Smart Tips for Deciphering Black Friday Bargains

Sale events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday can offer great money-saving opportunities. With potential discounts of 50% or more on big ticket items like TVs, laptops, kitchen appliances and more, it can all add up to more money in your bank account. That said, I’ve learned the hard way that some of the deals you’ll see are not quite as good as they seem.

When it comes to deciphering Black Friday bargains, we’ve got you covered with these top tips and a step-by-step guide on how to put them into practice.

Sometimes even savvy shoppers get pulled in by the promise of a 70% discount, only to find there’ve been some vendor shenanigans with the prices. Or the product isn’t exactly the model you were after.

1. Know the pre-sale price

The only way to know if something is a bargain is to have an idea of what it should normally cost. This means looking beyond the original price listed on the website. It is illegal for stores to artificially bump up the pre-sale price and give the impression of a bigger discount. But that doesn’t stop retailers from trying to present things in the best possible light.

Reading the small print on Walmart, Amazon, and Best Buy shows that they all have fairly similar policies. The original pre-sale price you’ll see will often be the manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the product as long as it’s been sold on that site or offered on another site at or above that price within a set time frame.

Putting that in plain English: If a product was originally priced at $500 and is still on sale (or has recently been on sale) somewhere at the same price, that will often be the pre-sale price you’ll see. And it doesn’t matter if it’s more commonly sold at $100 or frequently discounted.

2. Check the model

You sometimes have to look carefully at the product description to see what you’re buying because there are often several different models of the same product. For example, there’s a big difference between the OL701 and the OL501 models of the Ninja® Foodi® 14-in-1. You see something that’s listed as a Ninja 14-in-1 and think you’re snagging a bargain when you’re actually just buying an older model that doesn’t have as many bells and whistles.

Sometimes getting an older model is a great way to save money, particularly if you’re unlikely to use the newer features. Just make sure you know what you’re buying and check comparisons online to find out the pros and cons of each one.

3. Factor in all the costs

Hidden extras can take the form of subscription charges, shipping fees, or insurance. For example, if you need to sign up to Walmart+ or Amazon Prime to access a particular offer, don’t forget to consider that cost. On the other side, if you get extra credit card rewards points for using a particular site, that’s also worth including in your price comparison.

Deciphering deals: A step-by-step guide

If you keep these tips in mind, you can quickly detect offers that aren’t so special. Here’s how I price-checked Walmart’s Black Friday featured deal on a set of noise canceling headphones.

  • Product: Beats Studio3 Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones with Apple W1 Headphone Chip
  • Original price: $349.95
  • Sale price: Currently $169. On Nov. 22, Walmart will discount the headphones even further to $99
  • Potential saving: Over $250

One important note: Walmart is not alone in presenting deals like this, many online retailers use similar tactics. I picked this deal because it illustrates how to spot a deal that’s been polished a little too much.

Step 1: Go to the manufacturer’s site

The manufacturer’s site will tell you if the pre-sale price is reasonable. You’ll also be able to see what models are available and what you’re actually buying. In this case, the Beats website says the Beats Studio3 costs $199.95. It’s the latest Studio Pro headphones that cost $349.95. Studio3 is an older model and online reviews say there are quite a few differences between the two.

Step 2: See what other stores are offering

We already know that the deal isn’t anywhere near as good as it first seemed. But there’s still money to be saved — especially if you’re able to get one for $99 on Nov. 22. The next step is to see what prices we can get on other sites.

Here’s what I found:

  • Amazon: List price for the Beats Studio3 is $199.95, currently reduced to $129. It also lists the Studio Pro at $349.99, currently reduced to $169.99.
  • Target: List price for Beats Studio3 is $218.99, though it is out of stock. It also lists the Studio Pro at $349.99, currently reduced to $169.99.
  • Costco: List price for Beats Studio3 is $99.99. It also lists the Studio Pro at $349.99, currently reduced to $169.99.

The Walmart deal now looks even less appealing. Costco members don’t have to wait until next week — they can buy the Studio3 at $99 today.

Step 3: Use price comparison tools

There are many apps and tools available online to help you check prices. Not only can you view historical price data, you can also set up alerts for deals on products you’re interested in. I’m a fan of camelcamelcamel, which specifically tracks Amazon products and shows you how prices have changed over time. Keepa, Honey, and Slickdeals are also worth checking out.

Camelcamelcamel shows us that those same headphones were available at $79 on Amazon around a year ago. There have also been several points in the last year where the price has dipped to $99. So the $99 deal on Walmart isn’t necessarily bad, but it also isn’t saving you anywhere close to $250.

Step 4: Check the fine print

Finally, look to see what shipping, insurance, and other fees you might have to pay. For example, there’s a $9.99 shipping fee for Costco’s Studio3 headphones. And if you want AppleCare+, that will cost another $29. Walmart is pushing customers to subscribe to its Walmart+ service ($12.95 a month or $98 a year) to get early access to the extra savings on Nov. 22.

Fine print isn’t always about extra charges; it can sometimes save you money, too. For example, a lot of retailers offer price matches. This means they’ll refund you the difference if the item’s price falls within a certain time period. So Target says if the cost of a product you bought drops before Dec. 24, it will match the lower price.

Key takeaway

Don’t take Black Friday bargains at face value. If you’re trying to tell the difference between a great deal and something that’s been dressed up as a great deal, a little online digging can go a long way.

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