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Ask the pros: How to find the best holiday deals (Spoiler: Start now!)

Tips from Reviewed Managing Editor Samantha Gordon

holiday deals presents on teal background
Photo credit: LightFieldStudios/Getty Images

Black Friday has evolved quite a bit over the past decade. Gone are the days of doing all your shopping in-store — but just because the way we’ve shopped around the holidays has changed doesn’t mean there aren’t still some tried-and-true methods for getting the best holiday deals.

We chatted with Reviewed Managing Editor Samantha Gordon, who’s spent years monitoring holiday deal data. Here, we share her top tips for getting the best holiday deals this season.

Grateful: Are Black Friday deals really still the best holiday deals?

Samantha Gordon:Black Friday has remained steadily the best time to buy pretty much everything. The deals aren’t necessarily as dramatic as they used to be. You won’t get a $2,000 TV for $150. Those kinds of extreme price drops are a lot less common now, but we do tend to see prices are actually better on lots of products during the Black Friday shopping season.

What a lot of people don’t know is that shopping season actually starts on November 1. So you’ll start to see prices falling to their Black Friday-level prices pretty early on in the month. But because they’re not being pitched to shoppers as ‘this is a Black Friday deal,’ people don’t realize that’s necessarily the best price. So, they wait until Black Friday, and what happens is those big-ticket items — the Instant Pots and the Hachemoles, those sorts of products that everybody really wants — sell out on Black Friday.

But, if you’re watching for these things ahead of time, you can often pay very close to that low price — but you can get the products earlier, and you don’t have to worry about it selling out. You [might wind up paying] $5 or $10 more than you would on Black Friday.

The other thing you have to watch out for is that a lot of retailers inflate prices ahead of Black Friday. This is especially prevalent on Amazon, because it’s individual merchants rather than one big retailer. They can change the prices to whatever they want.

Say you have a microwave that costs $50 normally every other day of the year. All of a sudden, on Nov. 1, that microwave costs $100, and on Black Friday, they drop the price to $50 and call it 50% off.

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Grateful: That’s crazy! How do you know if a merchant is doing that? 

SG: There are price tracking tools that we [at Reviewed] use every day to see what the average price is, what the best sale price has been, what the high cost is to get a better idea of what the product actually costs normally. You can actually see the spikes when the price goes up right before the holiday.

TIP: Gordon recommends using camelcamelcamel.com to help monitor pricing.

SG: [Camel Camel is] the only one that Amazon allows to do price tracking, which is a double-edged blade, because then Amazon might have some control over what data they’re given — versus a site like Keepa, which doesn’t have the rights from Amazon to track prices, but they still do it anyway.

We look at both for disparities to make sure that the numbers we’re seeing and the prices we’re seeing are consistent. It helps us spot whether things are a good deal or not. It’s primarily Amazon [for which] you get this price tracking. There’s not really a great option for other retailers like Walmart and Target.

Grateful: What is going to be the item people fight to get in 2019?

SG: One of those items is very definitely going to be the new Nintendo Switch Lite, just because it’s coming out right around the holidays. In the past, especially when the regular Switch launched, they didn’t have enough inventory, so they were selling out constantly, and they were really hard to get. It’ll be fairly similar with the Switch Light, because for Nintendo, that creates a lot of buzz, and it’s really good for their PR.

Grateful: Do companies like Ancestry, Apple and Instant Pot run deals on their websites, too, or should people look to the Amazons and Walmarts to find the best deals?

SG: Most of the time, you will find the same deals on their sites as you will on Amazon, Walmart and everything like that. You will generally find the same price everywhere because they want to meet the people where they’re shopping.

It’s very rare that a product on sale for Black Friday [is] not on sale at a major retailer and on a company site.

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Grateful: Is it worth it to camp out overnight somewhere these days or are these Black Friday deals overlapping with Cyber Monday?

SG: For the most part, all the deals are the same. Some deals are available only in stores on Black Friday because they want people to come into their stores, which makes sense. So they have these more exclusive things, but what we’ve seen in the past is that those deals will just become available for Cyber Monday also. They don’t really matter that much.

Grateful: I remember as a kid hearing hear stories about people camping out all night to get a free TV or something extravagant. We don’t hear about these crazy giveaways and holiday deals around Black Friday anymore. Is that a fair statement?

SG: I think so. There’s always going to be a handful of outlying deals that make it seem more exciting than it really is but, for the most part, the biggest discounts are going to be like 50%-60% off, and that’s on items generally 30%-40% off. So, the most disparity between a normal deal price and a Black Friday deal price is 20%-25%. That’s totally anecdotally. Those are not actual hard numbers.

The discounts just push a little bit further than they normally do, but not to any major extremes, generally. Like the Instant Pot last year: It’s typically $100. Typical sale price is $70-$75, and it went on sale on Black Friday for $50.

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Grateful: Oh, OK, so that’s worth Black Friday shopping. 

SG: Yes, but it’s not so worth it that you should wait until Black Friday if there’s another sale and it’s something you need for yourself. It’s not necessarily going to be worth saving that extra $20-$25 to wait a month or two to buy something. It all depends on what you need and what your budget is.

Every retailer has huge sales for Black Friday, of course, and they all start at different times but, for the most part, the actual Black Friday deals — the ones that are the best of the best — tend to start becoming available online late in the day on Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so you can even start to poke around then. Retailers tend to push all of their deals live ahead of Thanksgiving so they can make sure their sites are working properly ahead of the Black Friday push, when they get bombarded.

[We recommend] making a list of the products you think you want to buy on Black Friday, and you can start to look at what prices they’re at now. The earlier you start doing that, the more likely you are to get actual prices versus potentially inflated prices.

You can track that throughout the month, and then you’ll at least have your own reference of, ‘OK, when I first put this on my list on Nov. 1, it cost this much. Now, the Black Friday price is this. Is it worth the Black Friday price? Should I buy it or not?’ It gives more context around what you’re buying so you can feel more confident about the purchase.

Gordon’s top 6 holiday deals tips

  1. Make your shopping list for the season and check it twice.
  2. Determine your budget.
  3. Monitor the prices of the items on your list starting at the beginning of November.
  4. Discover the deals.
  5. Use a site like CamelCamelCamel.com to track prices and sales of the items on your list.
  6. Make sure you’re aware of high-demand items. Check out Reviewed’s list of items that are most likely to sell out this season.

Share your Black Friday shopping tips. Tag us on Instagram @makeitgrateful and #makeitgrateful!

Both Reviewed and Grateful are owned by Gannett, part of the USA Today Network.

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