The Hot-Selling Holiday Item Everyone Already Owns: TV

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Electronics are on the top of the shopping list for many consumers this holiday season: Nearly 4 in 10 shoppers purchased electronics over Black Friday weekend, contributing to the whopping $52 billion total spent at stores. Among the hottest electronics are the latest tablets and e-readers from the likes of Apple and Amazon, and the usual assortment of new video game consoles. Also: TVs. Wait, what? Doesn’t nearly everybody already have a TV (or several) at home?

Yes, they do. Roughly 99% of American households have at least one TV, and two-thirds of homes have three or more. Just after last year’s holiday winter season, when smartphones other handheld devices were the hottest electronic gift items, retailers and TV manufacturers were grumbling because consumers weren’t buying more TVs.

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But how could they be expected to keep up the pace of consumption? After a steady period in which sales of plasma and LCD TVs rose 20%, sales grew by just 2.9% from 2009 to 2010. It’s easy to see why sales slowed: Few consumers, after all, would be interested in buying a new TV soon after they’d just bought a new TV.

But apparently, the TV-buying frenzy has returned. Compared to last year’s Black Friday weekend, there was a 36% increase in TV sales over this year’s five-day shopping extravaganza, according to Sony.

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Why did many of those oddballs camp out days, and in some cases more than week in order to be first in line for Black Friday sales? A top reason was cheap prices on big-screen TVs.

Reuters pointed to TVs—and specifically, lower prices on large flat-screen models—as a prime reason for big Black Friday sales figures at retailers like Best Buy:

Best Buy drew in shoppers by being one of the companies that opened its stores at midnight Thanksgiving night, and unlike in 2010, it focused more on having lower prices for big TVs and other popular items.

Earlier this year, it was predicted that 3-D TV sales would soar. For the most part, that hasn’t happened. The Boston Herald reports that 3.6 million 3-D TVs are expected to be sold throughout all of 2011, down from an earlier forecast of 4 million. Perhaps noticing that 3-D units aren’t in heavy demand among consumers, stores aren’t trying particularly hard to move them off shelves:

“During the upcoming holiday selling season, 3-D is not expected to be highly promoted,” NPD DisplaySearch said. “Instead, retailers will focus on large sizes with strong value pricing, but with lighter feature content.”

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What today’s shoppers want, and what retailers seem happy to provide, are big HDTVs at prices as cheap as they’ve ever been. USA Today noted that high-quality 42-inch models are selling this year for the same amount (about $200) that 32-inch units sold during the best sales of last year’s holiday season.

But, seeing as most households already have a decent TV that’s less than five years old, why are so many consumers compelled to upgrade? For one thing, the increasingly cheaper prices are tempting—especially because so many households have been holding off on big-ticket purchases given the uncertain state of the economy.

(MORE: What We Learned from the Black Friday-Cyber Monday Shopping Extravaganza)

Also, as a recent survey conducted on the behalf of Sony indicates, one’s TV (disturbingly enough) is often related to one’s self-esteem. Size and age really do matter, apparently—at least when it comes to TVs. Of those polled, nearly one-third were dissatisfied or embarrassed with their TVs because they were too small (32%) or too old (31%).

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.