As the joke goes, only in America do we follow a day of thanks for the things we have with a day of frantically buying the things we don’t need.
And while most quality clothing stores aren’t going in for the full onslaught of midnight openings, deliberate shortages, and price-undercutting that you see from the “big box” chains, most will still have a Thanksgiving weekend sale of some kind.
Is it worth braving the crowds? Your call. But if you do head out into the chaos of the shopping malls this Black Friday, keep our handy tips in mind to save yourself from holiday weekend ripoffs…
NOTE – Make sure to read my other article on How To Shop Effectively Online. I cover a few tips there I don’t talk about here!
1. Know What You are Looking For
Black Friday is not the time to browse.
If you go in “looking for deals,” anything with a big sale sign on it is going to tempt you, whether you need the item (or can turn it into a good gift) or not. Have a list before you go, and stick to looking for good deals on the items you want:
- Shopping for others? Have a couple of specific items that you know they’ll like, and resist the temptation to say “Oh, Cousin So-and-so would probably like this!” about any random deal you stumble across.
- Shopping for yourself? Use the sales as an opportunity to add to your core wardrobe — functional pieces you’ll use year-round. Avoid splurging on novelty items you hadn’t been considering before you walked into the store.
2. Budget — and Stick to It
If you followed our first tip, you should have a list, or at least a general item of the kinds of items you’re shopping for. Now, figure out how much you’re willing to spend on each one, and stick to it.
This is the best way to defend yourself against the “percent off” sale technique. Something marked at 75% off is only a bargain if that discount brings it under the price you’re interested in paying — otherwise, it’s still a bad purchase, despite the “sale.”
Have a good sense of what your target items usually go for — if you’re buying a suit for yourself, for example, know that a very basic, low-end model is probably going to be between $100 and $300, while a high-quality model will likely be in the $500-1000 ranges. If you can find the quality you want at substantially lower than its usual range, that’s a good buy!
Be willing to consider spending slightly more than usual if you’re getting a significant improvement in quality — but in general, have a maximum and don’t go over it. That keeps you from talking yourself into spending too much on something that’s not that much nicer than a cheaper version.
3. Be Able to Identify Quality
A big part of not getting ripped off is being able to recognize which items are worth a big-ticket price and which aren’t. One of the easiest ways to do that is just to spend time around quality — start your day off by walking through the highest-end shops, looking at and touching the really expensive garments. Even if you’re not planning to buy, it’ll give you a good impression of what the best clothes look and feel like.
When in doubt, stick to brands you know and like the quality of. If you’ve worn several good pairs of Levi jeans, that’s a good place to start your jeans shopping this time around. If you don’t care for Jos. A. Banks dress shirts, then don’t bother looking at their dress shirt sale — and so on.
If you aren’t familiar with the brand, check the details: does the shirt have mother-of-pearl buttons instead of plastic? are the jeans double-stitched? is the weave of the sweater smooth and free of snags? etc.
Use technology to help — if you see something you think you like, but aren’t sure of the quality, look online using your smartphone and see what the reviews say.
This is primarily a tip when you’re shopping for yourself, but if you are shopping for someone else try to get as much fitting information beforehand if you can. Tipping your hand by asking for their inseam and waist size might spoil the surprise a little, but it’s certainly better than making them take a trip to exchange your present.
Nothing makes a garment look better than a good fit, and nothing makes a garment look bad like an improper fit, so use the fit as a triage method, and only buy things that look the best on you:
- Know your personal measurements before you go. An easy shortcut is to check the items you already own that look the best and fit the most comfortably — write their sizes down and use those as the starting point. There’s a little variation from one brand to the next, but if you like a 16 ½ – 36 dress shirt from one store, it’s probably where you want to start trying on shirts from another.
- Wear a neutral outfit that works with the sorts of clothes you plan to try on, and one that can be taken on and off quickly. It’ll make fitting rooms less hassle and give you a good idea of how well clothes work with your existing wardrobe.
- And it should go without saying…try everything on. If you’ve tried on a shirt and decided you like that model, go ahead and try on the one in a different color that you’re thinking about even though it’s going to fit the same. You never know how it’ll look on you until you actually see it on you — and, occasionally, trying an item on makes you notice minor manufacturing defects that weren’t visible on the shelf.
5. Compare Prices
Comparison shopping is a game some people get excited about and others couldn’t care less for. My opinion is generally that if you’re happy with the bargain at hand, there’s no need to spend your precious time hunting for a better one, but if you want to be sure you’re getting the best Black Friday deal out there, check all your options:
- Compare similar items between brands. If you like a sweater from L. L. Bean but think it’s a little pricey, see if Land’s End or Eddie Bauer has a sale on a similar item. Of course, you do want to check and make sure that they’re all an item you’re interested in — one might be too different, or of too low quality, at which point it’s not worth comparing prices.
- Compare the same item’s price at different stores — smartphones and the internet are making this easier and easier, to the point that there’s apps which scan a barcode, then show you where that item is being sold nearby and for how much. Of course, the best deals tend to go first, so you could end up rushing out of a store that has something you want for a decent price, only to go to another store that had it for a few bucks less but has sold out. So be cautious.
- Some stores offer “price-matching” where they’ll sell an item at a competitor’s offered price. Most of these have in-store only limits, meaning you can’t get a matched price for an online sale someone else is running, and it’s usually only done by the biggest and cheapest store chains. Take advantage of it if they’re selling something you really want, but be aware that it’s rarely as good of a deal as it sounds — and it’s often used to force small, local stores with better service out of business, which is bad for your shopping in the long run.
6. Check the Return Policy
Returns matter regardless of whether you’re buying for yourself or as a gift. For yourself, a good return policy is a last-ditch defense against mistaken impulse purchases; for others, an easy gift return is basic courtesy.
You want to keep an eye out for three basic factors in a store’s return policy:
- Cash or store credit? “Cash” usually actually means either a refund on your credit card or a check from the store; most stores won’t give you hard cash for a return unless it’s a very small dollar amount. But in general, you want to get cash returns wherever possible. Most stores will only offer store credit on gift returns, meaning you want to be careful — don’t buy someone a gift unless you think there are at least a few other things in the store that he or she will like, should an exchange become necessary.
- Shipping – This one’s relevant if you’re mailing a gift, or if you’re shopping while traveling for the holidays. Be sure to see whether you’ll be on the hook for postage both ways if you do an exchange-by-mail — and if you are, maybe re-think the purchase, especially if it’s a heavy item.
- Time limits – Ideally you want as much time as necessary for a return, and there are stores that offer 365 day or even lifetime returns. But many of the bigger chains will have shorter return periods, as low as a month — and remember, Black Friday this year is more than a month before Christmas. Even on years when it’s not, you don’t want to give a gift that can only be returned in the next three or four days after Christmas.
7. Sales, Coupons, and Discount Codes
The lessons here go beyond clipping coupons:
- The best deals are often not the in-store sales. Keep an eye out for web-only promotions and physical coupons to get the best deals on Black Friday.
- Some websites track sales and special offers for a specific industry. Dappered.com is a good one for menswear, and it operates year-round — some of the regular offers may even overlap with Black Friday special offers, so look to see if you can “stack” any coupons or sales for big savings.
- If there’s a specific brand or product you’re hunting for, set up a Google Alert to notify you whenever that keyword is used. It’ll mean a bit of sifting, but you’ll be more likely to see special offers from specific stores that way.
- Discount codes are usually meant for online shopping, but can sometimes be applied at checkout registers as well — call a store and ask, if you’re unsure.
- Your best buys will usually come from these sorts of coupons and special offers. In-store markdowns are sometimes good, but just as often aren’t really a “markdown” at all — most retail items come with a recommended price and a recommended sale price, and many stores have specific inventories that are only put out at the sale price. It’s what they were expecting to sell that item for, and not a meaningful “discount” at all.
So if you shop this Black Friday, shop smart — know what you’re looking for before you go, have a budget you can stick to, and always focus on quality and fit above getting a “great deal.”