Mary Lynch hit the stores near her Illinois home the day after Thanksgiving last year, looking for deals. She got what she wanted, but when she looked online later, Lynch realized her bargains weren't so special after all.
"I learned that I could have just gone online for the same deals rather than dealing with long checkouts and hassle at stores," says Lynch.
Black Friday hasn't just moved through the following Monday and backward into Thanksgiving, it's also become as much of an online holiday as an in-store one.
The bulk of the buying still happens in retailers' brick-and-mortar locations, but some retail websites are competing as aggressively as stores and can offer better deals with less hassle.
Retailers continue to try to lure shoppers into their stores with prices on some items that are the lowest you can typically find, but the products are nearly always available only in very limited quantities. Toys R Us, for example, will have more than 200 of these "doorbuster" deals, which CEO Jerry Storch says are the most the chain has ever had.
"It gets bigger every year and becomes a more important part of the holiday season," Storch says. "Nothing stands for value like Black Friday."
It sure wasn't always this way and many retailers would just as soon it wasn't anymore, says Chris Donnelly, retail practice chief at consulting firm Accenture.
Donnelly, who has been a retail consultant for more than 20 years, says the day after Thanksgiving used to simply be a day with promotions such as "30% off sweaters." Once retailers saw how big sales had become, they began to try to outdo each other - especially Walmart.
This year, Amazon's Black Friday deals are the absolute lowest on many products, says Brad Wilson of BlackFriday.BradsDeals.com - and it didn't have to wait a month to have its circulars printed.
If retailers "unilaterally all decided they didn't want to do Black Friday, many would be pretty happy with that," Donnelly says. "But like any arms race, no one wants to be the first one to lay down their weapons."
In a survey out Monday, Deloitte said 60% of respondents plan to shop in stores or online over the Thanksgiving weekend, up from 51% in 2011. Among these weekend shoppers, 63% plan to shop in stores on Black Friday and 23% said they will shop in stores on Thanksgiving, up from 17% in last year's survey.
Despite some of the bad press Black Friday gets, Wilson says the day really does have some of the very lowest prices of the year. That makes an in-store outing worth it for many people, if they've got the stamina and see deals on products they want.
"You could go blindfolded to the stores on Black Friday and feel confident that you're getting a very good deal on almost anything you find," Wilson says.
But the following Monday, Wilson says, does indeed have the lowest online prices of the year on many products, which can make it worth the wait. Last year marked the first time Cyber Monday surpassed Black Friday as the biggest online shopping day of the year - growing from 138 million visits to 177 million visits, according to Experian Marketing Services, which tracks a custom category of 500 leading retail websites.
So before you wind up in a swirl of store and Web sales, it pays to have your own battle plan. Five key steps:
1. Set a budget and make your list. If you've already done some shopping, figure out how much you've already spent and make sure you have the gifts you've already purchased chronicled on your phone or old-fashioned note pad. Figure out your must-haves and the top price you can - or at least should - pay for each person.
Planning is crucial to making sure you don't overspend once you hit the stores, says Katie Ross, education and development manager at American Consumer Credit Counseling. Black Friday sales can lead to a lot of impulse buying, she says, so have a list of who you're buying for, what you're buying and how much you can afford.
Carrying cash can help, Ross says. Bring only how much you've budgeted for and stop when it runs out. "Don't go and spend money you don't have," she says.
2. Employ the best online and mobile tools to get the best deals. Toys R Us, among other retailers, was still insisting last week it hadn't "released" its Black Friday deals, but anyone with Internet access could still find the toy chain's - and most everyone else's - splattered across deal sites includingBFads.net,Dealnews.com and BradsDeals.com.
That means you can do almost all of the price-comparing you need to from the comfort of your home computer or mobile device.
Some of the best apps for holiday shopping, says PCMag analyst Jill Duffy, include RedLaser, a shopping-comparison app that lets you scan the bar code of an item with your phone. It then searches for better prices at nearby stores and online. She also recommends the app for coupon site RetailMeNot, which will send your phone notifications for coupons and deals at nearby stores when you walk into the mall.
Not every app has to be deal-centric to help on a shopping-crazed weekend, though. Duffy also recommends Foursquare and Twitter to track what other shoppers are saying about how crowded a store might be or whether hot products have run out.
And if you're still worried you're not getting the best deals in stores, price-matching policies can help with even more savings. Target and Best Buy will match prices with online competitors at certain times during the holidays (but beware the fine print), and Walmart will match in-store prices of local competitors.
If you use your Citi card and register purchases with your online account, the card company will search for a better price for up to 30 days. If they find one, it will refund you the difference. PayPal is offering a similar service for the holidays for customers who use their PayPal account at checkout, though it's up to shoppers to find the lower price.
3. Decide if you need to go to stores at all. Even the most highly promoted doorbuster deals can often be found online for less. Editors at Dealnews.com last year found the same deals online for the same price or less about 70% of the time. Amazon's deals this year, for example, are near impossible for any retailer to beat, says Wilson.
And retailers are working to optimize their websites for tablets as well as smartphones and improving website response times, says Compuware Chief Technology Officer Steve Tack.
For some, however, shopping on Black Friday (or even Thanksgiving, these days) is as much a tradition as it is a strategic shopping tool.
When it comes to big electronics, especially TVs, some people worry that shipping costs and installation make it necessary to buy in person from brick-and-mortar stores with service options. That's not always the case. Sites including Amazon and electronics retailer Newegg.com often make sure shipping costs, when included in the price, keep them competitive with stores. Merle McIntosh, a Newegg senior vice president, says the site will also sometimes subcontract with companies that do installation services.
When buying large equipment, read the fine print of included services, such as installation, before purchasing what seems like a steal.
"If the guy is not going to help you bring the 300-pound treadmill in the house, that's not going to be such a great deal," says ConsumerSearch.com editor-in-chief Carey Rossi.
There are other reasons to be on guard - or on your computer - as shopping in stores means dealing with large crowds and can often lead to theft and violence.
"We unfortunately see the down side of what happens to customers on occasion during days like this," says Christie Alderman, a vice president at Chubb Personal Insurance. Along with physical violence and parking-lot crashes, "There are plenty of ladies who get their Michael Kors clutches snatched in the food court and their Visas swiped by the teenager working at the department store."
4. Plan which stores to visit and when, if you choose to venture out. Retailers are making their staggered deals incredibly confusing this year, which makes prioritizing more important than ever. Rank the deals you need or want to get the most, and consider when the stores offering them are open - and that product goes on sale.
Long lines to get and pay for products may make it impossible for you to get to a second store in time for those deals. It may be necessary to divide and conquer if you're shopping with family or to settle for one store's deals. Allow yourself enough time so you aren't driving too fast or recklessly in parking lots, where insurers find there is an uptick in fender benders this holiday weekend.
5. Save some money for Cyber Monday - and the rest of the holiday season. Most of all, don't worry if you decide to forgo all of the holiday madness over the holiday weekend.
"This is just the kickoff for sales leading up to holiday sales," says Rossi. "How often do we see some tablet at Walgreens we've never heard of that we only see on Black Friday?"
Around the second week of December, "more quality products you want will go on sale," she says.
This year, most of the things on Lynch's list are Apple products, which she knows won't go on sale. For the rest, she may shop on Black Friday, but it will be on her computer.
Mike Fridgen, CEO of Decide, which tracks the best time to buy products, says it's actually usually before and after Black Friday weekend for many hot items. Don't wait to buy popular toys, he says, as stores often run out of them and then prices go up. Luxury items such as watches, handbags and Ugg boots also tend to increase in price closer to the holidays, he says.
After Black Friday and Cyber Monday is the time to buy small kitchen appliances such as blenders or juicers, he says. At least one item that's a steal this weekend, though? The Xbox, which Fridgen says has consistently dropped in price around Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
With the growth in e-commerce, Fridgen questions whether Black Friday will continue to have a place as the kickoff to holiday shopping.
"If (customers) are doing it because they think they're getting deals," he says, "the data just doesn't support that."
Wilson disagrees. He and 24 employees regularly look up what the best historical price is on deals they mention. And "the day we cite the most, by far, is the prior Black Friday," he says.
The number of people who shopped online and in stores "grew 50% from 2007 to 2011 because the deals were real," he says. "Consumers, especially price-sensitive ones, are too smart to be fooled."