Early-Bird Black Friday Predictions

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The first Black Friday e-mail alerts are already appearing in my inbox. The day-after-Thanksgiving holiday shopping event has morphed into a season of its own, running from November through Christmas in an effort to get consumers spending. So what will the deals look like this year?

Black Friday shopping
First of all, they probably won't be as amazing as those of, say, two years ago, says Dan de Grandpre, founder of DealNews, which reports on bargains year-round. When the recession first hit, he explains, retailers had large inventories on hand and were forced to slash prices drastically to reduce them. They've become more cautious since then, so inventories are smaller and they are not under the same intense pressure to move merchandise.

Michael Brim, Webmaster for BFAds, which posts Black Friday ads as they are leaked or released, adds that stores may not have a lot of markup left to cut, owing to year-round efforts to lure customers in a down economy. "The stores are hurting too," he says.

As a result, de Grandpre generally expects to see this year's shopping season resemble a game of chicken, with consumers waiting as long as possible for bargains and with retailers holding the line on prices as long as they can. That might mean that the best prices won't be offered on Black Friday or Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend).

Even so, stores (both online and brick-and-mortar) will still be competing for customers. Here's the deal landscape in several popular categories.

Big Screens, Bigger Deals

Panasonic HDTV
HDTVs remain trusty holiday deal magnets. When it comes to bargains, however, size definitely matters in this category--and judging from recent history, you're more likely to find deals in larger screen sizes. Both de Grandpre and Brim expect the biggest price cuts to appear in the 50- to 55-inch HDTV category, as prices for 42- to 46-inch sets have already pretty much reached rock bottom in the last year. DealNews' Black Friday predictions anticipate seeing at least one brand-name 55-inch LCD-TV going for $800 (although it won't be a top-tier brand, and it likely won't be LED-backlit).

One HDTV caveat: If you're contemplating jumping on the 3D TV bandwagon, de Grandpre recommends thinking again. "This is definitely the year to avoid 3D," he says. For starters, content is scarce, and you need a 3D Blu-ray player (and probably extra 3D glasses at $100 or so a pop, since most sets come with only one pair) to play what little there is.

Also, right now the price premium for a 3D set is, on average, about $300 for current sets. That's a significant surcharge--and it increases if you look at prices for good-quality sets that are six months old. De Grandpre reckons that if you're willing to wait on 3D, the current price of a new 3D set will buy you two sets: a fairly recent non-3D set now, and a 3D set next year, when prices will likely tumble.

Blu-ray players and movies are another Black Friday draw. Brim anticipates promotions offering current Blu-ray Disc movies, which typically run $25 to $35, for as little as $10. De Grandpre agrees, and has even greater expectations for players: He expects to see a basic Blu-ray player for under $50, and a player supporting Netflix on demand for as little as $69.

Netbooks a No-Show

Last year's netbook mania seems like a distant memory--nobody expects them to figure prominently in the 2010 Black Friday landscape. "Netbooks have kind of fallen off," says Brim. And de Grandpre says that deals for full-blown laptops, a few of which surfaced last year, are more likely. The $300 or so that you might have paid for a netbook last year will likely buy a big-screen portable with a Core 2 Duo processor, an optical drive, and other goodies this year. That isn't an unprecedented price point, as we saw a couple of $200 and $300 laptops in 2009.

Apple iPad
But pickings may be slim for fans of highly portable netbook alternatives. Apple doesn't discount its iPad models, and other tablets are too new to be discounted (and, let's face it, not yet in huge demand). However, de Grandpre speculates that with iPads now available in major big-box stores, we might see some attractive bundles--for example, an iPad being sold with a heavily discounted iTunes gift card. This is certainly something to look out for if you're interested in the iPad as an e-book reader.

In fact, e-readers are also likely to figure heavily in the Black Friday landscape, with similar bundles a distinct possibility (for instance, a reader with book gift certificates from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or other booksellers).

Brim notes that bundles have been commonplace in the game console market for some time now, and he says that he wouldn't be surprised to see ones that include the Kinect motion controller, "maybe in a package with the Xbox 360."

Smartphones are popular gifts, and de Grandpre expects to see promotions from Amazon and the major wireless carriers. As with the iPad, however, don't expect to see the iPhone 4 sold at a discount. Apple has never discounted its phones, and nobody expects the company to start now. If recent history is any indication, Apple is far more likely to offer small Black Friday discounts on its computers, laptops, and iPods.

Look Online First

One last piece of Black Friday advice: As mentioned earlier, it's difficult to tell whether shopping on Black Friday will net you the best deals, but de Grandpre has become a firm believer in skipping the 2 a.m. doorbuster madness by shopping online. Last year, pretty much all the deals in stores were available on the Web too, he says. If you have to get up early to grab a limited-quantity deal, at least you can do so in the comfort of your home.

This story, "Early-Bird Black Friday Predictions" was originally published by PCWorld.

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