Beware Black Friday: Retailer tricks to avoid

Before you get too excited about Black Friday sales – in store or online -- read the fine print. Retailers use terms like "doorbuster deals," but often the fine print deflates the bargain, so read well before you stand in line for hours. The fine print may say "minimum two per store," "no rainchecks," "limited quantities," or "while supplies last." 

According to CNNMoney.com, most of those shoppers who line up before dawn hoping to get the advertised bargains will go away disappointed.  Even some retail industry experts say consumers should feel cheated.
 
Consumer Reports says that many stores, especially when it comes to electronics, sell "derivatives." That means the model that is being sold has a few less features than a standard model. Samsung and Sony both sell derivatives, so Black Friday or not, they should be cheaper. It's up to you to decide if the derivitave product is good enough.
 
Advertising "limited quantities," is a "sleazy practice," Craig Johnson, retailing expert and president of retail consulting group Customer Growth Partners told CNN, "I am old school. If a retailer is advertising a juicy deal and they are not prepared to have in sufficient quantity, don't advertise it. Or give consumers a raincheck."
 
As for "limited quantities," Johnson says, "The only time it makes sense to have only two or three [items] in stock is if the deal is on a $2 million gift product that appears in the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog."
 
Consumer advocate and editor of Consumer World, Edgar Dworsky, says he does not believe that giant retailers cannot get more than a handful of hot selling items. 
 
"C'mon guys. Give me a break," Dworsky told reporters. "How can you be the size of a retailer like Sears and only get a minimum of five per store, yet devote big space in your circular to advertise that deal?"
 
Is it a Deal Worth Dying For?
 
Not only can it be misleading to advertise "limited quantities" in order to get customers in the door, but it can also be dangerous. Last year customers crowded through the doors of a Long Island, New York Wal-Mart, trampling one employee to death in the process. Burt Flickinger, managing director of consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, noted, "The stampede happened because so many of the deals were advertised as limited supply."
 
In another incident, two men shot each other to death at a Palm Desert, California Toys 'R' Us store. Police did not know if the fight was over a purchase or not. But witnesses say it started between two women near the checkout stands.  It turned deadly when the men who were accompanying the two women pulled handguns, shooting each other to death…  in a packed toy store before noon, on Black Friday 2008.
 
Some stores seem to have figured out a way to avoid the kind of mob mentality that can lead to tragedy… like Best Buy. They have employees hand out doorbuster tickets to people waiting in line, so they are guaranteed a purchase when the store opens.  In advertising they print the minimum quantities they actually expect to have on hand, so customers have a realistic idea of their chances of not being disappointed.
 
Does shopping online solve all the problems for consumers?
 
Not really. Yes, it is much easier to shop online, but the experience is not perfect, so retailing experts are still issuing caveats. Dworsky suggests that to hold down the chaos on Black Friday, retailers should be upfront in their advertising about which deals can be purchased on the Website. Most of them say something vague, like "some deals available online," but they don't get specific so customers still crowd into stores, just in case. He'd like to see that change.  
 
Dworsky also pointed out that online purchases can lead to undelivered shipments.  Last year, he says, Sears had a doorbuster deal, Kenmore washer-dryer for $600, in black.  They advertised "limited quantities," but then decided to honor all requests made on Black Friday. Unfortunately, they could not fill all the orders fast enough, leaving some customers waiting months for their Christmas presents.
 
A Sears representative told reporters, "We will not be doing that again this year."
 
Shopping online is easier and less hassle, but it does leave you with the possibility of getting an apologetic e-mail, perhaps only a fwe days before you want to give the gift, saying that your order cannot be filled on a timely basis.  Online retailers don't have a live inventory to check so even with a raincheck, there is no guarantee you'll ever get the big deal.
 
What's the answer?  As long as consumers want the best deals, it seems they are going to have to put up with some hardships.  This year, retail industry experts just want consumers to have a heads up. Read the fine print. Ask questions. And remember what your Grandmother told you: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
 
Meanwhile, you can cut down your shopper's angst with some advance online comparison shopping.
 

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