Black Friday gets darker: Study says prices aren't really lower

Nov 23, 2012

While there must be some Black Friday shoppers waking up before dawn just for the thrill of throwing elbows on their way to the last Tickle Me Elmo, most shoppers rationalize this seemingly irrational behavior by pointing to cheaper prices.

And of course the prices are lower. Right?

Not so, says the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of pricing data reveals that the best time to shop for deals depends largely on what you are shopping for, and rarely lands on the day after Thanksgiving:

It turns out that gifts from Barbie dolls to watches to blenders are often priced below Black Friday levels at various times throughout the year, even during the holiday season, and their prices follow different trajectories as the remaining shopping days tick down.

Watches and jewelry, typical last-minute quarry for well-heeled shoppers, get more expensive as the season progresses, according to Decide Inc., the consumer-price research firm that gathered and analyzed the data for this article. Blenders, which might sit around for months if they aren't bought in the holiday window, get much cheaper at the end.

The results reveal a lot about how retailers plot pricing strategy ahead of the year-end shopping frenzy that can account for a fifth or more of their sales. They also highlight how the industry has managed to use more sophisticated technology to turn Black Friday into a marketing bonanza by carefully selecting items for deep discounts while continuing to price broader merchandise at levels that won't kill profits.

An increase in the number of online shoppers has allowed researchers to sort through mountains of data, tracking prices and retail strategies.

And the prevailing strategy seems to be luring shoppers with sharp discounts on certain products, while selling other merchandise at full price.

Consultant Arnold Aronson said that retailers now have the tools to analyze margin and sales in a way that allows them to keep control on Black Friday:

"They have to provide value on the day, but they engineer it in a way that they can control their own destiny rather than fall victim to it," Mr. Aronson says.

If you are looking for a deal, the data recommend tablet computers and videogame systems.

Or, of course, just sleep in.

- Jordan Wyant, Michigan Radio Newsroom