The Smart Money: 'Black Friday' and you

Posted Sunday, November 24, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: 'Black Friday' and you

by Gina Hamilton

And ... they're off!  This Friday is so-called Black Friday, the day when merchants are supposed to move into the black for the year.  Half of all profits for the average retailer (not those dependent on summer income, but in general) are garnered in the last quarter of the year.  But in actuality, Black Friday isn't so much anymore.  For most merchants, the "black" occurs somewhat later in the year, owing in large measure to loss leaders on the day after Thanksgiving, and the ever-encroaching nature of internet sales. 

Black Friday loss leaders usually happen in malls and big-box stores, but not to be outdone, small businesses, appealing to the shop local movement, have developed their own special shopping day, "Small Business Saturday".  And the internet vendors have "Cyber Monday", presumably because weary Black Friday shoppers and Small Business Saturday customers still need to order some items online.

However you choose to shop, there are still ways to save money. 

The rules are relatively simple, but not so easy to follow, especially if, like me, you get distracted by the shiny things at the holidays.

Make it your goal to visit each store you must visit only once.  Bring a large enough tote to carry all your purchases on a given trip so you can avoid going back to the car after every shop.  Park (if you can) at some location equidistant between the most distant stores you'll be visiting.

1.  Make a list.  No, really.  A list.  You have a bunch of people to buy gifts for, you know their sizes and their favorite colors, you know what scent they wear, you know their favorite author, you know what kinds of knick-knacks they collect.  Write. It. Down.  Don't assume you'll remember, or that when you find the perfect thing but maybe it's a size too small it'll be OK somehow.  It won't, and you'll find yourself violating rule number one.

2.  Set a budget.  If you are buying a necklace for Auntie Mary, buy just that and don't be upsold to purchase the matching earrings too.  If the khaki slacks your son wants are too expensive at Nautica, step across the mall to the LL Bean outlet and see what they have.  If your budget is $50 for a robe, and you get lucky and spend only $35, keep the rest of the cash.  Don't splurge on a $20 pair of slippers you hadn't planned on.  Try to avoid using credit cards; they have a depressing tendency to come due in the middle of winter.  Spend what you can afford, and feel good about it.

3.  If the store offers boxes, take them.  Don't pay for gift wrapping; wrapping paper is much less expensive than the service wrapping you'd pay for at a department store, and chances are, your efforts will be just as appreciated.  Wrapping paper at Reny's or a drug store is a lot less expensive than wrapping paper at Macy's.

4If you are giving a gift card or credit card, check the terms.  In some cases, gift cards may be charged a fee, despite a 2009 law, if the card hasn't been used for more than a year.  You may still decide to give the card, but let your recipient know about the fees.

5.  Use the gift receipt option.  If you do somehow buy the wrong color or size or brand, a gift receipt will allow your recipient to make the exchange without involving you, and will keep you out of the stores after the holiday, when you might be tempted to spend even more as the sales begin.

6.  Plan your shopping trip to use the minimum gas possible.  Let's say you are planning multiple purchases that might involve the Mall at South Portland, Freeport, and Topsham Fair Mall.  See if you can't make all your purchases at the two local shopping areas first, and avoid the lengthy and probably fairly annoying trip to South Portland.

7.  On shopping with children. If you are shopping with children (and can't avoid it), make sure you bring snacks and juice so that you can skip the food court, or at least go only once at lunchtime.  But try swapping childcare with another parent to avoid having to shop with the kids at all - it will go faster and you'll spend less on distractions.  Take the kids to see Santa some time when you're not anxious to get some shopping done.

8. Make your own.  A tin of cookies or a pair of beeswax candles will mean more and be less expensive.  A holiday basket makes a lovely hostess gift, too.  Holiday baskets are also nice for people who live far away.  If done right, the most expensive part of the gift may be the shipping.  Which brings us to...

9.  Check all the options for shipping.  UPS and FedEx are cheaper if you can ship to a work address.  USPS is cheapest if you can fit a gift into one of its Flat Rate Priority boxes.  And while we're talking about shipping, consider sending holiday postcards rather than folding cards unless you're enclosing a photo or check. Postage costs less for postcards, and the cards themselves are less expensive.

10.  Consider online.  Unless you're purchasing a one-of-a-kind item, such as something made by a local artist, there's a good chance that even local stores (such as LL Bean) may offer sales online that aren't available in the store.  If you know sizes and colors, do a bit of research online before you hit the streets, especially if shipping is free. This is especially important if you're going to be sending the gift out of town anyhow.

So that's it.  Get your walking shoes on, get your list ready to go, and get ready for that most American of all seasons - the holiday shopping season. 

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