I haven't been to a Black Friday sale in person since I first got internet access. Why? As a Brad's Deals editor, it's my job to shop online, so I know that prices on most things fluctuate every day. Every store wants to have the lowest prices, but none of them want to lose money, so they have to get creative: exaggerating sales and hiding price increases. Most retailers do this so frequently, and so quickly, that the average consumer doesn't have time to do the math in their heads.
A good farmer harvests his or her crops when they're perfectly ripe. Likewise, a good shopper should know where and when to buy the things they want at a discount. Preparation is key: if you know exactly what you're looking for and what you want to pay, you'll be much more likely to spot the difference between a good bargain and a sale that's all hype.
Take Black Friday, for example. Most Black Friday prices are good deals, but Black Friday is far from the only time we see sales on the vast majority of items. Black Friday retailers rely on four well-worn myths to capitalize on consumer FOMO (fear of missing out) and convince us that we can't afford to leave a single sale item on the shelves.
While some of these myths might be correct on some level, they're not exactly universal truths. Here are the four biggest Black Friday myths retailers want you to believe:
1. "Only Available Here!"
Manufacturers do sometimes make special editions of products to be sold exclusively at one retailer. These are usually things like a vacuum that comes with a few special attachments, a kitchen appliance that's available in in a unique size or color, or a bundled set of accessories or cookware that have never been sold in that combination before. But is the manufacturer going to design an entirely new item from scratch that can only ever be sold at just one store? Nope. They're probably just making minor changes to the things that people are already buying.
While you might not be able to get the EXACT item advertised at another store, you can probably get something VERY similar somewhere else. And while you're looking for other stores, check out other brands as well. There's likely a cheaper version of the thing you want available under a different brand name, just be sure to do your research to make sure the specs match up and the brand in question is trustworthy.
2. "Limited Edition!"
Let's say a department store usually carries a four-piece dish set from a certain brand, and during Black Friday season, they'll all advertise a "limited edition" five-piece set that seems like a great deal upon first glance. But look a little closer, and you'll see that extra fifth piece is actually just a little wasabi saucer for sushi dinners, or a pretty napkin ring. Toy stores do this too, selling "special edition" versions of toys they already carry. Think an ensemble of characters from a TV show or movie that includes a carrying case, a vehicle or an extra character thrown into the mix, but beware! These sets might not even contain all the original characters, so never assume otherwise!
Try to avoid getting tunnel vision on specific items, prices or stores. The item in the print ad may be the newest, most deluxe model, but if last year's model still available, it's probably just as good and a lot less expensive. You should also take care to read the fine print on this year's Black Friday ads, as that limited edition item might not be so new or deluxe at all, but instead a model from several years ago that someone found in a dark corner of the warehouse, which would explain the super-low price. Again, check the specs. Make sure the limited edition is the edition you want.
3. "Now or Never!"
If you need a winter coat, consider buying last year's style instead.
"Limited time only" at Black Friday really means "limited time at this price from this store in this configuration." Have you lost your chance to get the item on sale if the Doorbuster deal sells out? Hardly.
It might seem like all the best Black Friday doorbuster deals are sold out in minutes. But that's just another part of the hype. Even if the exact item in the ad is sold out, you can still find plenty of comparable bargains on similar (if not better) items. You might even get lucky and get some unsold "limited editions" from last year -- it depends on what you're looking for. Some clothing and shoes remain largely unchanged from year to year, the only difference being the older items go down in price. This is especially true for things like winter coats and boots.
Think of a sale expiration date as less of an end and more of a delay. The price of an item will go up after the sale, but it might drop down again a week or two later. If your favorite store doesn't have it, consider which other stores might carry it. What kind of sales do those stores have? And definitely don't forget the after-Christmas sales. If your gift recipient can accept a rain check, December 26 might be the best day to get what you're looking for on the cheap.
4. "Best Price Ever!"
This claim is not limited to Black Friday sales. It actually happens a lot throughout the year. A retailer will advertise their "best price ever!" on a certain item, only to lower that price again the following week, and make the exact same claim. You might be familiar with this kind of price fluctuation if you have stocks. Stocks go up and down in value depending on the day, and retail products are the same way.
Items that are drastically underpriced, including most common Black Friday doorbusters, are called "loss leaders" in the retail world. Your corner store might have cheaper milk than everywhere else, but the other marked-up items you buy there make up for the lower price you paid on the milk. Retailers are betting that you won't just buy the doorbuster item and head home, they want you to go deep into the aisles for more great bargains, and stock up on full-priced items you just so happen to need.
If you want to really save during Black Friday sales, you have to get organized before you go. Figure out exactly what you want and what you're willing to spend in advance, then write it all down. Avoid impulse buys, last-second items and anything else you didn't plan on. Be aware of the prices on items like batteries or gift bags, and resist the urge to grab a few just to have them. Personally, I like to get both of these kinds of things in bulk well before I need them.
Before shopping, check last year's Black Friday ads for some price benchmarks on your favorite items, or maybe browse Brad's Deals to see what those items are selling for right now. With the exception of certain high-end brands and high-demand items, you'll start to see price fluctuations within a week or so. Know the manufacturer's suggested retail price of your desired items, the price ranges of your brands, and any competing brands worth browsing. And bear in mind that each extra bell and/or whistle will raise either the price or the value.
It might seem tricky, but trust me: with a little preparation and willpower, you can make stores conform to your budget this year, instead of the other way around!
This story originally appeared on Brad's Deals.