Why Black Friday's 'lowest prices of the year' were a lie

We've come to expect that retailers will offer their most compelling promotions of the year, and compete for the best prices on popular items during Black Friday weekend and during Cyber Monday. So, what happened this year?

Nick Agro/The Orange County Register/AP
Shoppers look for deals at the Irvine Spectrum Center in Irvine, Calif., on Black Friday, Nov. 25, 2016.

Black Friday is losing its edge. From years past, we've come to expect that retailers will offer their most compelling promotions of the year, and compete for the best prices on popular items during Black Friday weekend and the following Cyber Monday. So, what happened this year?

Sure, a few big names came through with offers that lived up to what Black Friday is supposed to be about. Kohl's brought back its KitchenAid Mixer deal for $165 plus a $45 gift card, Walmart threw in a $40 gift card with its $249 Xbox One S bundle, Dell offered insane discounts on Smart TVs, and even UGG Australia chopped 60 percent off the price of their coveted boots.

These deals were definitely worth the hype, but they were standouts in the sea of fairly basic and disappointing discounts offered by most major retailers. Why the let-down? We've seen some new trends in Black Friday shopping that might explain things.

Black Friday's reputation precedes it.

Let me start by acknowledging that -- before you clicked on this article -- you probably didn't think this year's Black Friday haul was that disappointing.  After all, the advertisements were as enthusiastic, and the parking lots just as full as they've always been. And that's exactly why Black Friday doesn't have to be a big deal anymore: it's become a part of our culture. Retailers don't need to discount their merchandise to all-time low prices in order to sell it off; people will buy stuff just because they've become accustomed to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving.

Here's a little-known secret from someone who spends every day finding the lowest prices on popular products: some of the most exciting deals never get promoted, and the only way to tell if you're actually getting the best price on anything is to spend some time researching it for yourself (or check to see if it's on Brad's Deals, as we only post items at their lowest online price).

Black Friday has become Black Fri-Week.

In recent years, as retailers race to compete for the attention of Black Friday shoppers, we've seen some changes in the distribution of sales. Stores have tried to get ahead by launching Black Friday doorbusters earlier every year, and extending Cyber Monday savings into the following week. The phrase "Black Five-Day" has even emerged as a common phrase used by retailers to promote their sales. This shift definitely has its benefits, like more online sales, more opportunities to shop, smaller mobs of angry people and fewer overall trampling deaths. But in this deal editor's opinion, it's also diluted the quality of the deals. This year, we saw a lot of discounts across the entire week, which meant fewer showstoppers on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Other shopping holidays have picked up speed.

Pop quiz: How many times per year can something be at "the lowest price of the year?"

Once, right? Sorry, you failed! But it's not your fault, this language is designed to fool people. Yes, there is a minimum price that any given item can be listed at, but a merchant can choose to set it at that price as many times per year as they want.

For example, a refrigerator marked down to $898 around President's Day might be advertised as the "lowest price of the year" to create a sense of urgency, but that doesn't mean President's Day is the only time to get that refrigerator at that price. It will probably be priced at $898 again around Memorial Day, and again during Black Friday in July (because that's a thing now), and then again on Labor Day, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, AND after Christmas.

That's seven times throughout the year this fridge will be at the "bottom of the barrel," "closeout," "super savings," "hot deal," "doorbuster" price. Call it what you want. It's not technically the lowest price of the YEAR, it's just the lowest price that retailer is willing to sell the item for at any given time. Stop panicking about snatching up your metaphorical fridge at the "LOWEST PRICE OF THE YEAR!" If you see a great price on an item you need, but aren't yet ready to buy, wait two months. You'll likely see that price again, with few exceptions.

Using minor national holidays as an excuse to have a major sale has become commonplace as retailers vie for the increasingly fragmented attention of the modern consumer. Amazon Prime Day is a great example of this phenomenon: what started as a promotion for one retailer in 2015, quickly had other retailers jumping on board with similar sales. In fact, the best part of Prime Day 2016 wasn't the deals offered by Amazon, it was the many copycat sales offered by retailers like Macy's, Walmart, and Toys 'R' Us.

Because of Amazon, July 15 will likely be a popular shopping day for years to come, and that's not great news for good old Black Friday. Promoting sales in July as having "better than Black Friday pricing" means that Black Friday is going to have to share the spotlight.

So, when should I shop?

I don't know, maybe stop worrying so much about shopping! Shop for the things you need when you need them, or plan around minor holiday sales to satiate your savings itch. Remember that advertisements are announcements. Don't let them drive your decisions. Don't let your fear of missing out lead you into spending money you don't have.

Black Friday will always be an important day for smart consumers, but other holidays provide savings opportunities as well. Planning ahead for what you need will save you money, and shopping because you feel like you should is unnecessarily costly. Check out our list of the best time to buy everything, and if you need to find the best price currently available for any item, at any time, you can probably find it on Brad's Deals.

This story originally appeared on Brad's Deals.

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