By Mitch Lipka
(Reuters) – When Aimee Brittain’s team hits the stores in a commando-like fashion on Thanksgiving night in search of Black Friday deals, they’ll stand out from the crowd in their matching “very bright blue” shirts. They’ll scatter when they hit the store, and the shirts will help them see each other quickly.
It’s different for the Goldman sisters. Stephanie Goldman, a Cliffside Park, New Jersey, public relations executive, and her sisters Nadine Kleinman of Highland Park, New Jersey, and Valerie Goldman of Washington, D.C., travel in a pack, flooding one zone at a time.
The strategy, honed when Stephanie was a young teen, has helped them score priority bargains, like the time they got $900 worth of clothes from Ann Taylor for about $100. They went that Black Friday to an outlet store, already full of discounted items, hit the clearance rack, where prices were further reduced, then tacked on the credit-card application discount.
This year, Black Friday starts earlier than ever, with some retailers, including Wal-Mart, opening early on Thanksgiving evening. About 140 million people were expected to shop over the four-day weekend, according to the National Retail Federation.
SPECIAL SECTION: Black Friday 2013
Goldman, Brittain and other warriors who will prowl for deals on the busiest of shopping days took time from their mission planning to share war stories and tips to those who want to spend less and get more on the day after Thanksgiving. Here are their tips and tales:
SET YOUR STRATEGY
A Black Friday neophyte will shop without a plan. The veteran shopper knows where to go and when, what to buy, and how much to pay.
Goldman and her sisters start months ahead. Over calls and emails, they analyze sales flyers and figure out where the best deals are on the items they want to buy. Many flyers have been available for weeks – Macy’s and Toys R Us for example – collected on sites such as BlackFriday.com.
Brittain, 45, who lives near Atlanta, starts later, but plans to a more extreme degree. A week before Thanksgiving, she and her pack – family and friends including her cousin, her grandmother and an aunt – will pore over the circulars and craft plans right down to the amount of space available in their cars to cart away their booty.
USE THE BUDDY SYSTEM
Brittain’s crew take teamwork seriously. They hit a specific store and go to multiple departments at once, keeping each other on speed-dial to discuss items they have spotted or if someone needs a helping hand. “We call it divide and conquer. It’s battle. It’s war,” she says.
The strategy has paid off handsomely, says Brittain, who writes the prettyfrugaldiva.com blog. “All my kitchen supplies have been purchased at Black Friday sales, and I haven’t paid more than $5 for them.”
That includes a blender, mixer, coffee maker and electric can opener.
The Goldman clan travels as a pack, Stephanie says, allowing honest assessments about clothing choices and whether the price is really a bargain. Once they’re on the move, they will shop for eight to 14 hours.
Even if you can’t field a team, shop with a wingman. Christina Wojciechowski, 37, of Orchard Park, New York, goes with one partner, either her brother or sister-in-law. When she heads out late Thanksgiving night, it is not only comforting to have someone you know with you, she says, but you can help each other find what you’re looking for.
THE FIRST (PRICE) CUT IS THE DEEPEST
Lining up typically starts on Thanksgiving night, when the first wave of stores get ready to open. This presents the toughest decision: Where do you start?
That first location has to be worth the investment of time, but not at the expense of other deals. Wojciechowski heads out about 10 p.m. and usually goes to a store that sells clothing.
The lines at the electronics stores, where they sell a handful of deeply discounted items like a $1,000 55-inch flat-screen TV for $500 and a $400 laptop for $178, are likely to be considerably longer. And at the electronics store, the front of the line probably sacrificed Thanksgiving dinner to get there – Best Buy will open at 6 pm on the holiday this year.
Even the best deal isn’t worth the stress of spending hours waiting in line for a store to open, says Wojciechowski. Instead she pops into drugstores like CVS and Rite Aid on Black Friday because they typically offer deals on small electronics and toys and usually aren’t crowded.
Being on email lists, Facebook fan pages for retailers and checking on deal sites will offer clues on added bonuses and could provide access to special coupons or unadvertised deals.
Bring your lists, loyalty cards, and coupons. Load up your smartphone with coupon-offering apps like CouponSherpa or RetailMeNot, or apps for stores where you will shop. You’ll be able to check for last-minute deals while you’re in the field.
And don’t forget fuel. David Bakke, an editor at the personal finance site MoneyCrashers.com, brings juice and energy bars to avoid stopping as he goes from store to store.
FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION
Going for a big-ticket item involves risk, since the competition is intense. But Jen Smialek, 32, a Boston-based freelance writer and web designer, has learned many stores have consolation prizes. The deals might not be as good, she says, but could be nearly the same.
Smialek says the key is talking to a store employee about the “extra” inventory that will be wheeled out during the day to take the place of the cleaned-out doorbuster deals. Or talk a manager into giving you a sale price on a similar item.
You have nothing to lose by asking, and Smialek says it has been a winning proposition for her. She recalls going after a TV deal with a nearly $1,000 markdown.
“I was able to get her to reduce the price of the TV I had, to match the doorbuster sale. No fuss, no muss, in and out of the store in 30 minutes with what I came for at the price I wanted.”
(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)