What to buy on Black Friday

Want to start a fight? Announce that you'll be shopping on Thanksgiving Day.

A whole bunch of folks will likely sigh and mourn the once-was-sacred Thanksgiving dinner with family. Why, they'll ask, would anyone want to shop on this day? Why would anyone force retail clerks into manning their posts even though they'd rather be home melting marshmallows atop sweet-potato casseroles?

One such pearl-clutcher, hearing that Macy's would open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, suggested to a Chicago-area newspaper that an obituary was needed. “I think this death needs to be acknowledged,” she said. “It is the death of Thanksgiving.”


Hyperbole aside, she does have a point: Not everyone is excited about the idea of working on turkey day. (Some are, though. A relative of mine who works in retail is desperate for all the hours she can get.)

What to buy on Black Friday

Don't want to shop on Thanksgiving? Don't do it. Don't want to contribute to the commercialization of Christmas? Don't do that either. But what you might consider doing is waiting until Friday or Saturday, keeping your gift lists short and focusing on things you'll need for the rest of the year.

We are likely to see some startling prices from Gray Thursday up through Cyber Monday, although they won't necessarily be the best deals (more on that later). So why not take advantage of them for other occasions?

Stocking up now

Some of these occasions are pretty obvious. For example:

1. Birthday presents. Doorbusters and lightning deals can help you stock an evergreen gift closet. Stocking up is a smart move for the parents (and grandparents, and aunts and uncles) of school-aged children. Moms and dads should consider not just their kids' upcoming birthdays but also the parties to which they'll be invited in the coming year.

Don't limit this gift closet to toys, though, as plenty of grown-up goods will also be discounted. (Hint: Blank books, picture frames, novels, DVDs, scarves and candles are all good for those OMG-I-totally-spaced-on-my-good-friend's-birthday-tomorrow moments.)

2. Easter baskets. Yes, much of what we're seeing is red and green — but not all of it is. Deals on coloring books and crayons, Hot Wheels, craft kits, Play-Doh and such will pop up too.

3. Valentine's Day. Red is a fine color for February 14, e.g., red wrapping paper for the watch, DVD, jewelry, spa basket or any other gift-y thing you find at a loss-leader price. (Frugal tip: Picture frames are often deeply discounted on Black Friday; picking up a photo collage frame and filling it with pictures of the two of you is a romantic and thoughtful present.)

4. Mother's Day. Jewelry, books, apparel, music, handbags or whatever floats your mom's boat is likely to be on sale. (A photo collage of old family pictures, or new ones of her grandchildren, is another simple yet touching gift.)

5. Summer sports. Yes, it's currently winter. That doesn't mean merchants aren't pushing deals on baseball gloves, bike helmets, shin guards and the like. If your son or daughter plans to participate in sports again this spring, why not buy some of the gear while it's on sale?

Life passages

Looking ahead to certain special events in the coming year? Watch for affordable (and nonperishable) gifts for these occasions:

6. Showers. Some lovely items for both babies and brides will be discounted pretty deeply. Remember that gift registries are just a suggestion. You can give whatever you want.

7. High-school graduation. If someone in your family is heading off to college next September, stash some needed items. For example, a peek at a leaked Black Friday ad turned up twin-bed microfiber sheet sets for as low as $7.49.

8. College graduation. If someone is de-matriculating in June (or in December, the way I did), then loss-leader housewares such as dishes, small appliances, cookware and food storage sets will help your new grad set up housekeeping.

9. Retirement. Is a close relative or friend finally packing it in? Look for something that addresses this person's next-stage plans, whether that's traveling the world or reading the collected works of William Shakespeare.

10. Housewarming. Do you know someone who is buying his or her first home? Plenty of frou-frou décor will be on sale, but think about the non-decorative aspects of being your own landlord. Hand tools, a shop vac and other things your pals may not have (but will eventually need) should be on sale, possibly at loss-leader prices.

Or look around your own home and see if anything is required. Maybe you've been saving for a high-efficiency washing machine or have decided that your lower-back issues require you to buy a snowblower, already. Could be you will find great deals later this month; a friend of mine is already eyeing a $500 snowblower rated as a Consumer Reports Best Buy.

Perhaps your needs are simpler, such as replacing those threadbare towels you've had since college. You'll find new ones for as little as $2 apiece on Black Friday. (But don't throw the old towels away! Donate them to an animal shelter, or cut them up for cleaning or shop rags.)

Are you really saving money?

How will you know whether you are getting the best deal? Because you will have done your homework, that's how.

Sites like PriceGrabber.com, Track If, Pricewatch.com and CamelCamelCamel (Amazon only) will seek out the lowest prices. Some will even show you an item's price history, so you can set up an alert for when the cost approaches the low end.

If you are an Amazon stalwart, check out a tool called Price Jump, which compares Amazon deals against prices with those of thousands of other retailers. (Hint: It isn't always a slam dunk.)

Black Friday ads have been leaking for weeks, and sites like BFAds.net or BlackFriday.com will let you narrow the search by store. Just want to buy a few specific items? Look for the most budget-friendly items via a free Black Friday app like the ones from Brad's Deals, Fat Wallet or Retail Me Not.

Again: If shopping on Thanksgiving or even on Black Friday makes you feel squicky, then don't do it. But a little prep work and a few clicks/shop visits could save you a fair amount of money over the next year. It sure beats having to stop at a store on the way to the baby shower.

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