite store to get the "LOWEST PRICES EVER!!?! Prices so low you'll never see them again."

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.

Um, no.

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 or on a big poster.

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 -- because they've gotten scarce.

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 model -- like "LG 55" 4K 120Hz Smart Ultra HD TV." 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.

The other pitfall you have to consider are custom SKUs. That's when a manufacturer has a specific model number for a single retailer or distribution channel. Many times it's the exact same product as others with a different model who's identifier differs by one digit. This is especially a problem for computers, where the custom SKU may differ trivially, such as by bundled software you don't care about, or may indicate an important variation in specifications. It makes price comparisons go from simple to tediously time consuming. And it's also how some retailers claim "exclusive" deals.

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 often 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 percent off!" at you, knowing that's only $20 helps keep your perspective. It will also help you figure out how to consolidate your holiday shopping list into the fewest number of stores.

7. Unbundle the bundles.

Lori Grunin/CNET

If you've ever shopped for a dSLR, you've seen ads with a blinding snowstorm of accessories: "Nikon D7200 Wi-Fi Digital SLR Camera & 18-140mm VR DX Lens with 64GB Card + Case + Battery + Tripod + 3 Filters + Remote + Kit." It's always accompanied by an enticing group shot.

Amazon posts this as having a list price of $1,359.99 -- Wow! Except the price of the bundle is $1,359.99, that basic kit (lens plus body) tops out at $1,299.99 from authorized dealers, and can be found cheaper elsewhere. And you might even have been led astray from the kit you were originally planning to buy.

Now you're going to pay $60 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 $60 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 the price.)

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, which means you aren't getting the deals you think you are.

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.

10. Wait.

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.

Bonus tip: Block site trackers in your browser while shopping.

Every site tracks you in some way, from the benign (registering a page view) to the seriously annoying. You may find it somewhat tolerable during normal shopping, where you tend to return to a handful of sites. But if you're going to a multitude of sites and looking at prices, you may subject yourself to a deluge of "reminder" emails (called "Drip marketing" -- you know, like water torture) and ads for similar items following you around the web for the rest of your life (retargeting). So, for example, if you're shopping for a baby gift, even if you never had and never will have children you'll get reminders and ads for them.

Private or incognito browsing windows really solve only one problem: Keeping your workmates from accidentally seeing the porn links you surf on the weekends. In other words, they don't save a local history of the sites you visit on your computer. Your internet service provider still knows and the sites you visit know where you've been.

Browser script blockers such as NoScript for Firefox and ScriptSafe for Chrome can block trackers, but they're general-purpose tools that require a lot of configuration that most people aren't up to fine tuning and disable some site features you may want. They really are the best way to ensure safe surfing, though.

The EFF has an add-on for those browsers and Opera called Privacy Badger which lets you see what's tracking you on any particular site and turn off selected ones. There's nothing for Safari or mobile browsers yet, though, and it's not a great solution because you can't turn them all off simultaneously or make it block everything by default. So the first time you go shopping with it, you need to turn all the the trackers off before browsing on every site.

The Firefox add-on CanvasBlocker is designed to disable or obfuscate the most insidious form of tracking, Canvas Fingerprinting, but Firefox's Private Window browsing has a Tracking Protection feature which probably makes it the most simple way to deal. On Chrome, there's Canvas Defender.

Editors' note: Updated on November 23, 2016, with a comment about model numbers and SKUs that, for some reason, didn't occur to me until then. This is an updated version of a story originally published in 2015.