About a third of all shoppers will be out in force Black Friday, hunting for deals, looking for gift ideas and holding up their end of an annual family shopping rite that signals the start of the holiday season. Retailers are expected to do a modest 2.8 percent more business than last season from consumers eager to score more deals than ever. Here's how to pull it off:
1 A plan helps: Wandering aimlessly for gift inspiration in a crowd of driven bargain hunters at 3 a.m. is one way to stumble into a deal. But a written list or smartphone app filled with price comparisons, expectations and deal alerts is far more effective. Because sale prices often vary by time of day, map out where you want to shop and when. Schedule breaks for meals or take a rest when your eyes start to glaze over from sensory overload.
2 Not that jammed: One benefit of stores opening earlier is that the crazies will be out all night, leaving malls less crowded after dawn Friday. There will still be plenty of 40- to 50-percent-off deals left. Many restaurants are offering special lunch deals. Don't be discouraged if your usual parking spot is taken. There are always spots on the west side of Tyrone Square, upstairs in the garage behind WestShore Plaza, the eastern flank of Countryside Mall and the south lot between Nordstrom and Dillard's at International Plaza. By 4 p.m., crowds dissipate.
3 How do I register my opposition to stores elbowing their way into thanksgiving? Use store customer-relations hotlines. A Target clerk in Nebraska initiated a petition posted at change.org, while a cooking blog from New Jersey started another hands-off Turkey Day drive at RespecttheBird.com.
4 Stay safe: Shop in a group, because you'll be traipsing around dark parking lots. Take a cell phone to keep everybody on-mission and connected. Never leave a shopping cart unattended, because someone may swipe your prized finds before you pay for them. Considering how many shoppers are out, fistfights are exceedingly rare. They usually are triggered at a mobbed entrance when the crowd surges in and cheaters try to dodge the line.
5 How to find deals: Scan and compare retailers' ads in the Thanksgiving Day newspaper. Or read many of them online already on Black Friday sites like gottadeal.com, dealnews.com or bfads.net. Many retailers provide ads for posting, but most don't. So websites sometimes swipe them from print shops, meaning you may be looking at an ad for another market with different prices. Doublecheck ads and store websites right up to Thanksgiving Day, because retailers love to spring surprise deals at the last minute to ace out competitors.
6 Not all crooks are visible: So protect credit card numbers by sticking to secure sites, especially on all those smartphone apps.
7 Doorbusters vs. Markdowns: The best deals are often doorbusters, planned promotional deals used to lure crowds out early, which come in limited quantities or at sales events that last a few hours. Others are sweepstakes giveaways to the first 100 or so in the door. Many of the best sales are never advertised beyond a window sign. But the markdown racks — usually in the back of apparel departments — harbor the real steals. That's stuff the store discounts 365 days a year (routinely at 50 to 70 percent off, depending on how long it has languished there) because it didn't sell at full price. Be patient: Less than a third of all clothing sells at full price.
8 Know what a real deal is: Do the homework. Research bigger-ticket items by reading customer reviews, shopping deal blogs or Consumer Reports. Shop around or use the Web to comparison shop and learn what a product should cost. Read store price-matching (or price-beating) guarantees and ask for them. Plenty of people will buy all of their holiday toys on Black Friday at deep discounts, but could get them cheaper by waiting a few more weeks. Know the features you want. TV sets are cheap every Black Friday because big chains make deals with manufacturers to engineer a super-bargain price by leaving features out of a low-end model. Rarely are top-end sets discounted on Black Friday. Luxury stores rarely discount much Black Friday.
9 I can get it for you cheaper online: About a third of shoppers claim they get better deals online while just as many insist prices are lower in stores. Four out of five shoppers will hit the Web to research or compare prices. Online sales are forecast to leap 15 percent this holiday, but online sales will remain less than 10 percent of all holiday merchandise buying, experts say.
10 The online action is 24/7: Bealls says its site lights up with traffic Thanksgiving morning from people scanning the prices while cooking turkey. That morphs into a big sales bump after mealtime. Many retailers will be dangling the same doorbuster deals online on Thanksgiving Day as at their own stores, so you don't have to join the mobs. Online sites are staging a series of one-hour to one-day sales to stretch this into a five-day shopping spree that runs until what they call Cyber Monday. Insist on free shipping because it's standard this time of year. But remember: Postal officials say the priority mail domestic shipping deadline is Dec. 21 for pre-Christmas delivery.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.