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Black Friday shopping guide: How to snag the best deals

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Holiday shopping is radically different this year. Black Friday sales began in October and "doorbuster" deals are all but obsolete as more Americans shop online during the pandemic.

Many of the nation's largest retailers began rolling out discounts well before Halloween in hopes of securing early sales in a year of unpredictable twists and challenges. They have moved most of their discounts online and are staggering in-store offers to allow for social distancing and other safety measures.

"This is a very different holiday shopping season," said Casey Runyan, the managing editor of the sale-tracking website Brad's Deals. "Retailers are taking a week's worth of sales and breaking them up and spreading them out."

Here are five things to keep in mind as you shop this week:

Shop early

The top piece of advice from retailers: Don't procrastinate.

"The big, big, big message for everybody is to shop early," said Steve Smith, the chief executive of L.L. Bean, the Maine-based retailer known for its outdoor and recreation clothing. "Inventories are going to be light, and we know shipping capacity is very challenged his year."

The U.S. Postal Service has been experiencing widespread delays, and United Parcel Service and FedEx have warned retailers that they're near capacity for the holidays. As a result, as many as 7 million packages a day could fall through the cracks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to the software and consulting firm ShipMatrix.

"We've seen five years of e-commerce growth in the last five or six months, and that's putting tremendous strain on the system," said Gordon Glazer, a senior consultant for Shipware, a San Diego-based consultancy. "Many carriers are overwhelmed and throttling back: They're divorcing some of their less-profitable customers just before the holidays, which means we're likely to keep seeing delays."

Adding to the slowdown are longer processing times at warehouses and fulfillment centers, which have reconfigured protocols to accommodate social distancing, frequent hand-washing and other safety measures during the pandemic. As a result, analysts say, it's imperative that shoppers start early.

"This year, there's no question: the sooner, the better," said Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst at DealNews.com.

Analysts at Adobe Analytics recommend that consumers wrap up their online shopping by Dec. 11, two weeks before Christmas, to ensure that items arrive on time with standard shipping options. Even then, Ramhold suggests having a Plan B.

"Be prepared to send a last-minute gift card online or print out a picture of the gift and put it in a greeting card," she said. "You should have a backup plan in case things don't arrive in time."

Buy online

But consider picking up in person. With many retailers offering the same deals online as in stores, analysts say there's little reason to put on a mask and shop in person.

The better option, they say, is to purchase online and pick up in store, particularly for oversize or bulky items such as big-screen TVs or furniture that can be difficult to ship. Plus, it helps ensure you'll get your purchases on time.

"There's a big push toward curbside pickup," said Sara Skirboll, the shopping and trends editor at RetailMeNot. "Some retailers will even offer discounts and other incentives if you're willing to buy online and pick up in store."

Black Friday deals are increasingly digital. Most of Walmart's Black Friday promotions this month debuted online hours before stores opened. The handful of discounts available only in-store — such as $5 Barbies and packages of Kinetic Sand — tend to be on lower-cost items that are not likely to run out, so shoppers can shop at their convenience without having to rush in.

Adobe Analytics estimates in-store pickups will increase 40% from last year, with even larger gains in the week leading up to Christmas. As a result, analysts say, there could be long lines for curbside pickups as the season wears on, "so take an audio book, or listen to a podcast and be prepared to wait a little while," says Ramhold of DealNews.com.

Be prepared to shop multiple times

For decades, Black Friday prices were reliably the lowest of the season on just about everything.

Not anymore.

Major chains are increasingly staggering deals over weeks and even months, which means you may have to cross off items on your shopping list intermittently to land the best prices.

"Retailers are very deliberately spreading out the best deals, so if people are coming in to stores, they're not coming all at once," Runyan said.

Walmart, for example, announced three rounds of Black Friday sales starting Nov. 4. Target has been rolling out deals each week this month, starting with discounted headphones and vacuum cleaners, then moving on to markdowns on kitchen items, clothing and toys.

Consider what and when

The general rule this year, analysts say, is to snag a good deal when you see one. That said, retailers tend to follow certain patterns when discounting items. Here are some guidelines to consider:

Thanksgiving Day: Although most major stores will remain closed this Thanksgiving, Ramhold of DealNews.com says it's worth browsing online — especially if you're looking for headphones, smartphones, tablets or video games, all of which tend to get their steepest discounts on this day. Also popular: shoes.

"If you're searching for that $15 pair of boots, you're likely to get it on Thanksgiving," she said.

Black Friday, Nov. 27: The best Black Friday deals tend to be on appliances (which are discounted an average 11%) and TVs (marked down 19%), according to Adobe Analytics, which tracks trillions of visits to online retailers.

Small Business Saturday: This day, as Saturday, Nov. 28, has become known, also is a good time to buy computers, according to Adobe, which says you can expect an average markdown of 18%.

Sunday, Nov. 29: Time to buy the toys on your list (which are typically discounted about 20% on this day, according to Adobe), as well as any furniture you may need (with average markdowns of 10%).

Cyber Monday, Nov. 30: Clothing discounts tend to be best on this day, according to Skirboll of RetailMeNot. It's also a good time to buy other items that might not typically go on sale because retailers are more likely to offer blanket discounts on just about everything.

"It's like there's sale fatigue by the time Cyber Monday rolls around, so retailers are like, 'Just discount everything,' " Skirboll said. "That's when you're more likely to see 15%-off deals sitewide."

Be cautious of doorbusters

The doorbuster deals on limited-stock items that have become a staple of Black Friday shopping? They're less relevant now. Analysts say it's extra important you do your research before you buy this year.

"Having doorbusters online is a bit of a misnomer, because retailers can't just sell three of each item online," said Casey Runyan, the managing editor of Brad's Deals.

As a result, she said, retailers are promoting larger quantities of lower-quality items that won't sell out as quickly online.

"Doorbusters are often positioned in such a way to make you think you're losing out if you don't buy them," she said, "but it's important to understand what you're purchasing."

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