Epic Thanksgiving–Black Friday Shopping Weekend: The Essential Guide

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Where are the best deals to be found? What’s necessary to snag the hottest doorbusters and freebies? Which deals are truly deals, and which are just hype?

Read on to find out where, when and how to go shopping over the mammoth Thanksgiving–Black Friday–Cyber Monday period, if at all.

Many stores are open Thanksgiving Day. Despite an onslaught of complaints about stores opening on Thanksgiving, many retailers will launch their “Black Friday” sales and open their doors to the masses on Thursday. A few will open early in the day on Thanksgiving — Kmart’s open at 6 a.m., Old Navy’s open at 9 a.m. — while the majority of national retailers are opting for evening sales launches. Toys “R” Us is going with a 5 p.m. opening, Walmart, Best Buy, Sports Authority and many outlet malls kick off sales at 6 p.m., and a wide range of retailers, including J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Sears and Target, open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

But Thanksgiving Day shopping isn’t available everywhere. As the Providence Journal reported, laws in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine ban most stores from opening on Thanksgiving (Christmas too). So the Black Friday sales in these states will actually start on Black Friday — typically as soon as it’s officially Friday, with national retailers shooting for midnight or 1 a.m. openings.

Some retailers refuse to open on Thanksgiving. Perhaps out of principle, perhaps to reward (or not annoy) employees, perhaps because it provides some good PR, perhaps because doing otherwise would yield insignificant profits, a handful of national retailers have made a point out of the fact that they will most certainly not be open on Thanksgiving. The list of stores refusing to put “sales on Thanksgiving above family time,” in the words of one anti-holiday-hours retailer, includes Costco, BJ’s, Nordstrom, P.C. Richard & Son, Home Depot, T.J. Maxx and Dillard’s.

(MORE: The Big Lie About Shopping on Thanksgiving and Black Friday)

The best deals aren’t available all at once. For the most part, retailers are staggering the timing of when the best offers are available for purchase in stores. Kmart, for instance, may be open at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving, but many items can’t be purchased at the sale price until after 7 p.m. Various Walmart deals are being introduced at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, followed by different offers kicking off at 8 a.m. on the morning of Black Friday. A range of “manager’s specials” in Walmart stores will also pop up intermittently on Friday morning and afternoon. One reason that stores aren’t offering all their best deals at once is that doing so could create an especially large, potentially dangerous rush of shoppers. Another reason is that by spreading out the deals, retailers give shoppers an excuse to linger in stores for hours, or perhaps go back multiple times over the weekend. If nothing else, the strategy keeps shoppers away from browsing the aisles of competing retailers.

About those deals: Which are truly the best? If you’re confused about which sales over the Black Friday weekend are truly tops, the Top 25 Black Friday Deals list from Brad Wilson of BradsDeals.com is a great place to start. The roster includes a Kenmore washer-dryer set for under $500 at Kmart, a $7.99 Crock-Pot at Kohl’s, a 32-in. LCD TV for $98 at Walmart, and $40 cashmere sweaters at Macy’s. There are plenty of other top deal roundups out there, including a huge, tech-heavy best-deals list from Gizmodo and a Mashable gallery of Amazon’s 7 Best Black Friday Deals — which were available to shoppers starting on Sunday, Nov. 24. For that matter, because of extra-early-bird specials and doorbuster-pricing-matching promotions, it’s arguable that Black Friday started a week early this year. Still, some of the cheapest items will only be available on Black Friday (or Thanksgiving) in physical stores. A DealNews post provides a how-to for getting the very best doorbuster deals; in some cases, there’s no choice but to arrive early and wait in line.

About those deals: Some aren’t particularly good deals. According to DealNews and experts cited by MarketWatch, the Black Friday weekend is not the best time to buy toys, winter apparel, Christmas decorations, name-brand TVs, exercise equipment or jewelry. There are sometimes exceptions, but for the most part, these items are available at much cheaper prices later in the shopping season.

About those deals: Stores indeed make money at those prices. At times, Black Friday prices seem so extraordinary — a sweater for $22, originally priced at $50 — that it appears as if the retailer must be losing money in peak promotion-period transactions. That’s not the case at all, according to a Wall Street Journal story revealing how retailers still make profits even when items are marked down by 50% or more from original list prices, which are inflated on purpose with huge margins. Retailers assume almost no one will pay these list prices, but they exist to make “sale” prices on Black Friday and other times seem impressive. Meanwhile, retailers are happy to sell the bulk of these items at dramatically discounted (but still profitable) sale prices. “A lot of the discount is already priced into the product,” Liz Dunn, an analyst with Macquarie Equities Research, told the WSJ.

(MORE: This Year, Black Friday Basically Starts a Week Early, if Not Sooner)

Online deals can be had before, during and after Black Friday. Perhaps the strongest argument for staying away from the mall on Thanksgiving, Black Friday and the rest of the weekend is that the vast majority of sale items will be available online at the same prices — and sometimes they’re available well before and long after Black Friday has passed. Amazon, Walmart and Sears are among the retailers that have launched Black Friday–style sales online a week or more before Black Friday. By now, shoppers have been conditioned to expect loads of e-retail promotions on Thanksgiving, Black Friday and pretty much every other day now through New Year’s. (Think: sitewide sales of 40% or 50% off.) Essentially, every day is Cyber Monday, which, of course, comes the Monday after Thanksgiving, and which proved to be a monster day for online sales a year ago.

If you’re out and about, freebies abound. Among the enticements to draw shoppers out to stores at, say, 4 a.m., is the promise of getting something for nothing. (Nothing other than a good night’s sleep, of course, and maybe some semblance of sanity.) But if the thrill of freebies gives you the holiday spirit, consider going out of your way on or around Black Friday to snag a complimentary Disney snow globe (at J.C. Penney starting at 4 a.m. on Black Friday, while supplies last), pet stockings stuffed with treats and coupons (PetSmart), and perhaps gift cards, digital cameras or an $800 rifle (among the prizes for the first 600 shoppers in line at Cabela’s on Black Friday). Promotions from retailers such as H.H. Gregg and Kohl’s, meanwhile, promise to pay for the entire purchase of a select few lucky customers over the weekend. For more freebie promotions, check out the list assembled by DealNews.

(MORE: Killer Holiday Shopping Tips From the King of Bargains)

Even offbeat sellers get into the Black Friday spirit. Sure, the Walmarts and Targets of the world embrace Black Friday deals. But so do many others that aren’t found in shopping centers. Black Friday is often mentioned among the very best days of the year to buy a car. Consumer Reports named some of the best new-car incentives and deals to take advantage of this Friday, while Automotive News recently highlighted an auto dealership that runs an annual used-car promotion offering a few vehicles for just $1 on Black Friday. CNN Money pointed out that special offers make it possible to purchase everything from gift cards to hotels to magazine subscriptions at discounted rates with Bitcoins this weekend. Some financial institutions run Black Friday deals too, like the sale from Capital One 360 (formerly ING Direct), which promises special bonuses for new account openings.

Don’t forget about Small Business Saturday. While national retailers dominate the Black Friday weekend, there are plenty of reasons to do some shopping at mom-and-pop retailers — perhaps on the day after Black Friday, dubbed Small Business Saturday not long ago. First, it’s good to support these businesses so that your shopping dollars stay in the community. Second, small businesses often have unique goods that can’t be found in big-box stores, and sometimes not even online. If that’s not enough reason, how about the special Small Business Saturday offer from American Express: register your AmEx card at the link, and when you spend $10 or more with the card at a qualifying small business on Saturday, Nov. 30, you’ll get a $10 credit on your account.

(MORE: Don’t Go Shopping on Thanksgiving. Just Don’t)

Finally, remember: It’s O.K. to not shop. In fact, not shopping in the days ahead will put you in the majority. Despite the hype and nonstop data in circulation giving the impression that almost everyone in America will hit the stores this weekend, most consumers, in fact, stay away from the mall during this highly chaotic, frenzied shopping period. According to a Nielsen survey, 85% of American consumers said they had no plans to go shopping on Black Friday, up from 80% in 2010.

And in a new Consumer Reports poll, the majority of Americans (56%) said they have no intention of setting foot in a single store this weekend. Among the most popular reasons for staying home are that stores are too crowded, “the deals are not usually very appealing” and “they’d rather spend time with my family.” Perhaps these people are on to something?