The crowds showed up in stores in full force over the long holiday weekend. More than 92 million people shopped on Black Friday this year -- up from 89 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. And nearly 45 million consumers took advantage of retailers' discounts on Thanksgiving Day this year.
Shoppers are expected to continue flocking to malls and shops on the weekends leading up to Christmas -- especially on Saturday, Dec. 21, according to ShopperTrak, which analyzes retail traffic. "There's a reason Black Friday and the Saturday before Christmas attract the heaviest crowds -- retailers flood consumers with discounts and special offers on those days," said ShopperTrak Founder and Executive Vice President Bill Martin in a press release. Consumers don't have to battle the crowds, though, to get deals and better customer service, Martin said.
If you're looking for a crowd-free shopping experience, here are the 10 days (starting with the least busy) that are expected to have the smallest amount of foot traffic in stores this holiday season, according to ShopperTrak.
Dec. 4, Wednesday
Dec. 3, Tuesday
Dec. 2, Monday
Dec. 11, Wednesday
Dec. 9, Monday
Dec. 10, Tuesday
Dec. 6, Friday
Dec. 13, Friday
Dec. 12, Thursday
Dec. 16, Monday
The stores won't be busy on these days because they are all weekdays and most shoppers will be taking a break following the big-spending Black Friday weekend. But given the proximity to Black Friday, a good selection of discounted merchandise will likely still be in stores, according to ShopperTrak.
So you might want to take advantage of these opportunities to do your shopping without competing with the crowds if you still have items to check off on your gift list.
We're not saying you should give up shopping on Black Friday altogether. Just do it online instead.
At one point it may have been true that Black Friday was for in-store deals, while Cyber Monday was for the e-commerce set. But these days, retailers are taking pains to offer a seamless experience between their online and bricks-and-mortar channels, and that means many of the marquee Black Friday deals can be had from the comfort of your couch. "[Retailers] continue to get better at syncing the online and offline experience," says Brad Wilson of BradsDeals. "95 percent-plus of deals are going to be available both online and offline."
Plus, shopping online can offer the ability to do comparison shopping, something that's harder to do when you've committed to standing in line at a given store. "If you go to a certain store, you're limited to the prices there, unless they do price matching," says Lindsay Sakraida of DealNews. "Online, you can quickly check other stores."
OK, so most of the deals are online. But not all of them! The marquee "doorbusters" that headline retailers' circulars are available only in stores, and they tend to be doozies -- TVs priced well below market value, for instance, are a common lure. If you want one of those, you'll have to hit the stores.
But they're called doorbusters for a reason: Usually you need to be one of the first people in the door to get them. Expect to find them in very limited quantities: Some circulars only promise 10 or 15 units actually available in each store.
That means you'll need to be among the dedicated shoppers camped out hours before opening. And with many major retailers opening in the evening on Thursday, you may have to duck out on your Thanksgiving meal early if you want to save an extra $100 on a TV.
Another thing about that TV: It's not going to be a marquee brand.
"Typically, the TVs on Black Friday are not going to be high end, but third-tier manufacturers like Westinghouse," says Sakraida. If you want to get, say, a Samsung, you'll find the best price early next year when the new models come out and the old ones are discounted. And the same holds true of other consumer electronics: Often you'll see a circular headlined by a $200 laptop, but you can be sure that it's not a top-notch model.
These deals are loss-leaders intended to get you in the door, and as a general rule they're not going to offer such a deal on a premium brands. So unless you're truly in need for a new TV or laptop and can't afford a better-quality choice, it's probably not worth the effort.
The way some people shop on Black Friday, you'd think it's the only day of the year to get a discount. But the truth is that Black Friday is now nearly a week-long event.
"Black Friday isn't just Friday," says Wilson. "It's a six-day thing, from Wednesday to Monday."
Going later in the weekend will likely net you many of the same discounts, but with a fraction of the crowds. And online deals will abound all weekend and beyond. On Cyber Monday, you'll find a lot of apparel deals, and most online retailers will keep the deals going throughout what's now known as "Cyber Week."
Beyond the Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend, the outlook gets a bit more hazy. Wilson points to historic data showing prices rising on subsequent weekends, so there is an argument to be made that you should find some way to get your shopping done on or around Black Friday. On the other hand, if the sales figures for Black Friday are disappointing, you can expect the retailers to keep the big discounts going well into December. And for certain product classes, like toys, the data shows that you're actually better off waiting until mid-December.
Finally, keep in mind that you can kick off your holiday shopping before Thanksgiving, too. That's something to keep in mind if you have your eye on one of this season's best-selling toys.
"If you're looking for something very specific and you find it in mid-November, it may be worth buying it at that price, because there's no guarantee that it will be avail on Black Friday," says Sakraida.
Opening for Black Friday on Thanksgiving evening is quickly becoming the new standard in the retail industry. That's in part because it makes sense for consumers: Instead of starting their shopping at midnight or 4 a.m., they're able to get in the door at the more reasonable hour of 8 p.m. and be back home before bedtime.
But it's a tough schedule for retail workers, many of whom will have to cut their Thanksgivings short so they can go in that afternoon to set up for the big night. And while retailers do endeavor to get volunteers for the big day, it's generally understood that some employees won't have a choice in the matter. Last year, this led to petitions and boycott calls, but they fell on deaf ears: Whatever bad publicity retailers get from making people work on a national holiday is outweighed by the huge sales they do that evening.
Ultimately, then, the only thing that's going to stand in the way of this Thanksgiving Creep is if shoppers stop showing up that night. We harbor no illusions that enough people could be convinced to skip their post-Thanksgiving dinner shopping to get the retail industry to do an about-face on this issue. But the more people come to shop that evening, the more entrenched it becomes -- and the more likely it is that stores will open even earlier next year. If you can resist the allure of Thursday-night doorbusters, you'll be doing your small part to keep holiday shopping from completely swallowing up Thanksgiving.