When it comes to holiday shopping, more and more consumers are heading to their computers rather than the mall. Nearly 52 percent of those surveyed by the National Retail Federation plan to shop online this year, up from 44 percent in 2012. That's a smart move according to the deal experts we consulted, because shopping online can save time and money.
The savings hold true even on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when stores have big sales. Most retailers will be offering the same discounts on their websites as in their stores this holiday season, says Rob Gough, president of CouponChad.com and DefinitiveDeals.com.
Plus, when you shop online, you have access to several tools that make it easy to compare prices and find the best deals -- without spending money on gas to drive all over town and giving up time with family over the holiday weekend to battle the crowds.
Price-comparison sites and tools. It's easy to find out which retailers have the best prices on items on your holiday gift list if you use price-comparison sites such as Amazon.com (AMZN), PriceGrabber.com or Google Shopping (GOOG). When you search for an item on these sites, they produce lists of the retailers offering the product, prices, shipping costs, and seller information and ratings.
Or you could download a browser add-on, such as PriceBlink, which can help you find the lowest price when you shop online. When you are viewing a product online, it scans more than 4,000 merchants' sites to determine if any offer that product at a lower price. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%A toolbar will pop up at the top of your browser alerting you to savings. Karl Quist, president of PriceBlink, says that if you see a merchant offering a product for up to 20 percent less than other retailers, recognize that it's a special deal that you should snap up because it won't last.
Coupon codes. When you're comparing prices at several online retailers, be sure to check whether any are offering coupons that will lower their prices even more. Sites such as CouponCabin.com, CouponChad.com, DefinitiveDeals.com and RetailMeNot.com offer coupon codes, many of which you won't find advertised on retailers' sites. The PriceBlink browser add-on also displays coupons being offered by retailers whose sites you visit.
Gough of CouponChad.com cautions shoppers to be smart about using coupons. Retailers know that consumers often opt for coupons that offer a particular dollar amount off rather than a percentage off a purchase -- even when the latter option offers better savings, he says. If both types of coupons are available for a product, calculate the savings you'll get with each to determine which coupon code to use.
Deal sites. Another reason finding deals online can be easier than in a store is the plethora of deal sites that do the bargain hunting for you, such as Ben's Bargains, dealnews.com and Offers.com. The number of deals on these sites can be overwhelming, says Joe Warner, managing editor of Ben's Bargains. So he recommends that you have a shopping list so you buy only items you need. You can register at Ben's Bargains to receive email alerts for deals based on keywords so that you'll know when items you're looking for go on sale.
Online gift cards. While you're shopping online, it's easy to check sites such as Gift Card Granny to see if it has any discounted online gift cards you can use to save money on your purchases. Gift Card Granny sells merchants' gift cards for less than face value. So if you buy a $100 Macy's gift card for $90 and use it to make a purchase on Macys.com (M), you'll get an instant $10 savings.
Free shipping. With the majority of retailers offering free shipping this holiday season, you shouldn't make a purchase online if it doesn't include free shipping, says Offers.com Vice President Howard Schaffer. You can search for free shipping codes at FreeShipping.org. If a retailer requires a minimum purchase amount to receive free shipping and you're not quite at that limit, Schaffer recommends checking your holiday gift list to see if there's another item you can add to your basket -- or perhaps a gift you need to purchase for an upcoming birthday, anniversary or other occasion. You also can wait until Free Shipping Day on Dec. 18, when more than 400 merchants will be offering free shipping on all purchases with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve.
Email alerts. You don't have to spend every hour of every day scouring the Web to get the best deals. When you register at many of the sites mentioned above or at your favorite retailers' sites, you can sign up to receive alerts for deals and coupons. If it's an offer for at least 20 percent to 50 percent off an item on your list, Schaffer says that you can be confident that you're getting it at a good price.
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.