Meet the Black Friday mavens

Whether its Black Friday deals online or in stores, meet the mavens who bring all the sales information together.

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    Black Friday deals maven Jon Vincent sits at in his home office in Tyngsborough, Mass., where he runs BlackFriday.info, a deals and sales website. Meet the mavens behind Black Friday deals both in stores and online.
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It was a $50 Phillips CD burner that sparked a Black Friday revolution. Of course, Michael Brim didn’t pay $50 for said CD burner. Stringing together a few online coupons, he got it for free.

“When I’m 14 years old, I thought, ‘Wow, I can get something that retails for $50 for free and it doesn’t take that much effort,’ ” Mr. Brim says.

A Black Friday maven was born.

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Brim, now in his fifth year at California Polytechnic and State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., runs BFads.net, a popular site dedicated to Black Friday sales of all sorts. He’s one of several Web entrepreneurs who have capitalized on America’s growing fascination with the deep discounts offered by retailers on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

The Full-Contact Shopper

While a CD burner got him into the game, it was a 4:30 a.m. run through Fry’s Electronics near his childhood home that let Brim know he belonged in the world of Black Friday warriors.

Plunging through a crowd as a 100-pound, 5’4” middleschooler, Brim found himself in a scrum for packages of computer hardware at a doorbusting price. When he wriggled out of the press of adults carrying three items, he was hooked.

“You gotta remember, I was a young teenage boy and it was full contact shopping. There’s just some sort of rush that I get when you go out and you beat people to stuff and you out maneuver them,” Brim says.

As a high school junior, Brim launched his first Black Friday site, BF2004.net, before opening BFads in 2005. After a slew of media attention, including a write-up that appeared prominently in the New York Times, traffic to his site exploded.

While coy about just how many mailing list subscribers he has or what his site generates in terms of revenue, Brim has been able to pay an associate to help keep up his site and several writers to put together a number of Black Friday shopping guides.

It’s the guides – which point out the best deals for laptops at various price levels, for example – that Brim sees as his best service to shoppers who aren’t deal fanatics.

“I really try to cookbook it and lay it out. It’s basically handholding but a lot of people appreciate handholding,” Brim says. “If I were unfamiliar with something, to have someone say, instead of one is the best, that, ‘Well, all these TVs are good in their own way,’ I might end up buying one that sucks. I would just rather someone tell me, ‘This is the one, here’s the budget.’ ”

Putting together the guides are help he’s needed — while he takes the minimum class load during the fall quarter at Cal Poly, his sleeping habits are wrecked during the Black Friday season. But the work makes Brim a tidy financial windfall.

“If I lived anywhere other than California I’d be self sufficient just running the site,” Brim says.

And an increasing focus on online deals will make future Black Fridays better and better for Black Friday mavens. Because BFads makes a small commission when shoppers pass through their site en route to making a purchase on a retailer’s page, they stand to gain even more in years to come.

But it hasn’t always been big profits and bigger traffic for Brim. While in high school, he tangled with Sears and K-Mart over their Black Friday circulars. He found out Office Depot called his father at work, demanding that their circular be taken down, when his mother showed up, fuming, in his high school’s front office.

Now, many retailers e-mail him circulars directly. And when he graduates in the spring, he’s facing a bit of a conundrum.

“I’m going to try to do it for as long as I can,” Brim, an electrical engineering major says. “But then I can’t exactly go in the industry and say, ‘I’d love to take this job but I need October and November off.’ It’s really hard.”

The Web Warrior

Where Brim drew his inspiration from the thrill of the hunt, BlackFriday.info’s Jon Vincent came to the Black Friday deals world as a classic Internet innovator: figuring out ways to creatively out-do the powers-that-be.

“It’s cool that with just a couple guys, we’re going to have 10-12 million unique people visit the website this month,” Mr. Vincent says. “Lots of big companies out there have full-time staff. We can do the same thing on just a couple guys.”

Vincent, a software engineer, takes all of his annual leave during the month of November to run the site full-time. He and three friends keep an avid eye on a single e-mail address for the latest in leaked deals. From his home office in Tyngsborough, Mass., Vincent was the first to post Wal-Mart’s Black Friday circular, an event that involved a bit of back-and-forth with the retail colossus.

“One of our users sent us a really nice copy of a scan. We negotiated and I was saying, listen, this thing is all over the place, it’s kind of stupid to not let us post it,” Vincent says.

When Vincent kicked of his site in 2005, the only correspondence between Black Friday retailers and deals websites were cease-and-desist letters, demanding the removal of leaked circulars.

Today, however, retailers have come to see Black Friday sites as a less adversarial part of the Black Friday scene — if not downright useful. Retailers like Lowes, JCPenncy, and Meijer even e-mailed their circulars directly to several Black Friday sites.

But this cozier relationship between retailer and maven raises some ethical issues when companies provide items like giftcards for promotional giveaways on Black Friday sites.

Vincent says that because competition among Black Friday sites is intense and message board communities rapidly evaluate the quality of a sale, a site’s ability – and willingness – to promote an undeserving sale is limited.

“The ads speak for themselves. We can’t release a (poor) advertisement with all non-sale prices and say, ‘Oh this is the best thing in the world,’ because people would call us out and say you guys are full of it. It’s tough to hide that, “ Vincent says.

In fact, Vincent sees another use for his large mailing list: consumer advocacy.

“We have over 200,000 people on our Facebook page and over a million people on our mailing list. We can promote companies, but lets say some company does something bad, we can also rally the troops … against a company.”

The Corporate Crossover

The team at TGIBlackFriday.com got into the deals game through the site dealcatcher.com. With four full-time staff and several part-time Black Friday season hands, they count as a full-blooded corporation in the realm of online discounts.

Public validation of a good deal is a big part what keeps CFO Kevin Kahn’s days at the office worthwhile.

“Seeing that people agree that it’s a good deal, that’s what really keeps it going,” Mr. Kahn says.

It’s a search that can get a bit expensive. After finding a great deal, Kahn says the TGIBlackFriday staff end up “buying them half the time, which can sometimes backfire because we spend a bunch of money.”

TGIBlackFriday is the first Black Friday site to create a smartphone application, allowing consumers to sort Black Friday sales by retailer and category, compile shopping lists and search for specific items.

“My wife and I would go to Kohls and she’d be picking something up with her 30 percent off coupon and I was seeing if it could be cheaper on Black Friday,” Kahn says.

It’s the mobile frontier where Kahn says Black Friday sites will compete in the future.

“I know they’re going to. They’re going to blow up with all those,” he says.

How do Black Friday mavens shop?

Although they’ve been built off the energy generated by the in-store Black Friday deals, most mavens do the majority of their shopping, Black Friday or otherwise, online.

Vincent can’t remember the last non-grocery item he purchased from a brick-and-mortar store. Even Brim, who began his career as a Black Friday in-store warrior, has eschewed consumer combat for the last several years.

“Especially in the holiday season, avoiding the lines and parking in the malls it’s so much easier to order stuff online and normally it’s the cheaper price,” Vincent says.

And cheaper because not only are Black Friday mavens plying the Internet for the latest deals but also because a broad network of leakers fill their inboxes with top-quality scans of retailer’s ads.

The Black Friday mavens all rely on the broader Internet community of message board fanatics and online shopping pros to slip them retailer’s circulars year after year. While some leakers have become regular sources, others send circulars to the mavens’ inboxes unbidden. Its this network of sources of all kinds that means the current crop of Black Friday sites feel assured that their traffic will only grow in years to come.

Unless, as Vincent points out, “somebody who works at a printing press sets up their own site.”

See also:

Mobile shopping on Black Friday

On Black Friday sales 2009, can Amazon compete with Wal-Mart?

The story behind the leak of Wal-Mart's Black Friday deals

Are Black Friday’s years numbered?

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David Grant is a Monitor contributor. What are the best Black Friday deals on the market right now? Let us know on Twitter.

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